Nigeria, OPL 245 and Citizen Adoke’s travails

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*Adoke

Reuben Abati

I sympathize with Mohammed Bello Adoke, referred to above simply as Citizen Adoke. Not necessarily because I know him personally, he and I, having served this country during the tenure of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, former President, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Adoke from 2010 – 2015, and this writer from 2011 – 2015. I sympathize with him because of what Nigeria has done to him and how he has now become another living example of how many technocrats would rather shun the arena of public service because of how badly Nigeria has treated them, thus making it difficult for the best and the brightest to step forward to contribute to their nation’s development. I recall that many years ago, shortly after the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential election, and the return to civilian rule in 1999, one of the major arguments put forward by civil society was that the military having messed up the country so badly,  the return to politics and governance, as the military took their exit, never again to return, should be built on the involvement and participation of distinguished Nigerian technocrats in politics – men and women who have been tested in the field of practice and who could bring their experience to the public field.

This encouraged a significant number of persons – academics, lawyers, Nigerians at home and in diaspora, medical experts, engineers and accountants to elect to serve their country, if only to prove to the soldiers that the civilian populace could govern and that democracy is the best form of government. President Olusegun Obasanjo emerged from the residue of the 1993 – 1999 crisis as Nigerian President. In fairness to him, he bought into this logic and recruited personnel from across the spectrum. There were many Nigerians abroad who were persuaded to pack their luggage and return to serve their country.   Other leading professionals at home joined the government, having been called upon to serve, many of them personally by Obasanjo.  President Yar’Adua (2007 – 2010) also followed Obasanjo’s example. It soon became normal to have popular persons who had done well in professional practice serving in government, on the executive side and even more so in the legislature at all levels. Under President Goodluck Jonathan, the tradition continued. He had a team of bright technocrats, including some of the very best in their fields.

However, the sad part of the recruitment of the best and the brightest into the governance of Nigeria is that many of these talented persons often end up either being frustrated out of the system, or they end up being set up for infractions, or at worst, as is common, they are left with bruised hearts and egos. I once heard the story of an accomplished engineer who had worked in a top engineering company in the United States who was brought home to re-design some structures for the Nigerian electricity network. He came up with his designs which he thought would be cost-effective and deliver on the objective, but what he proposed would result in the demolition of some houses belonging to very powerful Nigerians. He was promptly advised to change his design to save those houses. He put up a spirited argument about engineering, cost and credibility. He was told that in this country some persons and spaces are untouchable. He quoted engineering expertise. He had to be reminded that Nigeria is not the United States. Out of frustration, the fellow packed his luggage and left. He would rank as one of the luckiest.

Many others who thought that they could join the post-military train and help save Nigeria were not so lucky. There are examples of Nigerians who have tried to save Nigeria but have paid with their lives, or the lives of their relatives, or who remain scarred for life. When they are invited to serve, it is natural for them to see that as a special form of recognition, out of a large population of more than 200 million people. But Nigeria is like a stockfish: when you think you can bend it with bare hands, you may end up bending your hands in the process. Many who tried did so in vain. The stories are many, and I do not want to delve into too many individual tales, because every example has its own peculiar details, true and fictional, real and imagined, since those we identify as the best and the brightest have their own individuality and moral peccadilloes.

I started with Citizen Adoke and it is his story that I want to tell as I know it. He has himself told a better part of his story in his partly biographical book, Burden of Service (Clink Street, 2019) in which he reported that having attained the esteemed rank of an SAN, he dreamt of becoming the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of the Federation. He shared that dream with his mother, and they both prayed over it. He not only attained the silk, he also became Nigeria’s 21st Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice – a call of destiny for a poor, little boy from Nagazi, who read law by accident, and had to borrow a jacket for his university matriculation, only to be de-robed and humiliated publicly by the owner of the suit, and who in addition had to survive university education with the benevolence of friends who helped him with a 0-1-0 regime. Those who know, know what it means to go through university as an indigent student. After his Law School Education, Adoke even had to attend his Call to Bar ceremony in borrowed robes. He had no family or relative in attendance. But he was one of those who survived the odds. He practised law in Kano, acquired more education in Switzerland, and the UK, struggled to get to the top of the game and he ended up as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). His book, Burden of Service basically tells the story of how he got to the very top of his profession, across the ranks and in public service. He gives an account of his dedicated service and the reforms and the innovations that he brought to bear as Nigeria’s 21st Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice.  It was an achievement that he loved and that he was proud of. But there were burdens and none was more punitive, like the Cross, than the experience he went through after leaving office.

The Jonathan administration under which he served lost the 2015 Presidential election to an opposition party, the All Progressives- Congress (APC) which has been ruling Nigeria since then till date. As soon as the PDP lost the election, the APC even before assuming office went after the Jonathan officials. Adoke was one of the main targets.  In August 2015, he left Nigeria for further studies at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands.  In November 2015, he was invited for questioning by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).  He was accused of having collected bribe in the implementation of the OPL 245 Settlement Agreement, and that he waived taxes to get some personal settlement and used the proceeds of the same illegal settlement to buy property. He was traced all the way to the Netherlands where his apartment was searched for money laundering and corruption investigation reasons.  His house in Abuja and in his home town of Okene, Kogi State were also searched. He received reports that there was a plan afoot to eliminate him, and that the whole matter was not just about allegations of a felony. He offers further clarifications and details in Chapter Eight (The Witch-Hunters) and Chapter Nine (The Mischief) in Burden of Service (2019).

