Pandora Papers: The secret London properties of Nigeria’s elite

A Finance Uncovered graphic (below) reveals a wave of cash flooding into London property from elite Nigerian politicians and business figures using offshore secrecy vehicles.

The interactive visualisation, produced using data leaked in the Pandora Papers and other similar investigations, offers a further indication that there was a mushrooming of UK property purchases by Nigerian-owned offshore companies.

In the last three decades at least 233 houses and apartments were bought by 166 such companies with a combined worth today of £350 million.

Behind these companies were 137 wealthy and influential Nigerians, according to an investigation by Finance Uncovered and Premium Times.

The bulk of purchases happened between 2010 and 2015 when Goodluck Jonathan was president of Nigeria. Jonathan’s government has been accused of allowing corruption to run rampant. He has always strongly defended his record in office and denied any wrongdoing.

Zoom in and hover on the graphic for details

The Pandora Papers is a massive leak from firms that specialise in setting up offshore companies in territories such as the British Virgin Islands and Panama. The leaked documents have allowed journalists from all over the world to lift the corporate veil and reveal the companies’ true owners. The project was organised and led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

It is not against the law to secretly buy British properties using anonymous offshore companies. Finance Uncovered has seen no evidence in the Pandora Papers that money used to buy houses or apartments in the UK represents the proceeds of corruption or other criminality.

Indeed, many specialist advisers have routinely recommended clients invest in this manner to legally avoid tax.

Journalists from the BBC, The Guardian and Finance Uncovered, spent months matching the names of company owners found in the Pandora Papers with UK Land Registry records to discover who really bought hundreds of UK properties.

In addition, Finance Uncovered then teamed up with Premium Times to apply similar analysis to previous data leaks, including the Panama Papers and FinCEN FIles.

The result is the most comprehensive dataset ever published focusing on rich and powerful Nigerians who have secretly bought UK property.

Anonymous ownership

Lanre Suraju, chair of Human and Environmental Development Agenda (Heda Resources Centre), a Nigerian anti-corruption campaign group: “For a country that is incapable of providing electricity and decent roads without external financial support, and which depends on a combination of foreign loans and aid to supply potable water and public education, it is galling to discover such a humongous outflow of Nigeria capital to London, all concealed via the use of offshore companies. “

For more than five years, under three different Conservative Party prime ministers, the British government has been promising to make the names of offshore property owners public as part of wider efforts to end anonymous ownership. But it has failed to do so.

Rachel Davies Teka, head of advocacy at Transparency international, said: “This investigation shows it remains all too easy for those with suspicious wealth to acquire property in the UK whilst hiding their identities using opaque offshore companies. Not only does this harm the countries where suspect funds are siphoned from, but it damages Britain’s reputation as a hub for global commerce.”

For privacy reasons, Finance Uncovered is not publishing or mapping the names of the owners or locations of specific properties.

Stella Oduah

The property owners include Nigeria’s former aviation minister Stella Oduah. Now 59, she served under Jonathan from 2011 until 2014 when she resigned amid serious corruption allegations, which she has denied.

Oduah (pictured above) was never charged on those allegations. But she has since been indicted on separate money laundering offences relating to an alleged fraud. Oduah, who remains a senator, has always denied accusations of wrongdoing.

Our investigation suggests she secretly bought London property.

We have seen a confidential US suspicious activity report by Deutsche Bank. It suggested that a company owned by Oduah made a suspicious payment of almost $72,000 to a London property broker in 2012.

A search of Land Registry records then showed that one month later another company, registered in the Seychelles, paid £5.3 million for a London townhouse.

The Seychelles company shared a name with another one owned by the Oduah family.

We asked the former minister and the London property broker to confirm that Oduah, her family or associates, were involved in buying the London property but neither responded.

The Deutsche Bank suspicious activity report is part of the FinCEN Files, a leak of documents obtained by BuzzFeed News and shared with other journalists through the ICIJ.

It is not known whether any further action was taken as a result of the suspicious activity report.

  • 1 offshore company
  • 5 UK properties
  • Total price paid: More than £6.7 million
  • Currently owned: 3 properties
  • Value of currently owned property: £10.2 million

Mohammed Bello Koko

Another prominent figure whose property-owning company was discovered by reporters in the leaked data is Mohammed Bello Koko, 52, (pictured below) the finance director of the powerful Nigerian Ports Authority. He is also reportedly its acting managing director.

For much of his career he worked in banking, including 10 years at Zenith Bank, where he rose to be a deputy general manager.

According to the Pandora Papers, Bello Koko and his wife were the anonymous owners behind two companies incorporated in the BVI.

Searches at the Land Registry showed that these companies bought five London properties between 2009 and 2017, for a combined total of almost £1.5 million. One of the properties has since been sold.

Elsewhere in the Pandora Papers, a 2017 letter from law enforcement officials in the BVI requested information about these BVI companies — together with seven others — in relation to an investigation into financial offences, including money laundering.

Alemán, Cordero, Galindo & Lee (Alcogal), the BVI registered agent for the companies, wrote back saying: “To the best of our knowledge, these companies do not have any assets or bank accounts held in their name.”

Asked why it had not mentioned the UK properties, Alcogal explained that it was only obliged to provide law enforcement officials with the information that it holds in its records.

Finance Uncovered and Premium Times wrote to Bello Koko and his wife but they did not respond.

We have seen no evidence that law enforcement enquiries in the BVI led to further action against Bello Koko, his wife or their property owning companies.

  • 2 offshore companies
  • 5 UK properties
  • Total price paid: More than £1.4 million
  • Currently owned: 4 properties
  • Value of currently owned property: More than £1.84 million

Nicholas Mutu

Nicholas Mutu, 61, (pictured below), has spent more than two decades in parliament, representing a constituency from the oil-rich but poverty-stricken Delta State. He is the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives.

