“I was told to sign it” review of Mohammed Bello Adoke’s “Burden of Service” – Adewale Maja Pearce

Mohammed Bello Adoke, the author of this self-published (and self-serving) memoir was Nigeria’s attorney-general and minister of justice from 2010 to 2015. Until recently, he was living in exile in the Netherlands in fear of his life, after a convoluted oil deal which overlapped with his tenure, from which he and his accomplices were said to have walked away with US$800 million or more. Adoke tells us here that once the news was out, he was invited back to Nigeria to clear his name and was tempted to do so – he had even bought his ticket – but was warned by former associates that he would be murdered by state security forces on his way home from the airport. He considered suicide but decided it would be a ‘cowardly’ decision and opted instead ‘to live to tell my story’, in accordance with his faith in the teachings of the Qur’an, which promises ‘to deliver justice to the oppressed’.

Lucrative oil deals between politicians and notables are hardly news in Nigeria. This particular one began life in 1998 at the tail end of the military dictatorship of the late General Sani Abacha, who felt – late in the day – that it was time more Nigerian enterprises, rather than foreign companies, began prospecting for the country’s oil.

Enter Malabu Oil and Gas Ltd, one of such indigenous companies, which won a licence to explore an offshore block known as OPL 245. As it turned out, one of Malabu’s shareholders was Mohammed Abacha, the general’s eldest son. Unfortunately for him, his father died in office less than two months after the deal was signed and in due course was succeeded by Olusegun Obasanjo, whom Abacha Snr had thrown in jail. Obasanjo walked free shortly after Abacha’s death and was out to exact revenge. He revoked the licence without explanation and transferred it to Royal Dutch Shell, with whom Malabu had already entered into an agreement making Shell its technical partner. Malabu went to the House of Representatives, which ruled that the president had acted in bad faith. From there they proceeded to the courts. Years of wrangling followed but before a final judgment could be delivered, Obasanjo, by now coming to end of his eight-year tenure, reversed his decision in favour of Malabu.

In the meantime, Shell had spent more than US$530 million on OPL 245 before hitting oil. It, too, took the government to court, in this case the International Centre for Investment Disputes, an arm of the World Bank, claiming breach of contract and demanding two billion dollars in compensation. The licence was eventually awarded to Malabu, although by then Shell was unwilling to come in as a partner and, through the auspices of an Italian company, Agip-Eni, offered the Nigerian company a generous compensation package instead, amounting to 1.1 billion dollars, a figure we should hold in mind as the story becomes more byzantine.

Nigeria’s anti-graft body, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), is seeking Adoke’s extradition from the Netherlands, on the grounds that this large sum, or part of it, may have gone astray. Shell and Eni paid the compensation into a federal government account from which it was supposed to be disbursed to Malabu. As it was sitting there, Adoke was approached by a lawyer representing Abacha Jnr, who suggested that one of Malabu’s other key shareholders, Chief Dan Etete, was operating a fraudulent Malabu account, having ‘manipulated and falsified company records with the Corporate Affairs Commission’. Abacha Jnr’s lawyer wanted Adoke to hold up any transfer from the federal account to Malabu, claiming that it would find its way into Chief’s fraudulent account. Failure to resolve the matter ‘amicably’, the lawyer said, would oblige offended parties to ‘embarrass the government’. Adoke writes that he dismissed the threat as ‘inconsequential’; that his duty as attorney general was to make sure the money was paid into whichever account was nominated by the president, but that Abacha Jnr and his lawyer were free to go to court if they believed they had a case.

The difficulty here, however, is that Chief was both a major shareholder in Malabu and Abacha’s petroleum minister when the Malabu deal was signed. It appears that this conflict of interest led him to conceal his identity in the original documents (where he went under the name Kweku Amafegha), which was presumably why they were now being allegedly tampered with at Chief’s behest. And that’s not all. By the time Abacha Jnr’s lawyer made his case to Adoke, Chief was already a convicted felon, having been found guilty of money-laundering by a French court in 2007: he had used illicit funds to buy a speedboat and a chateau. He was also President Jonathan’s point man who helped facilitate the transfer of the 1.1 billion dollars from the Western oil companies to Malabu. It later emerged that only $800 million reached the account and that the balance was distributed among the signatories. Both Shell and Eni are currently under investigation for corruption in the UK and Italy. It appears that Shell executives were negotiating directly with Etete a year before the compensation deal was finalised.