In December 2016, he and eight others were formally charged at the Federal High Court, Abuja in respect of the OPL 245 transaction. His name was mentioned in two out of the nine charges, bordering on conspiracy, aiding and abetting and money laundering.  His name was further mentioned in cases in other jurisdictions – Italy and London, involving the Italian oil giant, Agip-Eni, Shell and Malabu Oil and Gas. In 2020, the EFCC again filed another case against Mohammed Bello Adoke in the Federal High Court of Abuja accusing him of collecting N300 million gratification from the OPL 245 Transaction.

In Burden of Service, Adoke has argued that the allegations against him were malicious, because as he put it: “I did the best for my country. I saved my country from a certain liability of a $2 billion claim by Royal Dutch Shell at the International Centre for the Settlement of Disputes (ICSID), an organ of the World Bank. More so, the $210 million signature bonus paid for OPL 245 by Shell and Eni is the highest in the history of Nigeria. I did nothing wrong. I did not take a bribe, not even a cup of water, or a slice of cake. Along the line, the narrative about my role has been severely twisted, but the dust will settle someday and the whole truth will come out as straight as an arrow. Truth is so stubborn it refuses to give up until it triumphs.” Adoke did not fold his arms. He fought every challenge to his integrity in every court and in every jurisdiction. In the Nigerian courts, he and his lawyers made a “no case submission”. In January 2024, the EFCC eventually admitted that it indeed had no evidence against Mohammed Bello Adoke and that it had no objection to his “no case submission”.  This was after the EFCC had presented its case for three years and after calling 10 witnesses. Last week, on March 27, the Federal Capital (FCT) High Court ruled definitively in the matter with Justice Abubakar Kutigi chastising the EFCC for filing frivolous charges against Adoke and six others. He commended the prosecution for conceding that it had no credible evidence to oppose the no-case application by Adoke and others but complained that the agency simply wasted four years and that the defendant should not have been charged in the first place. The prosecution failed to prove the essential elements of the offences for which the defendants were charged. His Lordship dismissed the EFCC case, and admonished the EFCC not to file such frivolous charges in the future. In effect, the Nigerian government has lost all the cases it filed or in which it was joined in Italy, the UK and even here in Nigeria with regard to OPL 245.  This is scandalous.

It must be noted that in 2016, Adoke sought an order of the Federal High Court, Nigeria declaring that his involvement in the negotiation, execution and implementation of the OPL 245 Resolution Agreements was in line with Section 5 of the 1999 Constitution and that he could not be held liable on personal grounds. The Court, notably, found in his favour. In 2021, the Italian Court in Milan, discharged and acquitted all defendants in the OPL 245 case. Adoke was not on trial in Milan but his name was mentioned – another victory for him nonetheless. In 2022, the Federal Government further lost its case against Adoke and JP Morgan at the Business and Property Courts of England and Wales Commercial Court. At every turn, the Nigerian Government could not establish that any fraud had been committed in the OPL 245 transaction.

This is why this is a major triumph for all the defendants in the case. The full story of OPL 245 is in the public domain. Truth has now prevailed.  Justice Kutigi spoke of the waste of four years by the EFCC.  This is more than that. The EFCC and the Nigerian Government spent four years on a wild goose chase around the world from Italy, to London and here in Nigeria, on the frivolous pursuit of a case in which they lacked evidence. Even when courts in Italy and London dismissed the OPL 245 case, Nigeria kept at it, looking for every opportunity to nail persons they had condemned before any trial.  The justice system should not work like that. This is a very bad commentary on our justice administration system. Our justice system must never be used to settle personal or political scores. In other parts of the world, before a person or an entity is charged to court, there would have been a diligent attempt to find and establish evidence and a prima facie case. Where this does not stand in the court of law, the matter is promptly dispensed with as seen in the handling of the OPL case in Italy and the UK.

In Nigeria, politics is more important than the law. Cases are delayed and you could be on trial for years even when you are innocent. Once you are marked out by the state as an adversary, the evidence does not matter. Mohammed Bello Adoke and others must count themselves lucky indeed. It is now possible to see reason in Adoke’s argument that he considers himself the target of a witch-hunt by the Nigerian government. I have singled him out to praise his resilience to get justice and prove his innocence. He serves as an example of why many Nigerians would rather stay away from public service. Justice Kutigi spoke of the EFCC wasting four years. I think that has to be calculated in real terms: the EFCC wasted the time of the court and wasted all the Nigerian resources spent in pursuit of a case that has now failed from one court to another.

The falsely accused lost more than four years. OPL 245 was such a cause celebre in which members of the public took positions. For more than four years, Adoke could not even return to Nigeria. He was in exile, away from work, family and friends.  In December 2019, he was intercepted in Dubai, UAE by Interpol and detained for five weeks before he was brought back to the country. Nigeria had placed the name of its former Attorney General and Minister of Justice on an Interpol list of wanted persons! And now the same country says the same man has no case to answer. Nigeria must learn to be fair and more diligent and professional in the prosecution of allegations of misdeeds. The Federal Government owes Adoke and all others in the OPL 245 case an apology. The FG must also compensate them. President Bola Ahmed Tinubu must personally put a closure to the defamation by giving the necessary directives to address this gross embarrassment and ensure that under his watch, the EFCC and other agencies do not engage in any form of gross misconduct.