Article

Nigeria’s missing billions turn up in familiar places Tainted wealth still flows readily to western property and banks


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AUGUST 2, 2017
When Lamido Sanusi, Nigeria’s former central bank governor, exposed in 2014 the gargantuan scale of theft at the state oil company, he made waves at home and abroad. The court in Houston that began revealing — during asset forfeiture proceedings last month — where some of the “missing billions” washed up scarcely created a ripple.

Yet the details emerging of how Nigerian funds were allegedly laundered through US and UK property via western banks are in some respects as scandalous as the original heist, even if the picture is still far from complete. The US lawsuit suggests that then oil minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke and the two Nigerian traders named by US prosecutors as her accomplices, flushed the proceeds of an alleged international bribery scheme with ease through US and UK jurisdictions.

In one transaction, Kola Aluko, one of two businessmen whose assets are being targeted in the civil forfeiture case, transferred $74m from a trade with commodities giant Glencore, through Standard Chartered bank, for the acquisition of the Galactica Star — one of the fastest superyachts in the world. He, his business partner, Jide Omokore and unnamed co-conspirators allegedly bought properties worth tens of millions of pounds across London, New York and Los Angeles, some allegedly for the benefit of the minister. Their expenditure on luxury goods and services was ostentatious to say the least. The trio deny any wrongdoing.

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It is nearly 20 years since the hunt began for the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha’s $5bn haul of ill-gotten gains. Yet for all the laws that western governments have since armed their enforcement agencies with, the preferred destination for such tainted wealth remains unchanged.

In 2016, Transparency International found £4.2bn in property bought by politicians and public officials with suspicious wealth in London. Earlier this year, the US Treasury traced similar inflows of illicit wealth into top-end property in US cities.

The case of Nigeria’s looted petrodollars continues to raise embarrassing questions as to how effective existing western efforts to stamp out corruption and money laundering really are. Few if any of the facilitators, be they bankers or real estate agents, have ever paid a price.

The scale of mismanagement under former president Goodluck Jonathan was vast, even by Gen Abacha’s rapacious standards. During one 15-month period, Mr Sanusi identified discrepancies of $20bn between what the state should have been earning and what was remitted into treasury accounts — an amount equivalent to 5 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Yet despite the terrible consequences for Africa’s largest economy, progress towards prosecuting the culprits and recovering the proceeds, has been agonising. The ongoing US civil case involves just $144m in assets. Nearly two years since police apprehended Ms Alison-Madueke’s and seized her passport, British investigators have not pressed any charges. Nigerian authorities are struggling too.

Part of the difficulty is in proving criminal intent in Nigeria where top officials have huge powers to award oil contracts, however detrimental they might be to the interests of the nation. Another part of the problem is in the west. The US and European countries have adopted many laws with which to wage war on global corruption. But a law is only as good as the resources and commitment devoted to carrying it out. On both counts, western efforts look Janus-faced — giving the appearance of propriety while in reality encouraging the opposite.

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