A collaboration of more than 600 journalists from 150 media outlets in 117 countries has produced a series of indicting investigative reports detailing how hundreds of wealthy elites worldwide engage in tax evasion, using tax and secrecy havens to clandestinely acquire properties and assets unknown to the regulatory authorities in their respective countries.
The investigative reports put together by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed the underhand dealings of over 330 politicians and 130 Forbes billionaires, celebrities, fraudsters, drug dealers, royal family members and leaders of religious groups around the world; detailing how these wealthy individuals incorporate shell companies and other legal entities in low tax jurisdictions to evade taxes, clean up dirty drug money, hide funds looted from public coffers through corrupt practices, and make other legal investments and asset purchases.
Some of the biggest names listed in the report according to Bloomberg include King Abdullah II, the King of Jordan, who is said to have acquired 14 luxury homes worth $106 million through the services of an English accountant in Switzerland and lawyers in the British Virgin Islands; Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, who is said to have moved $22 million through offshore companies to secretly acquire a lavish estate on the French Riviera in 2009; the Crown Estate of Queen Elizabeth II said to have acquired a $91 million property in the UK from Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family; Members of Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan’s inner circle, who are said to discreetly own an array of companies and trusts running into millions of dollars; and former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair and his wife, who reportedly saved about $422,000 in taxes by using an offshore company to purchase an almost $9 million office in London’s Marylebone area.
Peter Obi accused of concealing his offshore businesses
An investigative report by Premium Times has also named a former governor of Anambra State and Vice-Presidential candidate at Nigeria’s 2019 general elections, Mr Peter Obi, as one of the Nigerians listed in the damning ICIJ report.
According to Premium Times, Mr Obi secretly set up and operated businesses abroad in tax and secrecy havens; and breached Nigerian laws while he was a serving governor by failing to declare these assets with the Code of Conduct Bureau, Nigeria’s anti-corruption watchdog set up to checkmate the abuse of office by public servants.
“The former governor admitted that 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 report stated, referring to comments obtained from written and oral interviews with Mr Obi.
The report goes on to detail how Mr Obi set up his first offshore company, Gabriella Investments Limited (named after his daughter who bears a similar name), 4 years into his time as governor of Anambra state.
The creation of the company, which was domiciled in the British Virgin Island (named as “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”) was facilitated by Acces International, a Monaco based organization known for facilitating such covert operations.
Acces is said to have been paid to provide figurehead directors to sit on the board of Gabriella Investments Limited in order to conceal its true ownership structure. Another company operating in the British Virgin Island, Aleman Cordero Galindo & Lee Trust (BVI) Limited (Alcogal), a Panamanian law firm, was contracted as the local agent to set up the company for Mr Obi.
“The 36-year old Alcogal is a Panamanian law firm that went on to open overseas subsidiaries offering company formation and registered agent services in BVI, Seychelles, Belize, and Bahamas, and the preparation of corporate documentation in relation to the companies formed. It also provides trust services through its subsidiary trust companies in Panama, BVI, and Belize.
“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,” the report disclosed.
“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,” it further stated.
Premium Times’ investigation was, however, unable to uncover the exact nature of businesses transacted by the overseas companies purportedly owned by Mr Obi, although they stated that “Mr Obi told PREMIUM TIMES 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 report claims that Mr Obi has now restructured the company and renamed it to PMGG Investments Limited, also going ahead to create a trust known as The Gabriella Settlement, an entity registered in the British Virgin Island. The trust is the sole shareholder of PMGG Investments.
In an interesting twist, a New Zealander entity, Granite Trust Company Limited is said to be the sole trustee of The Gabriella Settlement while Access International was until August 23, 2019, the sole shareholder of Granite Trust.
A septuagenarian South African, Antony Janse Van Vuuren, based in Monaco, France, is reported to be the face of the ex-governor’s companies and the assets they hold. Mr Van Vuuren has been a partner and director at Monaco-based Acces International for 25 years.
Peter Obi has also been linked to two other oversee companies – Beauchamp Investments Limited in Barbados, incorporated on August 20, 1991, with registration number 7305, and Next International (UK) Limited incorporated on May 16, 1996, in London. While the ex-governor has outrightly denied knowledge of the former, himself and his wife, Margaret were listed as directors of Next International (Nigeria) Limited where his wife, allotted 999 ordinary shares and Mr Obi allotted one ordinary share, were listed as shareholders.
The Law and Peter Obi’s foreign assets
Based on the report from Premium Times’ investigation, Mr Peter Obi played on the wrong side of the law by:
- Staying on as a Director of Next International (UK) Limited for 14 months after becoming the governor of Anambra State; whereas Section Six (6) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act stipulates that 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.
- Failing to declare his foreign assets particularly those hidden in tax havens and covertly run by individual and corporate fronts, contrary to Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution (Section 11, Part of the Fifth Schedule) which explicitly requires Nigerian public officers to declare immediately after taking office and thereafter, all their properties, assets, and liabilities and those of their unmarried children under the age of eighteen years. To this, Mr Obi has asserted that the companies are jointly owned with members of his family and thus, he is under no obligation to declare such assets; a claim disputed by Premium Times.
- Operating foreign bank accounts while being a public officer contrary to the Nigerian constitution and the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act which forbids a public officer from maintaining or operating a bank account outside Nigeria.
The missed opportunity
Recall that in June 2017 and for nine months straight, the federal government held the Voluntary Assets and Income Disclosure Scheme (VAIDS) with the aim of providing individuals and corporate organisations a window to voluntarily disclose previously undeclared assets and income with a view to paying all outstanding liabilities.
The government stated at the time that individuals and businesses who failed to take advantage of the VAIDS would be subject to criminal prosecution as the scheme’s key objective was to curb illicit financial flows and tax evasion, which is common with offshore holdings that shift taxes from where they are earned to havens where little or no taxes are paid.
Mr Obi is reported to have failed to take advantage of this scheme, putting him on the path of possible criminal prosecution by the government.