By Henry Umoru

Abdulrazaque Bello-Barkindo is the spokesperson for the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF). In this interview, Bello-Barkindo speaks on the controversy surrounding the Paris Club $418m refund involving the 36 state governors, some consultants and the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Mr Abubakar Malami. Excerpts:

Can we get a historical perspective for people to really understand what is going on, on the controversial $418million Paris Club refund?

What I can tell you clearly is that these debts are said to be incurred by the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria, ALGON, and state governments over jobs that were supposed to have been done. Some of the jobs were forensics, some were legal and some were physical. Some consultants approached some state governments and said “you made overpayments on your Paris Club debts during the return to democracy and if you want to recover the money, we are going to help you”. The consultants went to different states and that’s why we have a plethora of claims from various parts of the country and, when this approval was gotten, the NGF advised all the contractors, all the accountants, all the lawyers who have anything to do with this matter to present their cases. There was a committee that looked at the cases and decided that every contractor or consultant would be paid according to his effort and, by the end of 2018, I think everything was settled. But all of a sudden some people began to come back to claim that they have balances to collect while some said they haven’t been paid at all. Look, we can’t find justification for the claims they are making. So, the Governors’ Forum new leadership decided that “if you think you have any money left with us, we want you to prove what you have done. Now, if you said you constructed boreholes, bring the evidence of those boreholes around the country, if you said you constructed primary health care institutions, where is the evidence?” One of them, I can’t tell you his name, is claiming that during the crisis of the NGF at a time there was an election and one of the governors said he won an election with 16 people over 19 people, he did a review of a 16-page document for then-factional Chairman of the NGF and demanded 47million dollars (N20.2billion at current official exchange rate of about N430 to a dollar) for that job. And the NGF is saying if you did the job for a factional Chairman, go to the faction to collect your money, the faction does not exist today if you go to the NGF Secretariat. So, why are we going to pay 47million dollars for the review of 16 pages of some kind of judgment that is not in our records? So, all the claims, as far as the NGF is concerned, are bogus, but if they are that powerful and they insist that the Attorney-General is working for them and not for the Nigerian people, so be it.

What is going on exactly with the $418m deductions?

It is such a shame. I feel very morally burdened to be discussing this thing all over again because this is a matter that is subjudice, this is in court. We are talking about the Attorney-General of the Federation who is the chief law maker of this country and I would have thought that the most reasonable thing to do is to let this case end up in court so that we have a logical conclusion. But what we are going through is that the consultants, so to say, do not even need private lawyers, they are being defended by the Federal Government.

Are you talking about the AGF?

Yes, the AGF represents the Federal Government. And if you remember, only two or three days ago at the FEC, I read somewhere that the President gave an express order that all the deductions be discontinued until the cases are concluded.

Is there a disagreement on the position of the AGF and that of the President?

That is what I noticed. I am not trying to imply anything, but if the President gives an order, it should be respected, but that’s not what we are seeing. And all the consultants we are talking about are lawyers. Why are they afraid of the court of law? The AGF had said the consultants came to a consensus on how to proceed and the consensus was reached in November 2018 when they were paid. So, what changed? The governors of 2018 are no longer the governors in power today. The Chairman of the Governors’ Forum in 2018 was Governor Yari, there is a new Chairman.

Is there no continuity?

There is continuity of course, and among the governors are legal luminaries. There are SANs and many are former lawmakers and they have reviewed the cases and discovered that there is even no basis for these payments. But we are human, we can make mistakes and if you realize the fact that you have been paid some money or promised wrongly, that does not vitiate the fact that that money cannot be recovered. So, what the governors are saying is that the first payments were in error. The AGF said that when the Governors Forum requested for the refund of the Paris Club debts, part of the components was made as payment through the consultants. What does that mean? I hate to say that is untrue. There is no component that compels the Governors’ Forum to pay anything and there is no agreement between the consultants collectively and governors collectively. One of the consultants had a contract with13 states and now he wants money deducted from 36 states. I don’t see how that’s going to happen. Another of the consultants was an employee of ALGON. In fact, the EFCC has done an investigation and described his as being part of this payment as a fraud. Besides, another lawyer is accusing him of fraudulently using his effort to collect money from the SGF. So, there are all sorts of cases surrounding this matter and we believe that the responsible thing to do is to allow these things to go to whatever court. One of the consultants has also been to the Supreme Court and lost his case, but he’s still expecting that payment will be made to him and it is part of the so-called 418million dollars. I mean it is a lot of money if you look at it. Now, universities are shut because striking lecturers are making demands, a lot of people have not been paid their pension and some people somewhere are expecting that the Federal Government would give them 418million dollars from states’ money. And this is not the Attorney-General of the Federal Republic of Nigeria anymore, for him to be defending private concerns. They are expecting this money to be deducted from state accounts at source over 52 or 58 months, that is unheard of. And there is no evidence of work done. We are saying “present evidence of the work you have done”. Some of them said they constructed primary health care institutions across the country, others said they constructed boreholes. These are physical things you can show. One of the consultants that we are talking about got payment of huge sums of money and now he is coming back to say there is a balance of 68 million dollars. And we are saying “look, even the first payment that we made to you was a little bit improper, so by the time we straighten our device, we will now begin to look at the money that is supposed to be recovered and all that. And this matter is in court? The court is the only authority that can determine clearly whether there is reason for payment or not. So, why are very highly placed lawyers afraid of their own platform?

