STATE OF THE NATION :A Butcher’s judgement ... typically British
By Louis Odion, FNGE
A poor reading of the verdict by the London court slapping a historic penalty of $9b on Nigeria last Friday is viewing it as an affirmation of the law of contract. No, it is not. Rather, it is the orchestration of international politics and neo-colonial power-play at their vilest.
Indeed, let no one be deceived that objectivity is assured in the interpretation of international law by even angels, especially when the interests of multinationals are in dispute concurrently across jurisdictions. In such circumstance, pure nationalistic instinct is likely to trump fidelity to reason or the universal principle of fairplay.
For ages, the doctrine of sovereign immunity was, for instance, often invoked by powerful nations of the West to commit blue murder anywhere across the universe. But good students of history will recall that attempt later in the 70s by newly independent African nations to draw on the same principle ended ghastly. In the international court, it now became fairly convenient to invert Lord Denning’s new theory of “market place” to hand Nigeria the short end of the stick in the landmark case of Swiss-owned Trendtex versus Central Bank of Nigeria.
A similar - if not identical - conflict is what is being stoked invariably by P&ID vs Nigeria. In choosing not to view things from the prism of the U.S. court (which can justifiably be seen as unencumbered by any possible nationalist bias), there is, therefore, a compelling reason to see the London court’s Justice Christopher Butcher as bending the arch of justice to favour a home company, with a covetous eye on Nigeria’s substantial assets domiciled within the U.K.
Given the severity of the penalty awarded, it was as if Justice Butcher opted to literally act out his fearsome name by dealing savage knife blows on Nigeria’s jugular.
What then appears ludicrous back at home has been the attempt by some cynical elements to scrounge some mileage from this sad development for their petty partisan politics. Only genuine patriots would have seen the development first as more of a huge slap on the nation by foreign interests, even if our leadership failing to an extent would still be admitted.
Note, the local airwaves had barely crackled by midday with the highlight of the London judgement when the social media was drowned with the hysteria of PDP agents against President Muhammadu Buhari as the sole culprit. They claimed the fine resulted essentially from his malicious discontinuation of another of Jonathan’s visionary projects.
But when more media insights began to pour in, that spin had to be modified ingeniously. The following day, Jonathan’s salespeople decided to sweep the entire blame to the gravesides of both ex-President Umar Yar’Adua and Rilwan Lukman now incapable of defending themselves.
Now, let us concede that Jonathan was completely locked out of Aso Rock while the sneaky contract was being facilitated by “the cabal” as the then ailing president was gasping for oxygen and Lukman (the oil minister) seemed too self-absolved in hauteur to submit the details of the contract agreement to the scrutiny of Michael Aondoakaa commonly regarded then as essentially a comical Attorney General.
But nothing can absolve Jonathan of liability for the non-consummation of the contract beginning from February 2010 as acting President and three months later as the substantive following Yar’Adua’s demise. P&ID began to complain more than a year later. By the time the company eventually resorted to arbitration in 2012, Jonathan’s much beloved Diezani Allison-Madukwe had of course become entrenched as almighty oil empress.
From what we now know, she obviously was too preoccupied with either signing Nigeria’s patrimony away to her younger “admirers” like now fugitive Kola Aluko in sweetheart oil-swap deals or immersing herself in the sheer effulgence of her mammoth jewelry collection to have mustered the presence of mind to grasp the contract idea, much less contemplate what benefits might accrue therefrom to the nation.
So, it bears restating that national interest was least served by those who committed Nigeria into such contract with improbable terms to begin with. That rape of Nigeria was not helped by Jonathan’s subsequent sloppiness. Today’s sorry outcome is traceable to yesterday’s tardiness.
But by far more atrocious is the taste of British jurisprudence the nation was offered brusquely by the London court last Friday. While the dereliction of Nigerian officials is regrettable, nothing can however explain the juridical logic summoned by Justice Butcher to enter a judgment that negates morality and mocks all the principles of natural justice.
Note, to corner this windfall, nothing in the convoluted narration made in British and American courts in the last seven years suggested that P&ID engaged in much toil between 2010 and 2012 other than its officials carrying briefcases around Abuja and meeting with Nigerian officials. It never as much as cracked any soil in Calabar to erect the envisaged gas processing plant (as expressly stated in the contract pact), to which Nigeria was expected to lay hundreds of kilometre of pipes.
To generations of blacks still stuck today with the trauma inflicted by the colonial disruption of African civilizations, Justice Butcher’s latest travesty must be a sad reminder of the culture of plunder and predation for which imperial Britain was quite exceptional even among fellow European exploiters in history.
Were the verdict to be enforced to the letter, it should qualify as the single most punitively prohibitive fine ever imposed in history on a sovereign nation relative to her fiscal strength. The $9b sanction represents a whopping twenty percent the nation’s present foreign reserve and a third of the current national budget.
