The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, had stakes in at least three companies in offshore tax havens, and, by his own admission, illegally remained connected to at least one of them until July 2017, while also holding on to his top CBN job, an investigation by PREMIUM TIMES and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has shown.
Mr. Emefiele partly owned Vitesse Asset Management SA, incorporated in Switzerland in 2007; Oviation Asset Management Limited, a Bermuda company established in 2009; and Oviation Limited, an Isle of Man company incorporated in 2012, a review of data obtained by German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung, and ICIJ from two offshore secrecy providers (Appleby and Asiaciti Trust) and 19 secrecy jurisdictions showed.
The leaked 1.4 terabyte data, now infamously dubbed Paradise Papers, contains 13.4 million records and is no doubt one of the biggest leaks in history.
For 12 months, more than 380 journalists from 96 media organizations in 67 countries pored over the gigantic data, which cover a period of nearly 70 years, from 1950 to 2016. PREMIUM TIMES is the only Nigerian media organization involved in the investigation.
More than 120 politicians and country leaders, in nearly 50 countries, as well as hundreds of business people across the world, were identified in the record as users of offshore entities.
The data shows that the CBN governor jointly owned the identified shell companies with Zenith Bank Chairman, Jim Ovia, who was his (Mr. Emefiele’s) boss at Zenith and with whom he appears to maintain close business ties.
Mr. Emefiele worked as deputy to Mr. Ovia when the later served as managing director at Zenith. He was promoted managing director of that bank on August 1, 2010 when Mr. Ovia moved up as chairman. Mr. Emefiele became CBN governor on June 3, 2014.
Documents show that the CBN governor and Mr. Ovia each held 50,000 bearer shares in Vitesse Asset Management, which in turn owns 100 percent of the shares in Oviation Limited.
Mr. Emefiele held 49 percent of the shares in Oviation Asset Management Limited while his ally, Mr. Ovia, owned the majority 51 percent stake.
Records indicate the shell companies were simply formed to trade in luxury jets and move funds around in manners that suggested tax avoidance schemes.
The shelf companies have no offices of fixed address, staff, computers or even telephone lines in the countries they are based. They were seen either shuffling assets among themselves or loaning millions of dollars to each other in a cyclical manner.
Although the use of shell companies is not illegal and there are individuals and firms who incorporate them for purely legitimate purposes; yet, many who operate them do so to avoid or evade tax, hide Ponzi schemes, launder funds, run predatory lending scams, and myriad illicit finance.
For instance, in early 2013, Mr. Emefiele’s Oviation Limited opened a bank account with UBS in London. Shortly afterward, that account was used to receive the proceeds of the sale of an $11.5million Challenger 300 private jet which had previously been owned by another company belonging to the two bankers – Oviation Asset Management Limited.
Oviation Asset Management Limited had two years earlier, in July 2011, bought the same jet for $12,755,000 from Churchill Finances Twenty Six Limited/Ovlas SA, another offshore company owned by Sayyu Dantata, the founder of MRS Oil Nigeria Plc. But when, two years later, Oviation Asset sold the jet to a sister company, owned by the same shareholders (Oviation Limited), it claimed a loss of about $1.3million.
One of those who helped facilitate the 2011 purchase deal, Daniel Cowdy of London-based law firm, Thomas Eggar LLP, claimed in a March 17, 2011 email to Appleby that the sale would not involve the payment of cash.
“This is a straightforward equity purchase with no funds being borrowed and will therefore more than likely be accounted for by way of a shareholder loan,” Mr. Cowdy said in his email.
Yet, on July 1, 2011, Mr. Dantata’s Churchill Finances/Ovlas sent Oviation Asset Management an invoice demanding payment of $12,755,000 within 14 days, in what experts believe deepened suspicion about the artificiality of the transaction.
In April 2014, a curious, $9.4 million transfer was made by Oviation Asset Management Limited to an account in the name of Zenith Bank Plc.
