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The private plane, the minister and the $1.3-billion scandal

On the evening of Friday May 29, a luxury private plane landed at Montréal-Trudeau International Airport in Canada. It was a Bombardier 6000 jet, with the tail number M-MYNA and a resplendent green and white livery – the colours of Nigeria’s flag.

Babatunde Olabode ‘Bode’ Johnson, an asset recovery lawyer representing Nigeria’s government, had been monitoring the plane on its journey from Dubai to Montreal, with a stop at Shannon Airport in Ireland. He sprang into action.

Johnson contacted Canadian authorities and urged them to impound the plane. The plane, he argued, rightfully belongs to the Nigerian government.

“We had just a few hours to get a legal team in place on the ground there in

Canada to file the injunction. It was 3am in Nigeria when I made a statement to the judge via video link,” he said.

Johnson’s argument worked. The judge ordered that the plane be grounded

until further notice.

A $1.3-billion scandal

This particular plane is at the centre of one of Nigeria’s biggest corruption scandals. In 1998, in the last weeks of Sani Abacha’s military regime, then-oil minister Dan Etete effectively awarded the oil prospecting rights to the huge OPL-245 block to a company called Malabu Oil and Gas.

Etete secretly controlled this company.

After Abacha’s sudden death, Etete retained the rights as a private citizen until he offloaded them to oil giants Shell and Eni in 2011, who paid a combined $1.3-billion to the Nigerian government.

Investigators allege some $336-million then trickled down to Etete via several bank accounts, and that one of the first payments he made, $54m, was the main installment on a luxury jet – a Bombardier 6000 with the tail number M-MYNA. He painted it in green and white.

The entire OPL-245 deal is now subject to a corruption trial in Italy, where Etete is an accused, together with alleged middlemen Eni and Shell, and several of their executives.

All parties in the Milan trial have denied the charges against them. The Nigerian authorities have also charged Etete and several others linked to Malabu with money laundering in connection with the onward flow of funds from the OPL-245 deal.

He has denied any wrongdoing and has dismissed the allegations as “political

propaganda”.

Nigeria issued an arrest warrant for him earlier this year. Authorities are understood to be seeking his extradition.

Chasing the money

Nigeria also wants to get its money back, which is where Bode Johnson and his team of asset recovery lawyers comes in. Johnson was appointed by the Nigerian government in 2016 to recover assets from the OPL245 deal. His firm stands to receive 5% of any funds that they are able to recover.

It is not yet clear, however, whether Etete is still the beneficial owner of the plane, which has a current market value of about $20-million. It is registered to Tibit Ltd, an anonymously owned company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands (BVI).

The high life: The lavishly appointed interior of the luxury jet at the heart of a massive corruption scandal (Bode Johnson’s affidavit)

BVI records suggest that Tibit’s sole director is Giuseppina Russa, who was previously an executive assistant of sales for plane manufacturer Bombardier. She is not thought to be Tibit’s beneficial owner.

When contacted for comment, Russa said she was not the director of Tibit, and had asked to be removed as a director a number of years ago.

Johnson said that he suspects that the jet was being flown to Montreal for a service ahead of a possible sale. For now – pending further legal developments – he has succeeded in halting any potential sale. It remains to be seen, however, whether he and Nigeria will succeed in getting any money back.

A lawyer for Tibit said they would “vigorously contest” Nigeria’s legal moves.

This investigation has been edited for length and this version first appeared on The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

It was first published by Finance Uncovered and Premium Times. The full investigation is available here: https://bit.ly/NigeriaJet

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Lionel Faull
Lionel Faull began his career as a journalist at the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa before joining the country's pre-eminent non-profit investigations team, amaBhungane, in 2011. He has been working with Finance Uncovered since January 2017, joining as a full-time senior reporter a year later
Margot Gibbs
Margot Gibbs is a reporter at Finance Uncovered. She has investigated the UK's facilitation of corruption, natural resources and the environment.

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