A month after the public learnt that Senate President Bukola Saraki owned undeclared offshore assets in tax havens — in violation of Nigeria’s code of conduct law— the top lawmaker dispatched his foreign lawyers to Panama to ‘review’ company documents at the headquarters of Mossack Fonseca.
On April 4, 2016, PREMIUM TIMES published details of the offshore assets Mr Saraki and his wife, Toyin, concealed in offshore tax heavens as part of the Panama Papers collaborative investigation.
The revelations coincided with the false assets declaration trial of the senator at the Code of Conduct Bureau in Abuja, but the charges were largely about his local assets and some foreign bank accounts because authorities had not uncovered his offshore shell companies.
The Senate President’s lawyers in the United Kingdom dismissed the allegations altogether, saying his offshore firms were legal while his false assets charges were baseless and politically-motivated.
Mr Saraki also claimed the assets belonged to his wife’s family and that he had no personal connection with them.
Yet, a month after the story was published on April 4, 2016, Mr Saraki’s London-based lawyers touched down in Panama to examine files of his companies at the headquarters of Mossack Fonseca, one of world’s largest offshore providers, according to internal e-mails recently seen by PREMIUM TIMES and its ICIJ partners.
Signature Litigation, an exclusive commercial litigation firm based in London, sent Kate Vtorygina to Panama to ‘review’ company documents of Sandon Developments Limited, registered by Toyin Saraki.
Mrs Saraki registered Sandon Limited in Seychelles in January 2011, while her husband served as governor of Kwara State. Recently, also, Seychelles authorities have commenced criminal investigation of the couple, with detectives there focusing on the possibilities that Mr Saraki owned all the assets but used his wife as front.
Signature Litigation told Mossack Fonseca in an April 3, 2016 exchange that the Sarakis wanted to “make sure” that company files (i.e. due diligence, corporate documents, agreements, contracts, etc.) were properly integrated into “company files of Mossack Fonseca.”
The measure was ostensibly taken in order to be able to properly counter further publications of assets linked to the Sarakis which they thought were imminent at the time.
Their fear was that more damaging documents on the assets might be published, and that the trip to Mossack Fonseca’s headquarters was necessary to determine what other incriminating details were in the files regarding the hidden assets.
It is unclear if Ms Vtorygina made changes to the files of assets owned by the Sarakis at Mossack Fonseca, closed down operations earlier this year, ultimately consumed by the Panama Papers leak.
But the development showed the Sarakis set in motion strategies to contain damages done to the family by a scandal that could draw charges for both false assets declaration and tax evasion.
Signature Litigation also tried to access documents of other companies linked to the Sarakis in possession of Mossack Fonseca, but they were denied access because some of them, like Landfield International Limited, had been previously divested.
Mr. Saraki’s office declined comments about the ongoing probe in Seychelles. There was also no reply to an enquiry sent to his office regarding the Panama trip by his lawyers despite month-long requests sent through multiple platforms to his media adviser, Yusuph Olaniyonu.
At home, Mr Saraki has been under investigation over a flurry of criminal cases which ranged from false assets filings to alleged murder.
But authorities have not been able to successfully prosecute him on any of the charges.
The false assets declaration and money laundering allegations raised by the Code of Conduct Bureau and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, respectively, have not been concluded several years later.
While the money laundering and murder charges are still being investigated, as Mr Saraki strongly denied any links to either and urged Nigerians to see them as politically-motivated,the Code of Conduct Tribunal already found the top lawmaker not guilty on all the 18 counts of false assets filings brought against him by the Nigerian government.
The government challenged the ruling at the Court of Appeal, which affirmed the conclusion of the tribunal on all but three counts in a December 12 ruling. But Mr Saraki swiftly appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which is now scheduled to deliver its judgment on July 6.
‘Always A Step Ahead’
The setbacks suffered by law enforcement agencies in Mr Saraki’s case is not because he was lucky, says anti-corruption campaigner, Lanre Suraj.
“He is always a step ahead of investigators,” Mr Suraj told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Saturday night. “Go and check his records from his involvement in the defunct Société Générale Bank and his investigation by the Serious Fraud Unit some years back, you will see a pattern.”
Mr Suraj says it is possible that Mr Saraki was able to expunge “highly incriminating documents” from Mossack Fonseca files, and that that would make it even more difficult and time-consuming to nail him.
The activist says the Nigerian security agencies might not necessarily be lazy in handling cases involving the Sarakis, but that they have a lot to do in order for their past efforts to pay off.
“If they want to achieve success from their past labour on Bukola and Toyin Saraki, then they will have to labour more,” Mr Suraj said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been updated with comments from Mr. Saraki’s lawyers – Signature Litigation. We also corrected the erroneous claim that the lawyers visited Panama a day after the Panama Papers revelation. It was actually a month later.