As Adoke is quick to tell us, the compensation deal itself was only signed after ‘the appropriate presidential approval was obtained.’ Under the constitution, he goes on, the attorney general is required to do what the president tells him to do. All well and good, except that another critical part of the job is to advise the president on matters of law: the only thing Adoke has to say on that score is that the papers were in order and so they were signed. The weighty issues alleged by Abacha Jnr’s lawyer — fraud by a minister-cum-shareholder with the prospect of embezzlement to follow — were dismissed by the country’s top law officer, whose dismal book now presumes on the sympathies of the ‘ordinary’ Nigerian reader.  But Nigerians, as Adoke admits, understand that all government officials are ‘automatically awarded the badge of “thief” even before you take the oath of office’.

And what of the government Adoke served? Goodluck Jonathan’s administration may have been no more corrupt than its predecessors — judgments of this kind are futile in Nigeria — but it was utterly brazen in the way it went about its business. The most notorious case was that of Diezani Allison-Madueke, the then petroleum minister and also a signatory to the agreement which is now bringing him so much grief. Adoke refers to her (along with himself) as one of Jonathan’s ‘star ministers’ and you’d never guess from his account that she almost single-handedly funded Jonathan’s 2011 presidential campaign, raising N85bn in a single day. Traders in the forex market, Reuters reported, noted that ‘transactions were short’ by roughly the same amount, ‘due to a large cash withdrawal’. It was made by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, overseen by Allison-Madueke as our fossil fuels minister. The US Department of Justice is currently seeking to recover $144 million in assets acquired between 2011 and 2015 through shell companies traced directly to her, as well as a $50 million condominium in New York’s Manhattan district and a yacht, Galactica Star, worth $80 million. She is also alleged to hold an extensive property portfolio in the UK, where she has been in exile and fighting extradition for the last four years.

This is the background against which Adoke protests his innocence in the fantastic expectation that his compatriots will give him an impartial hearing. And even supposing he is innocent – which seems unlikely – he cuts an unattractive figure in this book. He makes much of a moment at Schiphol airport when a fellow Nigerian he has never seen before demands money from him, in an angry citizen’s claim to a share of the loot, and then loudly abuses him when he refuses the request. Adoke clearly expects the reader to share his sense of outrage, but mostly we recoil from his self-pity. He is fond of repeating Harry Truman’s well-worn quip about getting out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat. He even boasts that he ‘literally signed up to die’ for his country when he accepted the post of attorney-general, but here he is whining about an angry Nigerian insulting him in public. Worse, when he stops banging on about the outrageous allegations against him and takes the trouble to write about what he did in office, he turns out to be a soft touch on the corruption he claims to deplore.

Take the case of Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a former air force officer who became governor of oil-producing Bayelsa State between 1999 and 2005, when he was impeached before the end of his tenure by the state house of assembly, ostensibly on charges of corruption. Alams, as he was popularly known, was strongly rumoured to be a sponsor of the Niger Delta militants blowing up oil pipelines, kidnapping foreign workers and making life uncomfortable for the likes of Allison-Madueke, which many believe was the real reason behind his impeachment (and for which he remains unique: no other sitting governor has been impeached in this new democratic dispensation, no matter the brazen stealing indulged in by these tin gods)[L1] . To avoid arrest, he fled to Dubai and then to the UK, where he was arrested and charged with money laundering to the tune of $55 million, via houses in London, California and South Africa, even an oil refinery in Ecuador. He managed to jump bail, apparently disguised as a woman, and returned to Nigeria, where he was arrested, tried and sentenced in 2010 to two years in prison. He quickly agreed to plead guilty, forfeit his assets and use his influence to calm the Niger Delta militants in return for a pardon by Jonathan’s predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua, who died before he could issue it. When Jonathan took over as acting president, he was inclined to sign the pardon but Adoke advised against doing so on the grounds that it might harm his chances at the polls the following year.

Adoke’s advice was sound. Nigeria’s survival in its current precarious form can only be guaranteed by rotating power between figureheads from the largely Islamic north and the largely Christian south, each serving two terms of four years. Jonathan’s predecessor, Yar’Adua was a northerner who died before he completed his first term. According to the unwritten code he had another, four-year tenure after this one: strictly speaking Jonathan, a southerner, should have seen out the remaining twelve months of Yar’Adua’s first term, as provided for by the constitution, and stepped down in favour of a northerner. But he spurned this modus vivendi and exercised his constitutional right to contest the presidency, alienating vast numbers of the electorate in the process. Pardoning Alams, a southerner like himself, would have only fuelled the discontent. Once elected, however, he was free to do as he wished.

