By Lionel Faull, Ted Jeory and Purity Mukami
A senior anti-corruption adviser to Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari today issued a stinging rebuke to Boris Johnson’s claim that Britain is “not remotely a corrupt country” – saying the UK is in fact a major enabler of looted funds from his own country.
Professor Sadiq Isah Radda, who is the executive secretary of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption in Nigeria, told the British Prime Minister that London was actually “the most notorious safe haven for looted funds in the world today”.
He said “actions speak louder than words and talk is cheap” and challenged the PM to deliver a long-promised law that would help stem the flow of dirty money into UK property, as highlighted by the Pandora Papers investigation last month.
Johnson claimed at the COP 26 climate change summit in Glasgow yesterday that Britain was not corrupt as he struggled to fend off questions about sleaze among his own Tory MPs.
The prime minister’s words have created a debate about forms of corruption in the UK and how other countries view Britain.
Speaking to Finance Uncovered, Professor Radda (pictured below) said: “I believe that the UK under Mr Boris can do better by matching words with concrete actions. He should know that our country is unstable due to corruption and the UK is a tangential enabler.”
In 2016, Johnson’s predecessor David Cameron famously stoked a war of words with President Buhari when he labelled Nigeria “fantastically corrupt”, but Professor Radda said that was a case of the “pot calling the kettle black”.
He said his country was suffering “monumental damage” from corruption, adding: “There are no thieves without receivers. Without safe havens for looted funds, Nigeria and Africa will not be this corrupt.
“So, for the West to have a moral voice of calling Nigeria or Africa as corrupt, they must shun looted funds by closing safe havens and returning all looted funds to victim countries. They have a lot to learn from Switzerland.”
The Nigerian presidential adviser drew attention to the failure of Johnson’s government to pass crucial transparency legislation promised by Cameron in 2016 which would unmask the true owners of UK properties bought using secretive offshore companies.
A draft bill that proposed creating a special register containing the names of the ultimate owners was introduced in 2018.
The Registration of Overseas Entities Bill would require the beneficial owner of a property-owning offshore company to be registered with Companies House, the UK’s business registry.
It was hailed by the government as a “major step forward in tackling dirty money and safeguarding the reputation of the UK’s business environment”.
But it has not progressed through parliament and instead Johnson has prioritised other measures, such as the introduction of eight freeports, which experts say could increase the flow of dark money to the United Kingdom
In a blistering attack on the UK, Professor Radda said: “UK law allows the global elite to loot their countries and rush to London. No wonder London swims in other people’s blood and sweat.”
He added: “It confirms our worst fears that those in charge of cleaning the mess are the actual mess.”
Delays to UK legislation come despite the government admitting that the threat of dirty money flowing into UK property was growing.
Last year, it raised the official money laundering threat assessment level for the UK property market from “medium” to “high”. A government risk assessment report explained that the UK was especially attractive because of its high property prices and low transparency requirements.
MP Dame Margaret Hodge, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax, also told Finance Uncovered: “Enough is enough. We must stop being a safe haven for the corrupt to stash their illicit cash. It’s time for action from the Government to finally act on its drafted legislation to reveal the offshore owners of UK property.”
The scathing comments from Hodge and Radda come in the wake of October’s Pandora Papers investigation, which found hundreds of wealthy individuals – many of them with controversial business or political connections – who have secretly bought UK properties worth at least £4-billion through companies based in jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands and Panama.
The investigation centred on a massive data leak from more than a dozen offshore service providers that was obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and shared with selected media organisations.
Finance Uncovered and Nigeria’s Premium Times unearthed UK property details for more than 100 wealthy and influential Nigerians, including politicians currently facing charges including abuse of office, fraud and money-laundering.
Days after the Pandora Papers were published, Tory Business minister Lord Callanan said in answer to a series of questions that his department would introduce the bill “when parliamentary time allows”.
Opposition peers told him they feared the government was trying to “kick things into the long grass”, but Lord Callanan insisted it “remains a priority” and added: “There are a number of different measures that different departments want to put forward and there has to be a weeding-out process.”
Many MPs do not believe there will be legislation for at least another two years.
Asked to clarify when the bill would be introduced, and what was causing the delay, a spokesperson for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy told Finance Uncovered: “It is essential that the register strikes the right balance between improving transparency and minimising burdens on legitimate commercial activity. The register requires primary legislation for it to be established, and the Government will legislate in due course.”
The department said it was considering the changes as part of a wider review and overhaul of Companies House.
Professor Radda said his committee would be calling on President Buhari to initiate high-level discussions with the UK to press for action.
He told Finance Uncovered: “As a country and as a people, corruption has done monumental damage to us and we have to bring a stop to it. Safe havens, such as London, as well as their governments, have to support and help Nigeria. The muted response by British politicians suggests complicity.”
He added: “The practice under UK law where anyone buying a house or apartment can hide their identity from public records that are submitted to the Land Registry if they purchase the property through a company registered in an offshore secrecy haven is very disappointing, disturbing and contradictory.”
Radda added that the investigative journalists involved in the Pandora Papers were “a blessing to the world” and that his committee was “eternally grateful” for their efforts.
Main photo: Jonne Roriz/Bloomberg via Getty Images
* This story was updated on 11 November 2021 to reflect Professor Radda’s role as executive secretary of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption.