There is an ageless Yoruba saying, “every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner.” Time may have made this adage meaning-bare, but how still aptly it applies to the historic day Nigeria had at a London court late last year 2023.
That day, the federal government stopped an international fraudsters’s attempt to use the law to swindle Nigeria of $11 billion.
Nigeria had approached the court, seeking to nullify a $6.6 billion arbitration award to Process & Industrial Developments (P&ID) in 2017 over a gas plant contract that failed. Interest brought the total amount the firm demanded to $11bn. The contractor is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a safe haven for hedge funds. The federal government protested, saying the contract was obtained through bribes. After a legal tussle lasting 5 years, judge Robin Knowles found that the huge arbitration award was tainted by bribes. According to him, the matter “shows what some individuals will do for money. Driven by greed and prepared to use corruption; giving no thought to what their enrichment would mean in terms of harm for others. Others that in the present case include the people of Nigeria.”
The Nigerian government hailed the judgement, though not yet the end of the matter. “The brazen fraud perpetrated by P&ID has finally been revealed,” President Bola Tinubu said through his spokesman. He said the verdict “will ensure that any parties that think that African nations are an easy target for exploitation will be forced to think again. Nation states will no longer be held hostage by economic conspiracies between private firms and solitarily corrupt officials.”
The influential financial Bloomberg reported the court proceedings but used the word “dodged”, implying we got the victory by means other than fair. A typical western news reporting bias against the developing world. Reuters’s version of the same story was less judgemental. It even gave the story a significant perspective. It said the ruling would “come as some relief to Africa’s biggest crude oil producer’s economy that’s fighting double digit inflation and falling oil revenues. An adverse ruling could have added a debilitating liability on the country, where in the past eight years, debt has increased almost eight-fold to more than $110 billion.”
The case was an eye-opener in terms of its astounding revelations. One, the 2010 contract was fraudulently obtained, using Nigerian oil industry officials who cut the deal behind the back of ailing President Umaru Musa Yar’adua who, regrettably, died in May 2010. Two, P&ID bought off lawyers hired by the Nigerian government. Three, shortly after the 2017 arbitration award to P&ID, a hedge fund-supported firm, VR Capital Group Ltd, bought 25 percent stake in P&ID, expecting to reap bountifully from the arbitration money. Four, two high profile British lawyers who represented P&ID traded their integrity for “mesh of porridge.” Justice Knowles’s stern rebuke of the lawyers and all others implicated in this “bribery of epic and industrial scale”, indicates that the itching palm isn’t a peculiarity of the Third World. Of the two British lawyers, in particular, the judge said they had “misconducted themselves out of greed.” They succeeded in exploiting Nigeria’s lack of expertise in international contract negotiation, which was recognized by a world law reform conference in the late 1980s in Abuja.
We commend the professionalism, integrity and toughness of justice Knowles in giving Nigeria victory in a case in which everybody had all but lost hope. We urge that those Nigerian officials who, out of greed, allowed themselves to be used to defraud their country, should be put on open trial. The aim should be to shame them and deter others. Meanwhile, while P&ID may appeal the court’s decision, let us celebrate this rare legal victory secured outside our shores.