Lawyers and anti-corruption campaigners have expressed concerns about the secrecy of the assets recovery contract.
The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, has secretly awarded a multi-billion-naira assets recovery contract to a company and its lawyers.
The firm, Gerry Ikputu & Partners, an estate valuer, which further engaged a law firm, M. E. Sheriff & Co, as its agent, was instructed by Mr Malami to recover identified large expanses of land and buildings said to be belonging to the federal government in 10 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja.
They will be entitled to three (3) per cent of the worth of every successful recovery, Mr Malami’s letter awarding them the contract, stated with a secrecy clause that bars them from making the details of the work public.
The “confidentiality” clause contained in the award letter prohibits the contractors from publicising or publicly sharing “any issue from this engagement without prior consent of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice”.
But the Asset Recovery Management Unit (ARMU) of the federal ministry of justice, which is to work with the firms in executing the contract, said the “confidentiality” clause in the letter is a mere formality and does not connote “secrecy”.
Mr Malami issued the award letter to M.E Sherriff &Co with an instruction to recover the assets and return them to the federal government within six months.
With the letter dated October 5, 2021, the six months period is due to lapse in April 2022.
The contractors, under the contractual agreement which has an arbitral clause in case of any dispute arising, is expected to give a monthly report on the recovery efforts to the AGF.
Mr Malami also asked them to work with ARMU under the federal ministry of justice.
PREMIUM TIMES obtained the letter dated October 5, 2021, containing the list of the identified assets scattered in 10 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja.
There are 74 properties listed in the letter. The properties are located in Lagos, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Abia, Anambra, Edo, Enugu, Imo and Delta states and the FCT.
A total of 29 of them comprising a school, luxury apartments, and power stations, amongst others, are in upscale Lekki and other highbrow areas of Lagos.
Some of the properties in Lagos as listed in the letter include: NEPA Children School, Ikoyi, Off Glover Road by Milverton Avenue; one duplex property at No. 11 Alexander Avenue, Ikoyi; Approximately 1,700 Square metres with twin Duplex uncompleted in Victoria Gardens City (VGC) Estate; approximately 4,222 Square Metres on Admiralty Way, Lekki Phase 1, and Ware House at Wharf Road, Apapa.
In Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, eight properties including empty lands and buildings were identified, while Cross River and Akwa-Ibom and States have two identified properties, respectively.
Three of the assets located in Abia State are The War Museum, Ojukwu Bunker, Umuahia, and National Research Institute, Umudike.
Anambra State has one listed property, which is a land approximately 4,200 square kilometres at GRA.
There is also only one set of property in Anambra State comprising four abandoned bungalows at Nnewi, adjacent to Nnewi Police Station, Nnewi.
In Abuja, the properties targeted for recovery include, the popular GSM Village located at GSM Village, Wuse Zone 1, one hectare of land located at Emeka Anyaoku street, and an empty land approximately about 8,900 square metres at Mabushi.
Highlights of contract
Prior to the issuance of the October 5, 2021 award letter, according to Mr Malami, Gerry Ikputu & Partners, the original contractor, had on March 12, 2021, signed a memorandum of understanding and power of attorney appointing M. E. Sheriff & Co “to act as recovery agent for the recovery”.
The terms of engagement as contained in the award letter gave M. E. Sheriff & Co, the law firm with the responsibility of handing over the recovered assets to the AGF “for further necessary action and directives”.
The minister also asked the law firm “to work as a Project Team in collaboration with the Asset Recovery and Management Unit (ARMU) under the Office of the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice in carrying out this instruction”.
“Messrs. M.E. Sheriff & Co on behalf of its client shall not be entitled to a deposit-on account prior to the commencement of its services,” the letter added, stressing the condition that the contractors would only be paid based on their successful recovery.
The letter also provides that the directors of the firm awarded the contract “shall be jointly held liable in accordance with applicable laws” if the information they provided is found to be false.
Firm to earn 3% of actual recoveries
The document indicated that Gerry Ikputu and Partners upon completion of its contract would be entitled to three (3) per cent of successful recoveries.
According to the mandate letter, the contractors would only be paid their share of the proceeds after the disposal of the recovered assets by the federal government.
