United States lawmaker, Senator Chuck Grassley, has said that the outcome of the trial of activist and journalist, Omoyele Sowore, and respect for rights of Nigerians by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari will play crucial roles in whether $320m laundered by late military dictator, Sani Abacha, will be repatriated to Nigeria.
Grassley, the highest ranking senator in America, in a letter addressed to the United States Department of Justice, had questioned the rationale behind the decision to return such funds to Nigeria in spite the high record of human rights violation by Buhari’s administration.
The lawmaker, who made reference to a Bloomberg report, also stated in the letter that the Nigerian Government had allegedly arranged to give the next tranche of the money from the United Kingdom to Governor of Kebbi State, Atiku Bagudu, who he claimed aided the looting by Abacha.
In the letter dated April 1, 2020 and addressed to the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section of the DoJ, Grassley pointed out that Nigeria’s corrupt history, its plan to return stolen money to an official involved in the original corruption and its refusal to assist the US with an Abacha forfeiture action, raised serious questions about how the MLARS was handling the matter.
He explained that it seemed odd that the DoJ would help facilitate the payment of $320m to the Nigerian Government "without first insisting on proper safeguards to prevent the further misuse of funds, as well as full cooperation in other forfeiture actions related to the Abacha loot."
He said, “The persecution of Christians is especially alarming as attacks have increased rapidly. According to Amnesty International, thousands of Nigerian Christians have been murdered in recent years.
“In late December, the US State Department labelled Nigeria a 'severe violator of religious freedom and put the country on a Special Watch List.
“The Buhari government’s own agencies have also abused the civil liberties of innocent Nigerian citizens.
“Last December’s re-arrest and detention of a US green card-holding journalist is just the latest, high profile example. The re-arrest and detainment of New Jersey resident, Omoyele Sowore – just one day after he was released by a judicial court – is a clear testament to its glaring contempt of judicial opinion and the rule of law.
“Mr Sowore is an activist journalist and former political opponent of President Buhari.
“Countless other Nigerian citizens are also being incarcerated in disastrous conditions.
“Furthermore, it is imperative that repatriated funds seized from a previously corrupt regime are used appropriately. The Abacha funds transfer and Mr Sowore’s next trial are both imminent.”
Grassley, who is Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, therefore directed the Department of Justice to furnish the Senate with steps the United States Government was taking no later than April 23, 2020, before it helps transfer hundreds of millions of dollars to Nigeria so as not to promote more corruption and government abuses.
He added, “In 2014, the Isle of Jersey, a British dependency, seized more than $320m laundered by the corrupt former dictator of Nigeria, General Sani Abacha.
“After a long legal battle, the Isle of Jersey and the United States have entered into an agreement to repatriate this money back to Nigeria in the coming months.
“Yet, according to a recent Bloomberg article, the current Nigerian Government is refusing to help the US Department of Justice finalise a second forfeiture action against a separate $100m in Abacha loot.
“In addition to this lack of cooperation, if Nigeria did receive the second batch of funds, it intends to return the money to an official who DoJ says was involved in corruption with Abacha.
“Particularly, it seems odd that the DoJ would help facilitate the payment of $320m to the Nigerian Government without first insisting on proper safeguards to prevent the further misuse of funds, as well as full cooperation in other forfeiture actions related to the Abacha loot.”
But reacting in a statement by his spokesperson, Umar Gwandu, Nigeria’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, said, “The evidence on the ground establishes that the Federal Government’s operations in the fight against corruption are carried out without fear or favour.
“The international community has developed confidence in the present administration in view of the fact that looted funds recovered by the President Muhammadu Buhari’s led administration before now were judiciously utilised for high-impact public oriented projects.
“In the document of the agreement, it was clearly spelt out that the monies will be utilised in the Abuja-Kano and Lagos–Ibadan expressways as well as the 2nd Niger Bridge only and the insinuation of third-party beneficiary outside the scope of the agreement is, therefore, baseless and unfounded.
“Nigeria has no reputational issue over enforcement of agreements and treaties and it is, therefore, an impossibility and unimaginable for Nigeria to hand over some amount of money to a third party not expressly mentioned in the agreement after the three countries concerned signed an agreement on what to do with the repatriated funds.”
Sowore was arrested in the early hours of August 3, 2019 by operatives of the Department of State Services for calling on Nigerians to take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations on August 5 to demand a better country from the administration of President Buhari.
He was kept in unlawful detention from that period until December 5, 2019 when he was finally released on bail despite two court orders earlier sanctioning his freedom.
In a twist of event, DSS operatives invaded the Federal High Court in Abuja on December 6, 2019 to rearrest him without any court order.
He remained in unlawful detention until 18 days later when he was released by the secret police for the second time.
At the resumption of his trial in a case brought against him by the Nigerian Government, the prosecution failed to prove accusations against him and even went ahead to dropping seven of the charges earlier preferred against him.
The government is accusing him of attempting to overthrow Buhari’s administration by calling on citizens to protest against the regime.
Groups and high-raking individuals from around the world have described the charges against Sowore as baseless and a waste of time.
The journalist remains confined to Abuja as one of his bail conditions forbids him from leaving the city or speaking with journalists until the end of his trial, which has now been put on hold by the outbreak of Coronavirus in Nigeria and closure of courts in the country.