by Joshua Olufemi and Emmanuel Mayah,
Secret assets belonging to the current governor of Niger State, Abubakar Bello, have been uncovered in offshore tax havens, including the notorious British Virgin Islands.
The discoveries were made as PREMIUM TIMES continues to scrutinize the over 11 million Mossack Fonseca documents contained in the sleaze dossier now known worldwide as the Panama Papers.
At least two offshore companies were traced to the governor, one of which was used to acquire a property on Harvey Lodge London.
One of the companies, Best International Holding Limited, was registered in 1999 in the British Virgin Islands. The company was registered on May 26, 1999 with $50,000 as shares capital.
The company, with registration number 314717, has the governor and his son, Shehu Bello, as directors.
Governor Bello himself is the son of Sani Bello , a retired colonel and military governor of Kano State between 1975 and 1978.
Tax authorities the world over view the British Virgin Islands with a certain level of notoriety and suspicion.
Offshore company structures are sometimes marketed to rich businessmen and politically-exposed individuals to avoid or evade tax obligations in their home countries or conceal ill-gotten wealth.
While the two directors of Best International Holding Limited gave their Nigerian address as 17A Wurno Rd, Off Katuna Rd, Kaduna, Nigeria; a Lagos address was used for the registration of a second offshore company.
Another set of Mossack Fonseca documents seen by PREMIUM TIMES showed that Governor Bello is the sole shareholder of a secret offshore entity by the name Eyre Investments Incorporated.
This company, located in Hitchin, Herts, was incorporated on September 3, 2007 and had Ajibola Raphael Oluyede as director with Abubakar Sani Bello as sole shareholder.
Mr. Oluyede, a senior advocate of Nigeria, is one of the lawyers who defended Senate President Bukola Saraki in his recent corruption trial before the Code of Conduct Bureau.
Investigations revealed that for all his offshore dealings, the governor was using the services of Mr. Oluyede, the principal partner at TRLP LAW, as his legal front.
In one of the documents, it is stated that the registers of Best International Holding Limited are kept at D96 Landbridge Ave, Victoria Island Ext, Lagos, Nigeria. An online search of this address leads directly to TRLP Law office.
Yet another Mossack Fonseca document reveals the minutes of a meeting of the board of directors of Eyre Investments Incorporated. The minutes claimed that the meeting was held on September 3, 2007 and that in attendance were Mr. Oluyede and Mr. Bello.
A letter from UK lawyers on behalf of the Niger governor to Mossack Fonseca hinted that business relationship between Mr. Bello and his lawyer, Mr. Oluyede, was not all smooth sailing. The letter came at a time when the governor was having apparent difficulties in selling off a property he had acquired using his offshore company Eyre Investments Incorporation.
The difficulties arose when the front director either refused to cooperate or was nowhere to be found. It took the UK lawyers, the certificate of incorporation and other documents to have the offshore company returned to Governor Bello.
The letter from Shaima Jillood of the firm Charles Russell LLP to Mossack Fonseca, dated July 3, 2007, reads in part:
“I am the property solicitor acting on behalf of Eyre Investments Inc in respect of the sale of a property Flat 18 Harvey Lodge, Admiral Walk Harrow Road, London W9 3TH. In order to exchange contracts with the buyers and sell this property, we need to establish who is authorised to sign the contract and sell this property on behalf of Eyre Investments.”
Mossack Fonseca was at the time administering Eyre Investments Incorporation after it was transferred to it from ILS Fiduciary Limited (British Virgin Island) on June 7, 2000.
The UK lawyers requested from Mossack Fonseca evidence of the list of authorised signatories, directors, certified copy of passport and the shareholder so as to establish who was legally authorised to sign the legal sale documents. The letter further explained that:
“My client, Mr Abubaker S Bello, has advised us that he is the shareholder of this company but has lost the documentation and has only provided me with the Memorandum and Articles of Association & Certificate of Incorporation but no mention of who the directors or shareholders are and who the authorised signatories.”
When contacted on the propriety of a public office holder holding secret offshore accounts, Jibrin Ndace, the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Bello said that before his principal became the governor of Niger State, he had been for years an international businessman of repute doing legitimate businesses across the world.
“The governor was a well-known international businessman just like Donald Trump was before he became the President of America. It is like if Dangote becomes President tomorrow; you would see their footprints everywhere because they were once international businessmen,” he said.
Mr. Ndace insisted that Niger State is benefiting from Governor Bello’s international business exposure given the foreign investors he has attracted to the state. He however did not provide details of the investments the governor has attracted to the state.
“The difference between this governor and others is that he is a professional in politics not a professional businessman,” Mr. Ndace said.
Violation of Nigerian law?
There is no evidence that Governor Bello is no longer involved with the shell companies. There is also no evidence that the governor declared his interests in the offshore entities to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) as required by law.
The governor’s spokesperson was evasive when asked whether his boss included the shell companies (with which he has dealt in properties) in the assets declaration form he filed at the CCB. Mr. Ndace merely insisted that the governor’s imprint as an international businessman cannot be easily erased.
While not all owners or operators of such offshore entities are criminals, participating in the running of private companies while serving as public officials is against Nigerian laws.
Section 6(b) of the Code of Conduct Act says a public office holder shall not, “except where he is not employed on full‐time basis, engage or participate in the management or running of any private business, profession or trade.”
The companies are also believed to own bank accounts. Yet Nigerian public officials owning foreign accounts, either individual or through their corporate interests, is a contravention of the code of conduct for public officials, which prohibits the holding of foreign bank accounts.
The code states: “Any public officer specified in the Second Schedule to this Act or any other persons as the President may, from time to time, by order prescribe, shall not maintain or operate a bank account in any country outside Nigeria.”
This revelation makes Governor Bello the sixth serving Nigerian official who has been shown to own shell companies in offshore tax havens in clear violation of the country’s law.
The others include President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki; former Senate President, David Mark; Senator Ibrahim Gobir (All Progressives Congress, Sokoto East); Senator David Umaru (APC – Niger East); Senator Andy Uba (APC, Anambra South).
The Nigerian government claimed it was investigating the officials as well as other former public officers who popped up in the Panama Papers to have violated Nigerian Nigerians by owning undeclared assets abroad. But the report of the investigation has not been made public and no one has been charged to court.
The former officials the government claimed it is investigating include former Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Abubakar Yar’Adua; former Delta Governor, James Ibori; late former Bayelsa Governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha; and late former Minister of National Planning.
Another former NNPC GMD, Funsho Kupolokun, appears to have acquired his offshore assets after leaving office office in 2007.