Inside the global hunt for Nigeria’s missing oil billions

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With his luxury yacht, Swiss chateau and network of celebrity friends, businessman Kola Aluko is a regular face in the gossip columns of newspapers in his native Nigeria.

The boss of a multi-billion oil empire by his early 40s, he plays as hard as he works, socialising with the likes of Naomi Campbell and Leonardo DiCaprio, and renting out his £35m luxury yacht to stars like Beyonce and Jay-Z.

Now, though, the man once named by Forbes Africa as one of the continent’s top entrepreneurs is in the spotlight for a different reason, as Nigeria investigates allegations that up to $20bn has gone missing from state oil revenues.

A joint inquiry with Britain’s National Crime Agency is examining claims of embezzlement on a huge scale under the rule of President Goodluck Jonathan, with the trail leading all over the world, including Britain.

The Telegraph has now learned that the Crown Prosecution Service has requested the help of the Swiss authorities in inquiries relating to Mr Aluko, 46, who also runs two philanthropic foundations, one with the British Savile Row Tailor Oswald Boateng.

Dozens of people have already been questioned in connection with the probe, including Nigeria’s former oil minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, who was interviewed along with four other people after a raid in London when £27,000 in cash was seized from her.

Beyonce on board the Galactica Star yacht
Beyonce on board the Galactica Star yacht CREDIT: BEYONCE/INSTAGRAM

Both Mr Aluko and Mrs Alison-Madueke deny any impropriety, and there is no suggestion that he is anything more than a person of interest to the ongoing investigation.

Yet such is the scale of the inquiry that it is not just the reputations of members of the Nigerian elite that are at stake.

It is also a key test of the ability of both African and Western governments to fight public graft – firstly in stopping money being looted, and secondly in stopping it being stashed in safe havens abroad.

High life - the Galactica Star yacht
High life – the Galactica Star yacht CREDIT: AFP

“Children in Nigeria die because of lack of health care and have no prospects because of lack of education, and part of that is because of corruption,” said Salaudeen Hashim, of Nigeria’s Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, an anti-corruption group.

“It’s been a problem since independence in the 1960s, but nothing is done about it – instead money continues to be spirited out to places like England.”

The issue took centre stage on Thursday, when David Cameron convened the first-ever global anti-corruption summit in London, where Mr Buhari was among the world leaders present.

Having declared last year that there was “no place for dirty money in Britain”, Mr Cameron is now under pressure to follow words with action, especially after the Panama Papers showed the role played by tax havens in British overseas territories.

In Mr Buhari, it is fair to say that he may have an ally – albeit one whose approach is rather more “gloves off” than his own.

Allies in the fight? Muhammadu Buhari and David Cameron at the global anti-corruption seminar in London
Allies in the fight? Muhammadu Buhari and David Cameron at the global anti-corruption seminar in London CREDIT: EPA

Elected last year on a pledge to give Nigeria tougher, steadier rule, he does not try to be Mr Nice Guy. As a former military ruler in the 1980s, he was famous for his “war on indiscipline”, during which members of the public would be whipped if they did not form orderly queues bus stops.

But he also has a reputation – all too rare among Nigerian leaders – for personal probity. And as a number of public servants learned the hard way during his previous time in office, he can be a very dangerous man to steal from.

In 1984, a former finance minister suspected of embezzlement, Umaru Dikko, was kidnapped off the streets of London by agents of Mr Buhari’s government, who planned to fly him home.

The plot was only thwarted when a British customs officer at Stansted Airport noticed opened a crate marked “diplomatic baggage” that was about to be loaded into a waiting Nigerian airliner, where they found Mr Dikko bound, gagged and drugged.

The crate marked "diplomatic baggage" in which Umaru Dikko was found bound and drugged
The crate marked “diplomatic baggage” in which Umaru Dikko was found bound and drugged CREDIT: PAUL ARMIGER

30 years on, Mr Buhari’s new government has pledged to play rather more by the rule book – especially when it comes to co-operating with Britain, which was so angered by the “Dikko affair” that it broke off diplomatic relations with Nigeria for two years.

But even with the help of Britain’s National Crime Agency, there are doubts over whether Nigeria’s government has the capacity to tackle it, raising the political stakes even more.

“The leadership has nailed his colours to the mast and said ‘yes, I am going to fight corruption”,” said Ben Oguntala, of Security in Africa, a London-based anti-corruption consultancy.  “So if he fails, it will effectively open up the gates to uninhibited corruption.”

The inquiry into missing oil revenues began after Lamido Sanusi, a former governor of Nigeria’s central bank, claimed that up to $20bn in oil revenues had gone missing from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, the state oil firm, during 2012.

Oil revenues are Nigeria’s key asset, yet over the last 40 years, very little of it has reached its 170m population, who remain among the poorest on the planet.

Mr Sanusi did not name names, but as the oil minister between 2010 and 2015, Mrs Alison-Madueke found the finger of suspicion pointed at her.

Questions were also raised about a $7bn deal the state oil firm had signed with Mr Aluko’s firm Atlantic Energy, which critics said was effectively transferring state assets into private hands.

Mr Sanusi was later sacked by Mr Jonathan, who accused him of mismanaging the central bank’s budget, while a Senate committee later found his account lacked substance.

But Mr Buhari has taken a rather different view, ordering an inquiry by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

It is the equivalent of Britain’s Serious Fraud Office – save for the fact that in Nigeria, where fraud has close links to organised crime, the head of the EFCC routinely has armed guards.

Ms Alison-Madueke, 54, who was Nigeria’s first female oil minister, was questioned in October during a National Crime Agency investigation into suspected bribery and money laundering offences.

