The President of the Nigerian Senate, Bukola Saraki, is in trouble again. On Sunday his name popped up in the global list of infamy exposing some leading world politicians for utilising shell companies in tax havens to either conceal assets, evade tax, or launder funds.
That revelation, which is capable of attracting fresh criminal charges to the politician, came only 18 months after a similar investigation exposed his ownership of at least three secret offshore firms which he used in concealing assets abroad.
The expose also came even as the senator is battling to extricate himself from charges relating to false asset declaration. The matter is now at the Court of Appeal after the Code of Conduct Tribunal acquitted and discharged him.
In the new findings by PREMIUM TIMES and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), Mr. Saraki was found to sit on the board of an offshore entity while he was governor and later member of the Nigerian Senate in violation of his country’s code of conduct law.
The politician set up Tenia Limited in the Cayman Islands —a notorious tax haven in the Caribbean— in 2001, and ran it until at least 2015 as director and sole shareholder. It remains unclear what business he transacted with the entity and what asset he might have used it to conceal.
But he failed to list the firm in his assets declaration filings when he was elected governor of Kwara in 2003, in defiance of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act. He also didn’t list the company when he was reelected governor in 2007 and when he was elected senator in 2011.
The latest details emerged from a leaked data obtained by German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung, and ICIJ from two offshore secrecy providers (Appleby and Asiaciti Trust) and 19 secrecy jurisdictions.
The leaked 1.4 terabyte data, now infamously dubbed Paradise Papers, contains 13.4 million records and is no doubt one of the biggest leaks in history.
For a year, more than 380 journalists from 96 media organisations in 67 countries pored over the gigantic data, which cover a period of nearly 70 years, from 1950 to 2016. PREMIUM TIMES is the only Nigerian media organization involved in the investigation.
More than 120 politicians and country leaders, in nearly 50 countries as well as hundreds of business people across the world were identified in the record as users of offshore entities.
The Paradise Papers revelations came 18 months after the PanamaPapers provoked worldwide outrage over the use of shell companies by the world’s political and business elite. There have also been debates about the ethics of using tax havens, where an estimated $32 trillion is believed held in offshore accounts, depriving their originating countries of tax revenues.
Tenia Ltd. was not amongst the hidden family assets of Mr. Saraki that were uncovered in the PanamaPapers, indicating that the Senate President is a serial user of offshore firms located in lenient tax hideouts across the world.
Andrew Stephenson of Discreet Law, a London-based law firm that represents Mr. Saraki, confirmed that the Senate President owned Tenia Ltd., but absolved him of any wrongdoing.
“There’s nothing unlawful in the ownership of offshore companies,” Mr. Stephenson said in response to an ICIJ enquiry, adding that the company had never been active since it was set up.
“We are instructed that Tenia Ltd. has never held any assets, nor has it ever traded or conducted any other business, nor does it have anything to do with the tribunal proceedings in Nigeria,” Mr. Stephenson said.
But when PREMIUM TIMES asked why Mr. Saraki failed to declare the firm to the Code of Conduct Bureau in a follow-up e-mail, Mr. Stephenson said his client needed more time to respond.
The code of conduct law requires a public office holders to declare own assets, as well as those owned by their spouses and children below the age of 18.
In his 2003 declaration, Mr. Saraki listed European and American Trading Company, Tyberry Corporation, Eficaz Ltd., Gensoft, All Africa Media Company, Merrill HHB Fund, Mundernet Fund and Izorch Incorporated as the only eight companies he held substantial or ordinary stockholdings outside Nigeria.
He registered Tenia Ltd. in 2001 with 30 Saka Tinubu Street, Victoria Island, Lagos as base. The property on that address was investigated as part of Mr. Saraki’s assets declaration trial, but he said he only rented an office in the building.
Echoes of PanamaPapers
The Paradise Papers documents bear similarities with the publication of Panama Papers in April 2016.
In that Pulitzer-winning investigation, the ICIJ shared internal data of the Panama-based offshore-provider, Mossack Fonseca, obtained by the German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, with PREMIUM TIMES and over 100 other media partners in 82 countries.
At least 110 Nigerians were exposed as users of offshore companies in the groundbreaking leak.
The personalities ranged from politicians like Niger State Governor Sani Bello and David Mark to traditional rulers like the late Ooni of Ife Okunade Sijuwade to businessmen Aliko Dangote, Mike Adenuga and Hakeem Bello-Osagie.
While Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson resigned and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was removed from office as a result of the revelations about their families’ finances in the #PanamaPapers, no Nigerian politicians identified in the investigation has suffered any consequences for holding undisclosed assets in foreign countries while in office.
PREMIUM TIMES linked several firms to Mr. Saraki based on the trove of 11.5 million documents and reported that the first, Girol Properties Ltd., was registered in the British Virgin Island (BVI) on August 25, 2004 (a year after the politician became governor of Nigeria’s north-central state of Kwara).
The second company, Sandon Development Limited, was registered in Seychelles Island on January 12, 2011 and had Mrs. Saraki and one Babatunde Morakinyo, (a long-term personal aide and friend of Mr. Saraki) as shareholders.
The third hidden company in the name of Mrs. Saraki is Landfield International Developments Ltd., a company registered in the British Virgin Islands on April 8, 2014.
The companies were never disclosed and it turned out Mrs. Saraki was a mere front for her husband.
In July 28, 2015, Mrs Toyin Saraki, 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 (EFCC), 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.
Alleged false assets declaration probe
Mr. Saraki, a member of Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress, emerged Senate President in 2015 after he was re-elected for a second term from Kwara Central Senatorial District.
On September 16, 2015, three months after he became Senate President, the CCB slammed a 13-count charge on him over suspicious false and anticipatory declaration of assets. The charges were later increased to 18 as the trial got underway in 2016.
The charges were, however, quashed by the Code of Conduct Tribunal on June 14, 2017, a verdict that irked civic organisations.
The Buhari administration said the ruling had been challenged at the Court of Appeal, but Mr. Saraki maintained his innocence and said he was confident the appeal will also fall apart.