/ 19 April 2016

Panama Papers may strengthen case against powerful Nigerian leader

Bukola Saraki.
Bukola Saraki.

At least four assets belonging to the wealthy and powerful Saraki family of Nigeria, all tucked away in secret offshore territories, have been uncovered.

But the president of the Senate, Bukola Saraki, failed to declare them to the Code of Conduct Bureau as required by Nigerian laws.

This revelation, made possible by the internal data of the Panama-based offshore-provider, Mossack Fonseca, comes at a time Saraki faces other allegations of corruption.

In a written response to The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), Saraki insisted that he “declared his assets properly in accordance with the relevant legislation” and that the charges against him “are both unfounded and politically motivated”.

In September 2015, Nigeria’s ethics watchdog, the bureau, served false asset declaration charges on Saraki, accusing the Senate president, among other things, of failure to declare his assets in full.

Under the code of conduct, a public office holder is required to declare his own assets, those of his wife as well as assets in the names of his children below the age of 18.

In his declaration form, Saraki listed property owned by his wife, Toyin, to include a plot of land at Lekki, in the State of Lagos, valued at R370 000, which he said was a gift he received in January 1989.

Toyin was also listed as owner of a property at 15 Bryanston Square, London W1 and 69 Bourne Street, London.

The combined value of the two properties was more than R60-million, generating rental income of over R4-million.

But a fresh investigation uncovered a hidden London property in the name of Toyin but which was left off the list of assets declared by the Senate president.

The hidden property is located at 8 Whittaker Street, Belgravia, London SW1W 8JQ. It’s title number is NGL802235.

Similarly, the Senate president stated in his asset declaration form that his wife held accounts in various banks in Nigeria and the UK, totaling R14-million. Toyin was also listed as maintaining a multimillion-rand share portfolio.

Elaborate as the declaration in the name of Toyin appeared to be, leaked data suggests that apart from the undeclared London property, three additional overseas assets in here name were seemingly hidden from the authorities – they are missing from her husband’s assets declaration form. These companies are located in tax havens.

Hidden assets
The first, 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 Island.

Company documents show that Toyin owns 25 000 shares with a value of $1,00 each, and was appointed the only director of the company.

It remains unclear what businesses Toyin transacted with the company. In a letter to ICIJ she denies ever owning any shareholding in Girol Properties.

The second company, Sandon Development, was registered in the Seychelles on January 12 2011 and has Toyin and Babatunde Morakinyo, (a personal aide and friend of Bukola) of 11 Okeme Street, Lagos, as shareholders.

While incorporating that company, documents show, Toyin bought a curious service from Mossack Fonseca, which helped her to register the firm.

Perhaps to avoid being identified as the beneficial owner of Sandon, the she asked Fonseca to provide nominee directors for the company.

Nominee directors are sometimes used in tax havens to conceal real owners of companies and assets.

Toyin then made an undertaking indemnifying the Panamanian company “in respect of all claims, demands, actions, suits, proceedings, costs and expenses whatsoever as may be incurred or become payable by you in respect of or arising out of any member or employee or associate of your company or associated companies holding any of?ce, directorship or shareholdings in the company or by reason of or in consequence of any act or decision made by any such person or company in connection with the management and/or administration of the said company”.

Shortly after the company was incorporated, Toyin used it, in July 2011, to buy the property on Whittaker Street, the property her husband failed to declare.

The third hidden company in the name of Toyin is Landfield International Developments, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands on April 8 2014.

According to Mossack Fonseca, Toyin, at least until January 27 2015, was sole shareholder and beneficial owner of the company which had two nominee directors – Glaisd Alie Ltd and New Gombe Ltd – both appointed on September 2 2014. Its agent says Landfield is authorised to issue a maximum of 50 000 no par value shares.

“In so far as is evidenced by the documents filed at the registered of?ce, the company is in existence and, in good standing,” Mossack Fonseca recently said of Landfield in response to an enquiry by Laura Templeman, a senior associate for Ogier Group, a law firm based in the British Virgins Island. “According to the documents ?led on the company’s ?le as at 27th January 2015, there are no actions, pending or threatened against the company and no action has been taken to wind up the company or to appoint a receiver or manager.”

Toyin said she sold her shares in the company to a third party in January 2015, but has supplied no evidence of this yet.

On July 28 2015, Toyin, who was the first lady of Kwara State between 2003 and 2011, was interrogated by Nigeria’s anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, in relation to awards of contracts during her husband’s tenure as governor. The EFCC has not taken further actions since her interrogation, and nothing has been heard of the case since then.

A troubled husband
Bukola, who is Nigeria’s third most powerful official by virtue of his position as Senate president, is facing a 13-count charge of alleged false declaration of assets.

He is being tried by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, a special court that tries public officers for contraventions of the Code of Conduct for Nigerian public officers.

The bureau and the tribunal were established to enforce “a high standard of morality in the conduct of government business, and to ensure that the actions and behaviour of public officers conform to the highest standards of public morality and accountability”.

Besides allegedly making false declarations of his assets, the Senate president was also accused of acquiring assets beyond his legitimate earnings, and operating foreign accounts while being a public officer – governor and senator. These would be constitutional violations in Nigeria.

The Senate president has denied wrongdoings, saying the case was politically motivated and that he was being persecuted for emerging the president of the Nigerian Senate against the wishes of his political party, the ruling All Progressives Congress, which preferred a different candidate.

But this revelation of hidden assets in tax havens might sharpen the case against Bukola.

Off-Shore Sarakis
It remains unclear why Toyin incorporated the offshore companies linked to her or what businesses they transacted.

While that may not be the case with the Sarakis, some business people in Nigeria and elsewhere are known to have created shell companies offshore for a host of dodgy business reasons, which include hiding assets, avoiding tax or as fronts for illegal deals. Shell companies are not entirely illegal, and not all owners use them for dubious purposes.

Saraki and his wife denied any wrongdoing with Toyin Saraki denying any knowledge of one of the three off-shore accounts.

Responding to separate written requests for comments, the couple maintained that it is not illegal to hold shares in offshore companies.

In a letter to ICIJ by the London-based law firm of Discreet Law, the Senate president said he declared his assets properly in accordance with the relevant Nigerian legislation.

His wife, in a separate letter to the ICIJ through another London-based law firm, Harbottle & Lewis, also insisted that she “made all required disclosures in relation to her shareholdings”.

In their separate letters, the couple threatened to sue, should the ICIJ and its partners proceed to publish information about the undeclared offshore assets, with Toyin saying any publication of her private financial information infringes on her privacy.

The African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) supported the development of this story.