INVESTIGATION: Dubai real estate links point fresh footprints to hidden Abacha loot

Fresh footprints showed the Abacha family owning properties in Dubai (Photo by Walid Ahmad from Pexels)
A part of Dubai (Photo by Walid Ahmad from Pexels)

Till date, 20 years after the controversial demise of one of Nigeria’s last military leaders, Sani Abacha, one sore thumb still aching local and international financial crime investigators is the full extent of his legacy of corruption.

In the years since 2002 when the first insight into the depth of corruption during his administration was revealed, Nigerians came to know through out-of-court settlement the Abachas struck with the Nigerian and Swiss governments that the family will return $1.2 billion siphoned out of Nigeria by the late general through a huge criminal network and enterprise. Still, that offered no adequate tally of the famous loot.

While part of the terms of settlement allowed the Abacha family keep about $100 million of the funds, Nigeria’s position was to keep an eye on international investigations around the late dictator. The New York Times reported then, that the Nigerian government persisted in its efforts to track more accounts holding funds that had been siphoned out of the country by the same family.

One of the points of contention in the campaign for the return of what has now been tagged the “Abacha loot,” however, was the status of some $90 million claimed to have been appropriated by Abdulkadir Abacha, a brother to the late military despot, and which the Swiss prosecutors had refused to unfreeze and release to Nigeria.

Now fresh indications have emerged regarding substantial but hitherto concealed property holdings by members of the family in the Dubai real estate market.

Working collaboratively alongside the Cell Norbert Zongo for Investigative Journalism (CENOZO), Finance Uncovered, and Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), PREMIUM TIMES CENTRE FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM has now uncovered fresh vistas based on leaked information on property ownership in Dubai indicating just how much investigators still know of the footprints of wealth connected to the Abacha loot.

Whereas years of investigative probing have revealed that the Abachas were involved in numerous cases of money laundering, looting and other corrupt practices during the regime of the late Head of State, according to Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency, EFCC, the hitherto concealed properties in the UAE is the latest in this seemingly unending looting of Nigeria’s treasury by the infamous Abacha family.

Nigeria had, in 2018, signed several bilateral agreements with the UAE which covers trade, finance and judicial matters. The agreement on judicial matters includes mutual assistance on criminal and commercial matters, which covers the recovery and repatriation of stolen wealth. This agreement means the Nigerian government can immediately move on matters such as the unearthed Abacha loot.

The discovery and subsequent use of the Abacha loot has always drawn comments from the accountability sector of society and this instance is no different. Olarenwaju Suraju, Chairman, HEDA Resource Centre, reacting to this new discovery, urged the Nigerian government to quickly engage the UAE authorities using the bilateral agreement between both countries to freeze the assets and move for prosecution and final forfeiture. He expects that the Nigerian government will pursue return of the assets as fast as other properties were pursued. He went on further to say “government must make moves to ensure forfeiture of assets acquired using proceeds of crime by past and present public office holders.

The Executive Director of the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ), David Ugolor, also emphasised the opportunity that the bilateral agreement between both countries presents in handling this instance of loot discovery. He pointed out that similar commitments exist between Nigeria and countries like the U.S. and UK, recalling the 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit where both countries committed to helping Nigeria recover ill-gotten funds and assets of corrupt Nigerians by sharing information. The GFAR summit in December of 2017 also promised to help developing countries recover their looted assets by providing technical support and information sharing. Mr Ugolor further said that he believes Nigerian anti-corruption agencies have what it takes to go after corrupt individuals to recover assets and to have them prosecuted. He further said “the government should have a politically exposed persons register to help fight against corruption and expose corrupt public office holders and business people”.

Commenting on new revelations of Abacha Loot, Auwal Rafsanjani, Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) expressed disappointment that 20 years after, Nigeria is still unearthing ill-gotten funds carted away by the Abacha regime. He said Nigeria struggles with controlling Illicit Financial Flows and will continue to struggle until there is serious reforms in the existing policies and legal framework to fight illicit financial flows within Nigeria and abroad. The establishment of a beneficial ownership register is important to the fight against IFF, and the absence of such a register gives way for corrupt politicians, and business people to take advantage of the situation by hiding behind fronts/companies to loot ill-gotten funds via real estate, banks, oil companies and others.