At the arbitration court in London in 2012, P&ID began by filing claims of $40m expenses and proceeded to add “lost earnings” in the twenty-year tenure of the agreement based on impossible operation benchmarks of more than ninety percent capacity utilization and a patently unrealistic expectation that oil never fell below $100 per barrel.
As if that was not already shylock enough, the judge opted to play Father Xmas by granting the petitioner’s additional prayer that compound interest be paid on the fine imposed on Nigeria. That explains how P&ID’s preliminary claim of $40m in 2012 mushroomed exponentially to the $9b awarded last week.
No sane person will accept such sham without a fight in the first place. Buhari could, therefore, be said to have acted most patriotically by refusing the initial hefty $800m payout proposed by a departing Jonathan in May 2015. In any case, with Nigeria technically insolvent by the time PMB was taking over having lapsed into a recession described as the worst in a generation, there practically was no way Nigeria could have paid, assuming the new administration was even willing.
Expectedly, the government soon mounted a vigorous counter-attack by filing appeal in the U.K and the U.S. against the claimant. Whereas the U.S. upheld Nigeria’s objection to the enforcement of the claim by pleading sovereignty, the British court chose to dismiss the plea as “frivolous”.
What makes the Butcher’s verdict all the more curious is a subsequent media expose suggesting a determined conspiracy to raid Nigeria’s exchequer. Ahead of the judgment, a whopping twenty-five percent stake of P&ID was snapped up in a strange deal by a hedge fund manager known as VR Capital Group in March. Since the Friday judgment, the sidetalk in global financial circles is that the hedge fund manager had all along been pulling levers of influence in the U.K. and the U.S. to make Nigeria either settle or be willing to forfeit her assets. So, it would then seem the vultures had long been hovering overhead as the nation began to wallow in the British dock.
Now the big question: did VR Capital Group read Justice Butcher’s mind ahead? Or, could his judgment be mere coincidence?
Developments like this will only reinforce long-held suspicion that the British jurisprudence is half of the times tainted and can, therefore, not be trusted to avail us justice on own accord without us standing up to the system, nor can its integrity be vouched for to protect our interest behind our back.
For instance, a survey conducted sometime ago by an anti-corruption group, Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, came with the damning report that one in five people using the courts in the U.K. said they or a household member paid a bribe for favourable outcome, even as one quarter of people in the country believe the courts and judiciary are corrupt. But the supreme irony is that British leaders or officials are often the first to label us as the most dubious or “fantastically corrupt”. The enduring hypocrisy in such condescension is that their London is renowned worldwide as one of the most receptive of money stolen from relatively much poorer Third World countries and the ultimate haven of shell companies used to launder dirty cash from dingy provenance across the universe. According to Britain’s own National Crime Agency, over £100b is laundered through U.K’s financial system annually.
So, who does not know that the one who receives the stolen ware on the ground is as culpable as the one who initiated the pilfering from the rafter?
A decade ago, I had a rather funny encounter with a British “expert”. I had been invited by a Nigerian-born promoter of a start-up to sit in during a presentation by the visiting consultant. Because the service concern would be prospecting in the international market beginning with Europe, it was necessary that an high-profile office be opened in London. So, the guy’s brief was to design an international marketing roadmap.
To me, the visiting specialist had sounded authoritatively smooth with his power-point presentation with a laptop inside the dimly-lit penthouse office until he veered into the media aspect. Not knowing my media background, his proposal here was nothing short of a crafty splitting of what ordinarily should be a single activity into assorted briefs for the sole purpose of escalating the costs to justify about a million British Pounds he was demanding as fee for the London outing.
Once the presentation was over and I was invited to comment, I took out a hammer, went straight to the media section and mercilessly knocked down the castle of fraud our friend had meticulously erected. Perhaps out of over-excitement over the dramatic turn of event, our host abruptly got up and asked to be excused to use the bathroom.
In-between the moments he was away, our British friend moved over and, without shame, attempted to literally smolder me with all the charms he could conjure, while his two other white “accomplices” pretended to be conversing on the couch nearby. From complimenting me with “Oh, your baritone voice is so commanding” to praising the “fantastic embroidery” of the kaftan I wore, he let be known to me that he was open to a “one-on-one” with me thereafter if I “cooperated” when the host returned.
I disappointed him during the remainder of the sesssion. Against his high expectation, our host, obviously now seeing things differently, did the smartest thing by aborting the signing off on the deal.
Needless to say that the trio didn’t as much as utter a word to me while we flew back in a private jet to Lagos that day, nor offered me a handshake while departing at the local airport.
Till date, what I still cannot understand is how they expected me to betray a man, my own countryman, so trusting to have invited me to join the session in the first place. And the lesson I learnt is never to assume a white guy will not try to fleece me given the opportunity even while customarily affecting superior airs.
Reacting to the London judgement, the Nigerian government has pledged to not only appeal but also vigorously defend national interest to any length possible. It is the most sensible thing to do.