Jide Omokore, the Chairman, Atlantic Energy Limited, who is currently facing a four-count charge of money laundering by the Economic and financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, has always been linked with former Petroleum Resources Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke. But, his lawyer, Lawal Rabana, who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES' Business Editor, Bassey Udo, in his Abuja office last week, denied any relationship between the two beyond official business. Excerpts
PT: The case of alleged breach of contract by Atlantic Energy with NPDC, how is it going?
Rabana: Very well. Just that no one knows how long it will take. It is difficult to predict. We are going back to court on March 31 for further cross examination of the Managing Director of NPDC (Nigerian Petroleum Development Company).
From March 31, whatever transpires in court will help to determine what next line of action. After the evidence of the prosecution, all the defendants, about five of them, are entitled to put up their defence. That will take some time.
That is why Mr. Jide Omokore has continued to remain in Nigeria and not run away.
When he was invited, he surrendered himself and went there to give all the explanations. He was granted administrative bail. And since 2015, the man has not travelled out of Nigeria. He said here is no need for that, because he needs to clarify and defend himself.
He said he had no business being on the run. He said his position is that this is a commercial transaction that has no criminal element whatsoever, and his relationship with the Minister is strictly official.
PT: But people say he is the minister's main ally or point man?
Rabana: Everybody keeps saying he is the minister's ally. But, nobody has come out to say these are the specifics that connect the man with the minister. Everything has been in the realm of speculations. So, for me I think the relation is official. There is nothing unholy or anything that is out of the ordinary.
PT: But, what really are the issues involved in the case?
RABANA: First, this clarification is very important. Let me say that there is no relationship between Atlantic Energy Group of Companies and Jide Omokore, who is the Chairman, on the one hand, and the former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke.
If there is any relationship at all, it is strictly and purely official. As a sitting minister, her consent and approvals are required to do certain things for business to take place.
It is in the course of that official transaction and relationship that her name has continued to feature in relationship with that of Jide Omokore. She gave the approval for the strategic alliance agreement, which Atlantic Energy entered into with NPDC. That is purely in her official capacity.
PT: Don't you think the relationship could have gone beyond official without you knowing?
RABANA: As a counsel to Atlantic Energy and Jide Omokore, from what I have seen, the relationship with the former minister remains official.
I am not aware of any personal unholy relationship between the two. It is strictly official, because as a sitting minister, she has the final authority to approve those strategic alliance agreements to allow Atlantic Energy to operate some oil mining fields.
PT: But, the fact that the strategic alliance agreement was approved by the minister for Atlantic Energy without due process tended to suggest the relationship between Jide Omokore and the Minister was more than official. People sometimes refer to Mr. Omokore as the minister's ally or point man?
RABANA: The problem associated with this case is that the moment you mention any transaction or deal that has gone bad, the insinuation is always that it is either people who are either cronies, allies or fronts of people in positions of authority.
But, I have always tried to draw the line that there is nothing like anyone fronting for Mrs. Alison-Madueke as far as the Atlantic Energy story is concerned. Mr. Jide Omokore is not a front, neither is he an ally of the former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke.
Their relationship has been strictly official. That is why, after the last proceedings, we had to further clarify, so that everyone can see clearly that this is a commercial transaction that has gone bad, and the remedies are there.
It is not for somebody to be criminalised. Otherwise, anyone owing government agencies or banks will end up in jail. People are owing billions of Naira arising from default in payment of loans or commercial transaction that have failed, yet nothing is happening to them.
So, this is a clear case of official relationship with NPDC, NNPC and the then minister. Anybody who is in the oil service industry must maintain some level of official relationship with the Minister of Petroleum Resources and the Group Managing Director of the NNPC.
Either you are going for meetings, there are some correspondences between you and them, or during meetings at international fora for oil and gas all over the world, one must relate with them. So, it is just an official relationship. There is nothing personal. There was nothing that was done that was very unusual.
PT: Did you say there was nothing unusual about the whole transaction? What about the issue I asked earlier that there were claims that the minister did not follow due process in approving the oil licenses?
