Saraki offers 'rich wife' defence in Panama Papers findings
Toyin Ojora-Saraki, the wife of the president of the Nigerian Senate, appears to be a business front for her husband, Bukola Saraki.
According to documents retrieved from the database of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, the assets in her name in tax havens are held in trust for Saraki, Nigeria’s third most powerful official.
Initial analysis of the leaks suggested that Saraki failed to disclose four assets found to be in his wife’s name offshore, in violation of Nigeria’s code of conduct law.
In his response to the leaks, Saraki said the assets belonged to the estate of his wife’s family, and that the law did not mandate him to declare such a category of assets. But documents suggest that the assets are Saraki’s.
One of the companies in Ojora-Saraki’s name is Sandon Development, a vehicle used to buy a property on 8 Whittaker Street, Belgravia, London, in 2012. Another shareholder listed for that company is Babatunde Morakinyo, a long-term personal aide and friend of Saraki’s.
But fresh evidence suggests that Ojora-Saraki and Morakinyo were fronts, nominee directors holding assets in trust for Saraki. In April 2012, while still Kwara governor, Saraki described himself as the landlord of 8 Whittaker Street and 70 Bourne Street, London. He executed a deed granting his tenants licence to make alterations to the properties.
Part three of the deed reads: “This licence is supplemental. The reversion immediately expectant on the determination of the lease is now vested in the landlord.
“The unexpired residue of the No 70 (Bourne Street) lease is still vested in Dr Saraki and the unexpired residue of the number 8 (Whittaker Street) lease is now vested in the companies.”
The deed was “signed, sealed and delivered” by Saraki on behalf of himself, Sandon Development and Renocon Property Development.
It was from Renocon that Ojora-Saraki, posing as owner of Sandon, purportedly bought 8 Whittaker Street in July 2011.
Unless Saraki was misrepresenting himself, this indicates that both companies belong to him, and that he used one company owned by him to buy a property from another of his companies. Ojora-Saraki would then have fronted for him in the purported transaction.
It is not clear why the Senate president acted in this way.
Girol Properties was registered on August 25 2004 (a year after Saraki became governor of Nigeria’s north-central state of Kwara) in the British Virgin Islands.
Company documents show that Ojora-Saraki owns 25 000 shares and was appointed the only director of the company. Ojora-Saraki, in a letter to the International Consort-ium of Investigative Journalists through her lawyers, denies ever owning any shareholding in Girol Properties.
The leaks, however, link Ojora-Saraki to the firm, as well as another handwritten document suggesting that she was known in Mossack Fonseca as just a nominee director and not the beneficial owner of the company.
Landfield International Developments, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands on April 8 2014, had Ojora-Saraki as sole shareholder.
But it is apparent that she was a front, because Saraki has since discreetly taken over the company using Longmeadow Holdings, another shell company registered in Jersey.
To effect the takeover, a board meeting of Landfield was purportedly held on January 28 2015, where it was agreed that the company be sold to Saraki for more than £3-million. That same day, Ojora-Saraki wrote to Mossack Fonseca informing it that she was transferring the beneficial ownership of Landfield to Saraki and his company.
Landfield International Developments Limited (the “Company”)
1. We refer to the Company, for which you provide registered agent services and with respect to which I, Oluwatoyin Saraki, am your client of record.
2. Change, of Client of Record 2. Please be advised that as of today’s date the entire legal and beneficial ownership of the Company held by me has been transferred to Longmeadow Holdings Limited (“Longmeadow”).
3. I therefore instruct you that with immediate effect, I should cease to be regarded as your client of record and that, going forward, your client of record will be Longmeadow. Accordingly, henceforth you should take instructions from Longmeadow in relation to the Company.”
By that letter, Saraki assumed full control of the company through Longmeadow.
Fresh trouble for the senator
This revelation that Saraki owns the assets hidden in his wife’s name may complicate issues for the politician, who is being tried by the Code of Conduct Tribunal for allegedly failing to declare his assets in full.
These new facts are also difficult to square with his earlier denials.
Although not all owners or operators of such offshore entities are criminals, owning or maintaining interest in private companies while serving as a public official is against Nigerian laws.
Section 6(b) of the Code of Conduct Act says a public office holder shall not, “except where he is not employed on full-time basis, engage or participate in the management or running of any private business, profession or trade”.
The Code of Conduct Bureau had, on September 16 2015, served charges on Saraki, accusing him of offences ranging from making false declaration of assets in forms he filed before the bureau while he was governor of Kwara state.
Saraki was also accused of failing to declare some of his assets, acquiring assets beyond his legitimate earnings, and operating foreign accounts while being a public officer, as governor and senator.
The offences, the charge said, violated sections of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, as amended.
Saraki has denied wrongdoing, saying the case was politically motivated and that he was being persecuted for emerging as the president of the Nigerian Senate against the wishes of his political party, the ruling All Progressives Congress, which preferred a different candidate.
The African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting supported the development of this story.