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Corruption: Landmark cases flounder as crime team is purged

Financial Times

By Michael Peel

Published: July 20 2009 22:31 | Last updated: July 20 2009 22:31

High above the shisha joints and travel agents of west London’s Edgware Road, the former rooftop penthouse of a disgraced governor of a Nigerian oil state is up for sale.

The £3.5m ($5.7m) flat in the Water Gardens complex is on the market after being seized by the English courts from DSP Alamieyeseigha and given back to the country whose coffers he allegedly looted.

The swanky apartment is a monument to an all-too-brief flowering of co-operation between corruption investigators in London and Abuja.

Now, many observers are worried that even the modest progress made in the fight against the official looting of Nigeria’s oil wealth is being reversed by the government of President Umaru Yar’Adua.

Landmark transnational cases against former governors and their alleged accomplices are floundering after a purge of top staff at Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which – though flawed – was widely seen as the first agency in history to take tackling corruption seriously.

Raufu Mustapha, an academic in the Department for International Development at Oxford University, told a British parliamentary committee last month that Nigeria’s limited – and sometimes politicised – efforts at targeting high-profile politicians had stalled since Mr Yar’Adua came to power.

“What has happened since 2007 is that all those people have been let free. All the governors are going about doing their own things unchallenged: all the ministers are doing the same,” he said.

The mostly abortive cases launched against senior politicians over the past few years have highlighted how Nigerian official corruption still thrives with the complicity of the world’s financial institutions and companies that are prepared to pay bribes.

In London alone, three Nigerian state governors have come under investigation since the launch of the EFCC a little more than five years ago led to landmark information-sharing between London and Abuja. The first, Joshua Dariye, then governor of the central state of Plateau, was arrested at a London hotel in 2004 on suspicion of money laundering. He skipped bail and fled to Nigeria, although the English High Court has since ordered him and his associates to pay more than £4m of suspected stolen money back to Abuja.

The Alamieyeseigha case the following year was perhaps the high point in terms of results. He was arrested and charged with money laundering in September 2005, when a raid on his Water Gardens flat uncovered £915,000 in sterling, euros and dollars. He, too, skipped bail, although he has denied allegations that he did so dressed as a woman. Mr Alamieyeseigha was impeached as governor of his state in 2006 and later received a two-year jail sentence for making false asset declarations and allowing money-laundering by his companies.

The case laid bare both the extent of Mr Alamieyeseigha’s suspected corruption and its links with Britain. Abuja alleged that during his six-and-a-half years in office, he racked up assets abroad of more than $20m. About $11.5m of this was sunk in four properties in London and a Cape Town harbour penthouse. Much of the rest was allegedly scattered in bank accounts controlled by him and his wife, at institutions including Barclays, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS.

The unprecedented amity between investigators in London and Abuja grew chillier after news surfaced late in 2007 of the joint probe into James Ibori, the powerful former governor of Delta State. A Scotland Yard affidavit said the police had reasonable cause to believe Mr Ibori bled money from his oil-rich state, laundered cash through leading British banks and bought assets including a $20m jet, houses in London and Dorset, and a €406,000 ($575,066) armour-plated Mercedes-Benz from a Mayfair dealership.

For its part, the EFCC said it was probing payments made by the oil companies Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell to MER Engineering, a company owned by Mr Ibori, purportedly for hiring houseboats to oil industry workers. Chevron said it believed it had complied with anti-corruption laws, while Shell said MER was on its list of contractors but declined to say what work the company had done.

Mr Ibori – who has denied all wrongdoing – was arrested in Nigeria in late 2007, although little has been heard of the investigation since then. A clutch of his alleged associates are facing trial in Britain later this year.

In the meantime, Nuhu Ribadu, EFCC chairman, and other staff have been forced out of the agency. Mr Ribadu, once a leading advocate of Nigeria’s fight against corruption, has become a trenchant critic.

More light has been shone on the detail of Nigeria-related international corruption in the past few years than at any time since the epic pursuit of the billions of dollars allegedly looted by the former military dictator Gen Sani Abacha and his associates.

But – just like the Abacha case – the latest war on graft is remarkable for how few officials and companies have been held to account.

Unless this changes, critics say governments in both Nigeria and the rich nations – where officials are suspected of salting their loot – will struggle to convince outsiders they are serious about stemming the long-running theft of the country’s oil riches.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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