Mr Rafsanjani revealed that the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiatives (EITI) almost suspended Nigeria because they failed to accomplish their commitments. The same applies to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) where the Nigerian government had committed to creating a beneficial ownership register but still has not done it. He further said, “We have been having problems in returning stolen assets to the country because the government is mostly making political pronouncements instead of creating policies to curb corruption, hence, making it difficult for the international community to take the Nigerian government serious”. He pointed out that there is no framework to manage repatriation of funds and assets thus making it difficult to assess the assets recovered by anti-corruption agencies like the EFCC, ICPC etc. He concluded his statements emphasizing the significance of political will in creating holistic frameworks to fight IFF which costs the country billions of dollars yearly and the successful repatriation of stolen assets. He also said collaboration with the media and CSOs will be important in winning the fight

Multimillion Naira Abacha Properties Stashed in Dubai

According to the leaked database of property holdings in Dubai, Abdulkadir Abacha, who alongside Mohammed, a son of the late Head of State, had played a significant role in moving much of these illicit funds offshore, has six properties in  Dubai, with a combined estimated value of a little over $3 million.

The properties traced to Abdulkadir Abacha are located in Dubai Downtown, Marina, and Jumeirah Beach Residence. According to the leaked data, Abdulkadir holds five of the six properties in his name, while the final property, located at the Jumeirah Beach Residence, is owned by a Nigerian company that has been traced to the former dictator’s brother.

The company, registered in Nigeria and with RC no 123141, is named Prospectors Marketers International Limited. The company’s resolution document from the Corporate Affairs Commission reveals Abdulkadir Abacha as the highest shareholder in Prospectors Marketers International Limited, with a 90 per cent shareholding and Zainab Abdulkadir, who could be either his wife or daughter, owning the other 10 per cent of the shares.

It also appears that one Kindway Enterprises Ltd is a shareholder of Prospectors Marketers International Limited, and a search for the ownership of this other entity again revealed Abdulkadir Abacha as its highest shareholder, with an 80% shareholding, while the remaining shares are evenly owned by Fatimah Abdulkadir and Zainab Abdulkadir, who also appear to be his relatives.

The table below contains a list of the sizes, numbers, and value of the properties owned by Abdulkadir Abacha. These properties are located in some of the most expensive areas of Dubai. Four properties are around the internationally renowned Burj Khalifa. One property is located at the Dubai Marina, an area where only the very rich moor their yachts. Yet another property is located at the Jumeirah Beach Residence, an area with lots of high-rise buildings.

The documents obtained and analysed by the investigating team suggest that Abdulkadir Abacha sold one of the properties to an individual named Karl Whyte, and it is understood that Abdulkadir owned the other properties between 2014 and 2015.

No Response from Abdulkadir Yet

Several attempts have been made to contact both Abdulkadir and Mr Whyte through the email addresses and phone numbers provided in the leaked documents. The email sent to Abdulkadir Abacha bounced back and his Dubai phone number appears to be disconnected. Efforts made to contact him in Nigeria have also failed. Our partner, Finance Uncovered, was able to contact Mr Whyte and posed questions about the property acquisition process, who he interacted with during the acquisition and which lawyers he used in the transaction. Although Mr Whyte had initially promised to respond to the questions via email, he however did not honour this promise.

Involvement in the Intractable Malabu Oil Scandal

The Abachas are also actively linked to the Malabu Oil scandal, which has been the subject of attention of law enforcement and the justice departments of many countries. In this case, the late military Head of State, in concert with Dan Etete, the then petroleum minister, had granted Malabu Oil and Gas Limited the Oil Prospecting License (OPL) 245, a company which he (through his son, Mohammed Abacha) and Etete had illegal stakes in.

