Amid loud talks on transparency and good governance by the former governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, a Premium Times investigation has revealed that the former governor is not transparent as he has made Nigerians believe over time.
The online newspaper in an investigation that is part of the global International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)-led Pandora Papers project, said: “beyond the facade of priggish speeches and appearances, an investigation by PREMIUM TIMES has now shown that Mr Obi is not entirely transparent in his affairs as he likes Nigerians to believe.”
The project saw 600 journalists from 150 news organisations around the world poring through a trove of 11.9 million confidential files, contextualising information, tracking down sources and analysing public records and other documents.
In a two-year collaboration that revealed financial secrets of not less than 35 current and former world leaders, more than 330 public officials in more than 91 countries and territories, the leaked files were retrieved from some offshore services firms around the world that set up shell companies and other offshore entities for clients, many of them influential politicians, businesspersons and criminals, seeking to conceal their financial dealings.
PREMIUM TIMES said it contacted Mr Obi with written questions and had an in-person interview with him weeks ahead of this publication, where the former governor admitted he did not declare these companies and the funds and properties they hold in his asset declaration filings with the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Nigerian government agency that deals with the issues of corruption, conflict of interest, and abuse of office by public servants.
He said he was unaware that the law expected him to declare assets or companies he jointly owns with his family members or anyone else.
The leaked records, according to PREMIUM TIMES, came from 14 offshore services firms from around the world that set up shell companies and other offshore nooks for clients like Mr Obi, who seek to shroud their financial activities, often suspicious, in secrecy.
The online newspaper reports that Mr Obi, who has two children, sometime in 2010, more than four years after he became governor, the politician developed an appetite to set up his first discreet company in the British Virgin Island, which he named after his daughter, Gabriella Investments Limited.
To set up what has now become a convoluted business structure, Mr Obi first approached Acces International, a secrecy enabler in Monaco, France, to help him incorporate an offshore entity in one of the world’s most notorious tax havens noted for providing conduits for wealthy and privileged corrupt political elites to hide stolen cash to avoid the attention of tax authorities.
The report said Mr Obi also paid Acces International to provide nominee directors for the company and explained that nominee directors are residents of tax havens paid to sit on boards of companies to hide the identities of real owners of offshore firms.
So, after accepting a brief from the then governor or his representatives, Acces International officials headed to the British Virgin Island, a notorious tax haven, where it contracted a local registered agent – Aleman Cordero Galindo & Lee Trust (BVI) Limited (Alcogal) — to set up Gabriella Investments Limited for Mr Obi.
PREMIUM TIMES reported that after extensive documentation, Gabriella Investment Limited was born on November 17, 2010, with registration number 1615538. Two figureheads – Antony Janse Van Vuuren and Lance Lawson — were appointed its first directors while ultimate control resided with Mr Obi.
On the same day the company was incorporated, the nominee directors met and issued 50,000 shares of Gabriella Investment in favour of Hill International Holding Corporation, a shell International Business Company operating under the laws of Belize, another tax haven. The director of the company is Mr Van Vuuren, also one of the directors of Gabriella Investment.
The paper said it is unclear what businesses Mr Obi transacted with the entities but in some communications, they were sometimes referred to as investment vehicles. However, Mr Obi told it the offshore entity is the holding company for most of his assets and that the business structure he adapted was to enable him to avoid excessive taxation.
The Memorandum of Incorporation of Gabriella Investment said it was set up to carry on or undertake any business or activity, including trading of any commodities or goods, to do any act or enter into any transactions.
According to PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Obi rearranged his offshore businesses, renaming it on February 10, 2017, to be known as PMGG Investments Limited in what is a combination of the first letters of the first names of Mr Obi’s nuclear family.
They also disclosed that Mr Obi has also now created a trust known as The Gabriella Settlement, an entity also registered in the BVI which by Fidelity Investments definition, is a fiduciary arrangement that allows a third party, or trustee, to hold assets on behalf of a beneficiary or beneficiaries. Experts believe that trusts are traditionally used for minimising taxes even though they can offer other estate plan benefits as well.
In turn, a New Zealander entity, Granite Trust Company Limited is the sole trustee of The Gabriella Settlement. Sam Access International, the Monaco-based secrecy enabler Mr Obi first hired in 2010 to set up his offshore structure, was until August 23, 2019, the sole shareholder of Granite Trust, PREMIUM TIMES reported.
Listing a litany of laws which Mr Obi broke, the investigation reveals that in Nigeria, a person is statutorily obligated to withdraw from engaging in or directing a private business, except if it is farming, upon becoming a public officer, Section Six (6) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act stipulates.
However, records obtained from the UK Companies House show that Mr Obi continued to be a director of Next International (UK) Limited for 14 months after becoming the governor of Anambra State, thereby breaking Nigeria’s law. The politician resigned from the company on May 16, 2008, 14 months after he assumed duties as Anambra governor. He took office on March 17, 2006.
In addition, Nigerian public officers are required to declare “immediately after taking office and thereafter all” their properties, assets, and liabilities and those of his (or her) unmarried children under the age of eighteen years,” Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution stipulates (Section 11, Part of the Fifth Schedule).
The investigation, however, also found that Mr Obi breached this constitutional provision on assets declaration.
The former governor could be charged with failing to declare his offshore holdings and their associated assets and operating foreign accounts while being a public officer.
The Nigerian constitution and the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act forbid a public officer from maintaining or operating a bank account outside Nigeria. However, as a governor, Mr Obi continued to operate and maintain foreign accounts, including with Lloyds TSB.
Reports have it that in June 2017, the federal government launched the Voluntary Assets and Income Disclosure Scheme (VAIDS), an initiative seeking voluntary disclosure of previously undeclared assets and income to pay all outstanding liabilities. The VAIDS offered a nine-month window and incentives that included immunity from prosecution for tax evasion and undeclared assets, which would have benefited people like Mr Obi. However, the former governor of Anambra State failed to utilize the opportunity.