Responding to an inquiry by the Guardian UK on behalf of PREMIUM TIMES and other ICIJ partners, Mr. Emefiele said the transfer related to the proceeds of the sale of the Challenger 300 aircraft.
He said Zenith Bank received the funds on behalf of Mr. Ovia through its account in Citibank and that the money was ultimately passed to the Zenith Bank chairman. It remains unclear why the funds were not passed directly to Mr. Ovia especially because Zenith Bank does not own the company that sold the jet.
Also in January 2013, Oviation Limited acquired a $33million Gulfstream 450 jet using a loan from Vitesse Asset Management SA – another company owned by the two men.
On 14 September 2015, Oviation Asset Management Limited transferred about $3.9million to UBS AG Account 54648101 in London claiming to be repaying a loan it took from Oviation Limited.
That was not all. In November 2015, another of their companies, Oviation Asset Management Limited, also acquired a $51million G550 jet, with registration number M-MNDG, and imported it into the Isle of Man where Oviation Limited is domiciled. Oviation Limited claims it continues to lease this aircraft; the island’s aircraft registry shows.
Violating Nigerian laws
According to documents seen by PREMIUM TIMES, Mr. Emefiele, in clear violation of Nigerian law, remained director of Oviation Asset Management Limited until July 2017, more than two years after he assumed duties as CBN governor.
There is also no evidence that the central banker stepped down from Oviation Limited and Vitesse Asset Management SA, although he claimed he did so.
Yet Mr. Emefiele did not disclose his interests in these companies and their associated foreign bank accounts in the asset declaration form he submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau prior to taking office.
Under Nigerian laws, public office holders must declare their assets while taking and leaving their positions, although those records are never made public.
Section 6(b) of the Code of Conduct and Tribunal Act says: “A public officer 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; but nothing in this paragraph shall prevent a public officer from engaging in farming or participating in the management or running of any farm.
Section 7 of the law clearly prohibits officials such as the CBN governor from operating foreign accounts. The section says: “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.”
That law also forbids public officials from putting themselves in a position where their personal interests conflict with their duties and responsibilities.
Yet Mr. Emefiele continued to maintain business and financial ties with Mr. Ovia, the chairman of one of the banks the CBN regulates, in what is clearly a conflict of interest.
Officials at the Code of Conduct Bureau told PREMIUM TIMES Mr. Emefiele’s directorship of OAML for years after he took public office is clearly a breach of Nigeria’s Code of Conduct law which forbids public officials from running private companies and foreign accounts while in office.
They argued that his claim that he did not know that relevant paperwork were not completed in his case might not be enough shield from prosecution.
Mr. Emefiele reacts
In his response to an enquiry sent to him by The Guardian UK on behalf of PREMIUM TIMES and other ICIJ partners, Mr. Emefiele claimed he took steps to resign his directorship of Oviation Asset Management Limited (OAML) and transfer his shares in the other companies to Zenith Bank before assuming duties as CBN governor in June 2014.
“Before our client departed from the Bank on 31 May 2014, he signed and left in the custody of the Bank all of the necessary paperwork so as to enable the Bank to transfer his minority shareholding in OAML ,” Mr. Emefiele said in a 12 October letter by his London-based lawyers, New Media Law LLP.
“Our client now understands that due to an administrative oversight the actual transfer did not take place until sometime after his appointment. We have seen a copy of the members register of OAML obtained in July 2017 which confirms that the share transfer has been completed.”
It is unclear why the CBN governor would ask Zenith to help him transfer his shareholdings when the bank does not own the companies and has no stake in them, according to documents seeing by this newspaper.
But even as at July 2017 when Mr. Emefiele claimed his exit from the firms took effect, PREMIUM TIMES and its partners had already obtained the Appleby data and had begun reviewing his involvement with the shell companies.
It remained unclear whether he decided to hurriedly step down to pre-empt the publication of our findings after becoming aware of our investigation.