OPL 245 was considered the most lucrative oil block in Africa, with proven reserves having a value in excess of $5 billion from conservative estimates. Apparently, Malabu Oil had been registered and was secretly owned by the cohort, who granted themselves the hugely fecund OPL245 through the Department of Petroleum Resources under the Ministry of Petroleum led by Etete, just about a week after the company was registered in the second quarter of 1998.

The Malabu Oil scandal remains a problem for Nigeria till date because a few years after the death of General Abacha, two international oil companies, Shell and Eni, also became entangled in the intrigues around the ownership of OPL 245, which has knotted into a legal nightmare, with litigations still ongoing across several transnational jurisdictions till present.

Two Resource-rich Countries; Very Different Outcomes

One is forced to draw a comparison between Dubai, a popular destination for many people, including Nigerians and Nigeria. Both are oil-producing countries, although the similarity between both ends there.

The United Arab Emirate’s real estate grandeur is the end product of oil exploration and trade in the Middle East region since the 1970s, particularly as the UAE is currently the 8th largest producer of oil in the world, proceeds from which have been driving the huge developments in the region.

In two decades, the United Arab Emirates has been able to grow its economy swiftly, away from just oil, and is currently one of the leading tourist destinations in the world. Dubai, one of the seven emirates making up the UAE, is now a global hub for tourists, investors, and human traffic transiting to numerous destinations across the world.

While oil revenue is still a great source of the country’s prosperity, oil earnings contributed only about 30 percent of the government’s revenue in 2017; a drastic reduction from the 70 per cent it contributed in the 1970s.

Evolving with its rapid economic growth, the real estate business in UAE holds huge appeal to many from various locations due to its uniqueness, brisk development and  boom, resulting in numerous international construction companies investing in high rise luxurious buildings and villas, which are open to acquisition by foreigners around the world.

Consequent upon this, Nigerians have been investing heavily in property ownership in Dubai as an asset holding venture for business owners. Unfortunately, corrupt public office holders use the Dubai property market as a means of hiding stolen funds meant for the welfare of the generality of the people.

The Director-General of the Abu Dhabi Chamber, Mohamed Helal Al Muhairi observed that Nigerians are the second largest group of property owners in Dubai, after Indians, while also stating that Nigerians spend more than $110 million yearly in visa fees to the UAE. From available information, almost Dh200 million ($52.2 million) was invested in the Dubai property market in the first half of 2012. The First Group’s sales manager, an international construction company, also stated that about $6 billion has been invested in Dubai’s property market in three years, with Nigerians accounting for some 60 per cent of the company’s sales.

Whereas at home in Nigeria, the story is vastly different. A country equally blessed with crude oil with an average daily production of 2 millions barrels, and average annual oil revenue of $30 billion, has failed to convert this into any form of significant development. The Niger Delta region of the country, a once verdant land lush with flora and fauna and a unique ecosystem thriving on fishery and crafts, has now been distorted into rivers flowing with black oil from the spills of exploration activities by both multinationals and illegal oil refinery activities, with its skies burning a relentless orange from the continuous fires of flared gas.

Unfortunately, while Dubai’s city in the desert has countless magnificent skyscrapers built with the proceeds of oil, Nigeria’s similar desert topography has become a battleground for the Boko Haram insurgency, the containment of which has remained a burden for the state’s armed forces in the past decade. The region has become synonymous with sorrow, tears and blood, with women and children, the greatest casualties. The citizenry in this region are killed by terrorist groups laying claims to religious radicalisation or unconscionable bandits.

While one society has adequately harnessed its humongous oil wealth for the greater good of its people, another with a similar trajectory of earnings has merely been a playground of rapacious and avaricious actors, often linked to the state, who have plundered the country’s oil proceeds in orgies of corruption either hidden in offshore havens or utilised in the acquisition of exotic foreign properties.

It remains to be seen whether Abdulkadir Abacha’s impressive UAE property portfolio has a source other than what he acquired, one way or the other, from being a brother to the late General Sani Abacha. The view in many quarters in Nigeria is that except genuine explanations on their sources are offered, the ownership of these properties may well be the Nigerian people.

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