Lawyer Eyeing Nigerian Forfeiture Faces Uphill Court Battle

WASHINGTON (CN) – The D.C. Circuit appeared ready to shut the door Monday on a Texas lawyer who tried to help Nigeria recover hundreds of millions of dollars thought to have been looted by one of its former leaders.

Houston-based lawyer Godson Nnaka brought the suit here three years ago in Washington after the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled a forfeiture action for $500 million tied to “an international conspiracy to launder proceeds of corruption in Nigeria” during the reign of Gen. Sani Abacha.

Sani Abacha seized power in Nigeria after a 1993 military coup only to die in office five years later. Abacha’s cause of death was officially ruled a homicide, but American officials have cited reports that the dictator was poisoned while in the company of three prostitutes.

Though Nnaka received a letter from the Nigerian attorney general in 2004, instructing him to go about recovering the billions Abacha is believed to have stolen between 1993 to 1998, the country sent the Justice Department a different letter when the forfeiture action arose a decade later.

Nigeria told the Justice Department that Nnaka was not authorized to represent it in any legal matter, prompting Nnaka to sue the country for breach of contract.

His case so far has been unsuccessful. Pushing for a reversal this morning, Nnaka’s lawyer Benneth Amadi said the relationship between Nnaka and Nigeria was “purely commercial,” triggering an exception to a doctrine that prevents courts from weighing in on the official actions of foreign states.

Amadi conceded that Nnaka’s 2004 letter may not represent a “fully integrated contract,” but said Nnaka should be paid for providing Nigeria with a valuable service by locating the looted cash.

Appearing skeptical of Amadi’s arguments, however, U.S. Circuit Judge David Sentelle referring to the 2004 letter as nothing more than an agreement to make an agreement.

“Is that really a contract?” Sentelle asked.

Sentelle also noted Nigeria did not receive any money as a result of Nnaka’s work, raising questions about its liability.

U.S. Circuit Judge David Tatel parried Amadi’s argument meanwhile that the lower court applied the wrong standard in dismissing Nnaka’s case.

“A fact is that there is a document that’s signed, but the question of whether the signed document is a contract is a legal question,” Tatel said.

Sedoo Manu, who argued for Nigeria, faced an easier time before the judges, saying the court applied the correct standard when reviewing the claims. He said other claims Nnaka raised are classic examples of foreign actions on which U.S. courts should not tread.

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