But the question remains: why should a known thief have been offered a pardon in the first place? For Jonathan, this was simple. It was Alams who had plucked him from his obscure post as a zoology lecturer and made him his deputy governor in Bayelsa State, thus launching an unlikely political career that took him all the way to the presidency. Jonathan felt ‘beholden’ — Adoke’s word — to his mentor, which is perhaps understandable, but Adoke’s own justification for agreeing to the pardon is threadbare: Alams had ‘played his part’ in confessing to his crimes; he had acted ‘in the national interest’ by prevailing upon the militants to lay down their weapons; he had ‘demonstrated remorse’; and he had ‘paid enough for his crime’. Nothing here remotely serves the cause of justice. In the end, Alams spent a total of one day behind bars, this in a country where well over half of all prison inmates are awaiting trial, many spending longer under lock and key than they would if they were seeing out sentences for the crimes of which they’re accused; but of course they have no access whatever to the nation’s patrimony and can’t afford a lawyer.

And so to Muhammadu Buhari the current president who defeated Jonathan in the 2015 elections. A former military dictator in the mid-1980s who overthrew a democratically elected government, he supposedly underwent a makeover as a born-again democrat after the return to civilian rule in 1999 and contested twice for the presidency in 2003 and 2007. After losing the first time, he threatened to scupper the incoming administration. Nothing came of it, but 2011 was another story, as Adoke tells it here. The election went off peacefully until the results started coming in and Buhari was clearly losing. In the north, he was quoted urging his supporters to ‘escort the ballot, protect the ballot and kill if need be.’ His refusal to concede defeat brought on a spate of violence from his supporters. A commission later indicted Buhari on a count of incitement, which led to a clamour for his arrest. But instead, as Adoke explains, the bitterness in the north was thought to be too dangerous and so ‘President Jonathan decided to cultivate him, given his cult-like followership in his part of the country.’ Buhari finally won the presidency in 2015 but it emerged that he had forged his school-leaving certificate, the minimum qualification to run for the highest office (something which hadn’t been picked up during his earlier campaigns).  Adoke tells us that as the outgoing attorney general, he let the matter pass on the grounds that Buhari was a former head of state, i.e. a military dictator. For Adoke the decision was ‘pragmatic’, based on the ‘memories of violence that followed Buhari’s loss in 2011 and his failure to call his supporters to order to avert bloodbath’. In other words, one man without the required qualifications to become president was allowed to hold an entire country to ransom with the threat of violence he had deployed in his previous incarnation.

But now this violence has come back to haunt Adoke. As he observes, Mohammed Abacha’s attacks on him, along with the threats to his life, must be assumed to have the backing – tacit in any case — of President Buhari, who had served under his father as a kind of minister-without-portfolio in charge of excess petroleum funds, and who later caused outrage by denying that Abacha Snr had been corrupt, even as Switzerland was busy repatriating $321 million in looted funds. The EFCC’s pursuit of Adoke is not to be taken lightly either. Its current acting chair, Ibrahim Magu (who Adoke helped ‘rehabilitate’ when he was attorney-general), has been described as ‘a raging bull that is difficult to control, even by his employer. He fixates on a target and embarks on a crude and ruthless campaign of what more easily appears to be persecution.’ Magu also clearly has it in for Adoke: he once claimed, wrongly, that the former attorney-general had benefited to the tune of £25mn from the recovered Abacha loot repatriated from Jersey without first investigating the matter. He hasn’t made mention of it since. 

There is little doubt that Adoke has much to fear but he’s unlikely to elicit sympathy in Nigeria. He willingly entered ‘the kitchen’, saddened only that his mother was not there to witness it, the woman who had ‘passionately prayed that my dream would one day be fulfilled’.  And then, rather piously: ‘It was tough, but tough times, they say, strengthen the soul.’ That’s just as well for him: as I write, he is in EFCC custody having been extradited from Dubai. He had flown to Dubai for a medical check-up (Dubai has become the favoured place for wealthy Nigerians to seek treatment) but he should have known better. Unlike the Netherlands, Dubai has an extradition treaty with Nigeria and has acted on it in the past. Adoke claims that the court order for his arrest was subsequently ‘set aside’ and that he will not be extradited, but this seems an astonishingly naive assumption.

Perhaps he really is a holy fool; perhaps even Nigerians will feel sorry for him now that he’s been sent home and his enemies in senior positions have got their hands on him.

One minor turn of events in his favour: the senate is currently debating a bill imposing a maximum sentence of three years for anyone found guilty of corruption. Incredibly, it is also recommending the death penalty for ‘hate speech’ but that’s Naija for you.

(Mohammed Bello Adoke: Burden of Service: Reminiscences of Nigeria’s former Attorney-General, Clink Street   978-1-912850-90-7.)


 [L1]Balarabe Musa was impeached in 1981

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