“A success fee of three per cent (3%) of actual recoveries shall be paid to Messrs. M.E. Sheriff & Co on behalf of its client (Gerry Ikputu) following the disposal of the identified properties and remitted to the designated accounts of the Federal Government of Nigeria (as stated in paragraph ii above).
“This fee shall be paid in respect of each recovery following confirmation of payment by the Central Bank of Nigeria.”
‘No justification for hiring private firm to recover assets’
Lawyers and public accountability campaigners have faulted the contract, wondering why a work of such magnitude should be deliberately kept off the public space and awarded without competitive bidding, in line with the established procurement process.
Some said the award was a mere duplication of the functions of government agencies such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC).
A professor of law and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Itse Sagay, said there was no justification for engaging private firms to execute the recovery the anti-graft agencies were competent to do.
“The EFCC and the ICPC are authorised to recover stolen public assets. So, there is absolutely no justification for hiring a third party to do what government agencies have powers and experience to do,” Mr Sagay, who chairs the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC) said.
“So, it is strange for an outside agency, who does not have that record, and will have to be paid to recover the property. That shouldn’t be; it’s wrong. That doesn’t make sense,” Mr Sagay added.
Debo Adeniran, the chairperson of the Centre for Anti-corruption and Open Leadership (CACOL), said the contract award to Gerry Ikputu and Partners “amounts to duplication of efforts and government expenditure.”
“Mr Malami prefers giving jobs meant for government agencies to his friends and cronies, so that every public transaction will be shrouded in secrecy. That is why he has awarded this contract to the private company,” Mr Adediran added.
‘Wastage, lack of accountability’
The Executive Director of CISLAC and Head of Transparency International in Nigeria, Auwal Rafsanjani, described the contract as a waste of taxpayers’ money.
He blamed the development on the “inability of the federal government to bring about a legal framework for the management of recovered stolen assets nearly seven years after Mr Buhari assumed office”.
“The contract has been awarded to the firm amounts to waste of taxpayers’ money when there is a unit in charge of assets recovery and management at the Federal Ministry of Justice?” Mr Rafsanjani wondered. He added, ‘it is intended to give free money to some people.”
He also faulted the decision to award the contract for the recovery of assets that had already been identified to private entities.
“In this case, the assets have already been identified in some states of the federation, but the minister went ahead to award the contract for their recovery to a private firm.”
However, a public affairs analyst, Jide Ojo, said the Attorney-General of the Federation might have some discretionary powers to engage the services of private firms to recover assets on behalf of the federal government.
“The Asset Recovery Management Unit might not be well-resourced to discharge its mandate. Are personnel well-trained?” Mr Ojo asked.
Firm refuses to speak on contract
Gerry Ikputu and Partners, the firm originally awarded the contract, declined to speak on the matter when contacted by a PREMIUM TIMES reporter through a phone number found on the company’s website.
The responder to our reporter’s call who identified himself as Gerry Ikputu and owner of the firm, was asked to provide clarifications on the secrecy surrounding the award of the contract to his company.
Responding, he referred this reporter to the Asset Recovery Management Unit (ARMU) of the federal ministry of justice.
“You can go to their office (ARMU) and find out if I submitted a brief,” Mr Ikputu said before ending the phone conversation abruptly.
No law has been breached in contract award – ARMU
But ARMU, the unit of the federal ministry of justice Mr Malami asked the contractors to work with, has denied any wrongdoing.
Ladidi Mohammed, the head of ARMU, said the award of the contract did not violate Nigeria’s public procurement laws.
“I don’t see any law that we have contravened. This is the office of the Attorney General of the Federation,” Mrs Mohammed said in an interview with a PREMIUM TIMES reporter.
Mrs Mohammed explained that the contract was only awarded after Gerry Ikputu and Partners identified the allegedly hidden government assets in the eleven states of the federation.
“They were the ones that have identified the assets. They did their findings; surveying and everything. They came with their full information. All we did was to process the information, and assess their capacity to recover the assets.
“So, they are not assets that we identified. That is where questions about compliance with due process will come in. If they were assets that we identified, then we have to put it through that process of contract bidding,” the ARMU boss explained.
She also said the reward system of three per cent of successful recovery was in the best interest of the federal government.
Mrs. Mohammed also noted that the confidential clause in the award letter was a mere formality and does not connote secrecy.