Nigeria's oil minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, at an OPEC meeting in 2012
Nigeria’s oil minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, at an OPEC meeting in 2012 CREDIT: AFP

A hearing is also ongoing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court over whether police can retain £27,000 that was taken from her on suspicion that it may have been unlawfully obtained.

She has described the allegations against her as “lies”, and also dismissed as “laughable” reports that she spent £12m on an apartment in Hyde Park.

Mr Aluko, by contrast, has never made any secret of his life as an international jet setter.

As well as villas in Switzerland and Beverley Hills, he is also a passionate motor racer and used to sit on the advisory board of a firm that rented out private jets.

Newspapers have claimed sightings of him in Paris with the supermodel Naomi Campbell, and in 2013 he was reported to have spent more than $1m on champagne at Leonardo DiCaprio’s 39th birthday party.

He was also one of the co-founders of Made in Africa, a foundation set up in London with the Savile Row tailor Ozwald Boateng to promote infrastructure projects in Africa, and has his own philanthropic venture, the Kola Aluko Foundation, that operates from offices in London’s Mayfair.

The aim, according to its website, is “Engaging and nurturing the next generation of young African leaders”.

Tailored for success.: Ozwald Boateng, left, and Kola Aluko at a banking award ceremony in Morocco in 2013
Tailored for success.: Ozwald Boateng, left, and Kola Aluko at a banking award ceremony in Morocco in 2013 CREDIT: DIDIER BAVEREL

Mr Aluko has not been arrested, and did not respond to approaches from The Telegraph to clarify whether he was being treated as a suspect in the inquiry or merely a witness.

Late last year, he apparently confirmed that he was under investigation, telling a newspaper: “I’m willing to co-operate with anybody. I have nothing to hide.”

He also reportedly admitted paying the rent on a flat in St John’s Wood for Mrs Alison-Madueke’s mother, but described it as simply a favour to a friend.

The National Crime Agency declined to comment on the progress of its inquiries, but a senior Nigerian government source told The Telegraph that Mr Aluko was “under investigation for allegedly fronting for the former oil Minister, Diezani.”

A Swiss government spokesman added: “At the end of September 2015 the Federal Office of Justice (FOJ) received a request for legal assistance of the Crown Prosecution Service (in Britain) concerning Kola Aluko. The FOJ has forwarded the request to the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) for execution.”

Yet while the missing oil money inquiry is Nigeria’s highest-profile corruption case, it may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Mr Buhari believes that up to $150 billion may have been stolen from the state over the previous decade, and according to Mr Oguntala, for every minister or senior figure detained, there is “usually at least 30 to 40 people who are benefiting from that corruption”.

Anti-corruption campaigners say theft of state assets robs Nigeria's children of their future 
Anti-corruption campaigners say theft of state assets Nigeria’s children of their future CREDIT: PAUL GROVER

Earlier this week, a trial in Nigeria heard evidence from British detectives that Joshua Dariye, a former governor of Plateau State, put three of his children through Dean Close, an elite public school in Cheltenham after embezzling more than £3m from state ecological funds.

When they later searched his hotel room in London, they found £43,000 in cash, along with a Mont Blanc pen worth £7,000 and Louis Vuitton branded shoes worth £700 a pair. Mr Dariye denies the charges against him.

“Whenever a Nigerian politician flies abroad, there is a very high chance there will be corrupt deals going on,” Mr Oguntala added, saying that he knew of many such incidents that never reached the courts.

In one example, a Nigerian governor recently came to London offering free land for a solar development in return for a $10m kickback.

In another, a Nigerian woman who had previously worked in a £35,000 job with the UK Border Agency suddenly became rich after returning home and becoming a senator. “She bought five homes for £250,000 each in Britain within the span of three years,” Mr Oguntala said.

He added that despite Britain’s efforts to help Nigeria prosecute such cases, those brought before the British courts frequently foundered because of shortcomings in the Nigerian end of the investigation.

That was allowing notorious embezzlers like James Ibori, another ex-governor jailed in Britain for 13 years in 2012, to challenge assets hearings against them.

Police believed that Ibori took up to £150m – some of which was spent on properties in Hampstead and St John’s Wood – but are only attempting to regain around a tenth of that.

“Ibori is contesting the confiscation hearing and challenging the integrity of the evidence brought by the Nigerian government, and under the scrutiny of the UK courts it will probably be found wanting,” Mr Oguntala said.

Jailed in Britain - former Nigerian governor James Ibori
Jailed in Britain – former Nigerian governor James Ibori CREDIT: AP

“I suspect this will probably happen with the inquiry into Alison-Madueke as well. The Nigerian government can’t expect the UK to do its heavy lifting for it when it comes to these cases.”

Meanwhile, Mr Buhari continues with his anti-corruption drive – which, given that state revenues in Nigeria are now plunging with the drop in global oil prices – is much a matter of pragmatism as well as principle.

He has also been trimming his fellow politicians’ lavish perks, clamping down on first class air tickets and ending their state-funded “entourages” – the crowds of hangers-on who made some Nigerian statesmen look more like US rappers on tour.

The idea is that if the great and good – or not-so-good – are seen to be clean up their act, then so too will lesser public servants like police officers, whose demands for bribes are a constant source of misery for the ordinary Nigerian in the street.

Yet with so many vested interests at stake, the more Mr Buhari pushes, the more he may find that his clean-up – and his presidency – loses political support.

“I think Buhari is making progress,” said Mr Hashem. “But when you fight corruption in a place like Nigeria, corruption will fight back at you.”


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