Why do you think that the insistence on the part of the AGF is going on because if he says “look, I have a business here in front of me to make all these payments” and he feels he can’t be faulted?

I am supposed to ask you this question. Why is the AGF so interested that he doesn’t want the court to determine what should happen? That’s something that ordinary Nigerians should think about. I mean we have a lot of problems in this country. Government is complaining of being cash-strapped and a government agent is now fighting to get private concerns paid when government workers are not paid. I should allow you to conjecture that the case in court could go either way, but as far as I know and with the facts at my disposal, I know the judgment is going only one way and that is why and I am sure that the people we are dealing with also know that the judgment is going one way. And that is why they are trying to circumvent the processes of the law and do whatever they want.

This liability was inherited according to your narrative from the past Governors’ Forum. Doesn’t this speak to lack of proper handing over of notes between past governors and the current regime of the Forum and we are talking about very important state funds here. Is this not an element of dysfunction?

I don’t see where your idea of a breakdown is coming from. I didn’t say there is lack of continuity, what I am explaining is that if a payment has been done by the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and the new leadership of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum looks at this payment and said this payment is wrong, is there anything wrong with that? What I am saying is that the payment was not justified. If you remove money from a certain place and give it to someone and the next President of that institution says “I have looked at it”, are you not supposed to say, “okay, let’s do the right thing? We are returning the money” or yes, this payment was wrong if you have evidence that what you were paid rightly belongs to you. But we are saying, when you came back and said there is extra payment to be paid and we say “the first payment in the first place is even not due to you”. How does it become a breakdown in continuity? The NGF has a leadership that is seamless.

What about those who argue that some of the governors cannot claim ignorance because, in 2018, they were there?

Now, there was no consent judgment actually. What the Attorney-General is claiming is that there is a consent judgment and that is what the NGF is saying does not exist. There is another guy who went to court and filed for order of mandamus and merely filing does not mean that it exists.

One of the consultants said that he called the AGF after the Governors’ Forum got to him saying we agreed to this consent judgment and the Governors Forum wrote the AGF saying that yes, we agreed that he be paid and that was part of the reasons why he factored all that and said if that is the case, we might as well go and pay. Is that not true as well?

No, that’s not true. If you are listening to a narrative from one side, you should also listen to the other. The Governors’ Forum has written to the Vice President explaining that all these claims to the ownership of this money are not true. In fact, last Wednesday, before the Federal Executive Council meeting took place, we got wind that the matter was going to be discussed at FEC and letters were written by the Chairman to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and that was how FEC did not get to approve this money immediately and that’s where the order by the President that status quo be maintained until court has concluded this matter. So, this sudden coming out to say money is going to be paid whether the President gives an order or not becomes curious.

One of the consultants argued that the Governors’ Forum got 3.1billion dollars for his work because he found out that the money was illegally deducted and the forum benefited because of his action and he is asking for 20 percent of that money. In this case, what kind of evidence will the Governors Forum be asking that he should provide?

That is the same consultant who has been sued by another consultant who says “this is not your job, this is a job that I have done” and the EFCC has done an investigation and came up with the conclusion that the entire process was a fraud. It’s on record.

Now, the NGF is saying, “look, Mr. AGF you are wrong; we cannot afford to pay any money and, by the way, the matter is in court, so everything should be hold on until this is over”. Is that the position right now?

The position of the NGF is that this matter is in court, let the court conclude its work. If there is any reason to pay anybody, the NGF is very willing to pay.

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