RABANA: That's not true. The process of allotting those oil fields followed their laid down due processes. Correspondences were exchanged; applications were vetted; the NNPC approved, and forwarded to the Minister, who also approved. So, the due process of awarding those licenses were followed. It was not only Atlantic Energy that was involved. Other companies were also involved. Some of them are still in business till today.
PT: How can you say due process was followed when Atlantic Energy did not go through the competitive bidding process with other interested applicants?
RABANA: No, no, no, no!
PT: You even accepted that it was a contract that went bad. Did it go bad after Mr. Omokore and the Minister's relationship fell apart?
RABANA: First, let me lay the foundation and let it be very clear. Any contract where the Group Managing Director of the NNPC signs and the Minister of Petroleum Resources approves cannot be said not to follow due process.
These are the authorities in the business. Besides, all the internal processes relating to the contract were followed. Because of Atlantic Energy's track record with series of marginal oil fields previously handled by the company, they said the company could also take over these oil licenses. When people talk about due process, the question to ask is: What due process?
PT: The due process has to follow the process of advertising, to invite prospective bidders; shortlisting of bidders; submission and opening of technical and commercial bids, and all that.
RABANA: Forget about that. It is not for us. The call for applications was done and companies in the oil industry with proven capacity and ability were invited. You cannot just jump into an oil field and begin to lift crude oil. The processes must be followed.
As far as we are concerned, this is not the point in dispute. It has nothing to do with due process. The dispute is about failure to remit what is due to the federal government as at when due. Nobody is talking about due process. If anyone is talking about due process, then the person should go to NNPC, NPDC.
They are the people who set the machinery in motion and all the correspondences are there to show that strategic alliance agreements were duly signed and executed by the appropriate authorities of the two companies.
For me, let Nigerians not be deceived when they talk about due process. Those in the oil industry know it is practically impossible for one to bring a ship and begin to load crude oil without agreements, even up to the vessels; their destination and the quantum of crude oil approved for lifting. They are all recorded.
So, I don't know what due process we will be talking about again where a minister signed, along with Group Managing Director of NNPC.
PT: How did the breaches alleged in the case come about?
RABANA: These are issues with documented evidence. But because the matter is in court now, we cannot begin to go into the merits and otherwise. But the key issue is that Atlantic Energy had a valid contract, well documented. And at every point in time, when there is a dispute as to how much is to be remitted to the Federal Government, they should sit down and try to reconcile all the figures and come out with what all the parties can see as the quantum of liftings and the outstanding cash calls to be paid.
It is called cash call because the company will remit, lift crude oil and pay for all the services and whatever is left out of it is the sharing formula between the company and the federal government.
But, these things don't fall in place automatically, such that one lifts crude oil in March and at the end of March, the company must pay. There is always roll overs and spill overs that require the company to keep working.
At times, some of these figures have generated controversies, because all the sides will claim different figures as correct. But, what is the consensus that there is a breach arising from not remitting as at when due.
The company agrees that it breached those terms, by not remitting at when due. But give us time to do that. We are bringing in more investors that will inject more foreign components into the business. It was in the intervening period that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, came in to say they were investigating alleged diversion of federal government monies.
PT: Who took the case to the EFCC? Was it the Minister?
RABANA: From records, an NGO wrote about unwholesome activities in the petroleum industry, which was basically targeted at the then minister. And the minister wrote to invite the EFCC to investigate any wrongdoing. But, every transaction related to the crude oil lifting is a commercial transaction that was well documented. The documents were signed by the minister.
But the moment people hear that billions of federal government money has not be paid, the general impression is that it has been diverted or stolen. But it is not physical money, but paper money that at the end of a given period, will translate into real cash. It is not that Atlantic Energy went and took money from NPDC. But they lifted the crude oil and provided services, and at the end of the day the records are reconciled.
From records I have seen, it was a matter that required a little more of patience and look at the intricacies and options of when to pay off the accumulated cash call.