Between 2009 and 2019, Mutu chaired the house committee responsible for scrutiny and oversight of a federal agency called the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), which is responsible for “offering a lasting solution to the socio-economic difficulties of the Niger Delta”.

In 2020, Mutu was arrested and charged with fraud and abuse of office, according to a press release issued by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). He was accused of concealing N320m (about £669,000) in payments from an NDDC contractor between 2014 and 2016, which he “ought to have known formed part of [the] proceeds of corruption”. Mutu’s trial commenced in March 2020. He has pleaded not guilty.

According to the EFCC, which began investigating a number of NDDC contracts in 2019, Mutu is alleged to have wielded his influence as chair of the House Committee to ensure that a company which had been controversially awarded a lucrative contract to recover unpaid levies from oil and gas companies operating in the Delta was paid out by the NDDC.

The previous year, the EFCC announced it had won an interim court order compelling Mutu to forfeit N150m (about £338,000), which the agency said was “bribes and kickbacks … as appreciation for his role in using the office of House Chairman on NDDC to facilitate the recovering of the monies”.

An EFCC spokesperson confirmed that Mutu’s fraud and abuse of office trial has been adjourned until November 2021, and the final asset forfeiture application is ongoing.

Mutu is the sole director, shareholder and beneficiary of Forest Group of Company Limited, set up in the Seychelles in 2010, according to records held on file by Alemán, Cordero, Galindo & Lee (Alcogal), an offshore law firm which serviced the company.

In 2012, this offshore company bought a property in north London for £620,000, and sold it in 2014 for £730,000, according to U.K. Land Registry records.

In a brief telephone call, Mutu said he was only ever a director of the offshore company, that it was owned and controlled by his wife and not by him, and that it had never owned any UK property.

Mutu’s claims are at odds with documents from the UK Land Registry and the Pandora Papers, in which he is recorded as the owner of Forest Group and include a copy of his passport (see below).

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Under Nigerian law, public officials — including parliamentarians — have to declare “all properties, assets and liabilities” to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) at the end of every four years.

As politicians’ asset declarations are not public, Finance Uncovered could not establish when Mutu’s fell due, and therefore whether it ought to have included the north London property owned between 2012 to 2014.

But the Code also prohibits public officials from maintaining or operating any foreign bank accounts. Finance Uncovered asked Mutu whether he used any non-Nigerian bank accounts to transact in UK property, and whether he declared them, but received no response.

If found to be in breach of asset declaration law by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, public officers face a range of sanctions including “vacation of [their] seat in any legislative house” as well as disqualification from “holding any public office for a period not exceeding ten years”.

Mutu declined to receive written questions unless they were delivered personally to his office, and later sent a confrontational sms, claiming to have unmasked this journalist as an agent of his political rival: “I have found you. You work for my political opponent [name withheld for legal reasons]]. You don’t have any dignity. Shame.”

  • 1 offshore company
  • 1 UK property
  • Total price paid: £620,000 (bought 2012)
  • Currently-owned: 0 properties (sold 2014)

Rotimi Oyekan

Rotimi Oyekan, 59, is a former investment banker who served as the Commissioner of Finance for Lagos State between 2007 and May 2011.

Underlining the importance of this role, the Economist estimated in 2011 that if Lagos State were a country, it would be the fifth biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2010, Oyekan and his wife Tinuola set up an offshore company incorporated in the Seychelles, according to information in Alcogal’s files. They are listed as the joint shareholders of the company, with Tinuola as the sole director.

The offshore company paid more than £450,000 for a property in north London in March 2011, according to the title register available via the UK Land Registry. Like all public officials, Oyekan was required to make regular declarations of property assets, including a full declaration at the end of his term in office.

Oyekan was still finance commissioner for Lagos State at the time he bought the London property via the offshore company, though he stepped down two months later.

Asked whether he declared the property to the Code of Conduct Bureau, as required by Nigerian law, Oyekan declined to give a direct answer: “I didn’t make these purchases as a public official, OK? If you go and check the records for Lochton you will not see my name on it, so I don’t understand the purpose of your enquiry,” he said.

He said that the offshore company had always been owned solely by his wife whom he said “has her own income and comes from a well-to-do family”.

But Oyekan could not explain why he is identified in Alcogal’s records as the co-owner of the offshore company, whose files include a copy of his passport retained for due diligence purposes.

“My name is not supposed to be on any documents. I was never a beneficial owner.”

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  • 1 offshore company
  • 1 UK property
  • Total price paid: More than £450,000
  • Currently owned: 1 property
  • Value of currently owned property: £781,000

Joseph Arumemi-Ikhide

The rise and fall of politically well-connected tycoon Joseph Arumemi-Ikhide, 72, has played out publicly in the Nigerian press, but it can also be seen in the acquisition and disposal of a multi-million pound UK property portfolio secretly owned via multiple offshore companies.

His first big venture was Rockson Engineering, a business which won contracts to build much-needed power stations in blackout-prone parts of Nigeria in the 2000s. Then followed Arik Air, which started trading in 2006 and quickly became West Africa’s largest airline, taking its name from a shortening of Arumemi-Ikhide’s double-barrelled name.

In the mid-2010s, both operations struggled with debts and many of Arumemi-Ikhide’s prize business assets eventually ended up in the hands of Nigeria’s state bailout fund, known as the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON). In 2017, AMCON took over Arik Air, saying the airline was struggling to pay staff and creditors. The following year, AMCON also seized power plant construction projects after a series of missed progress targets.

The Arumemi-Ikhide family has since claimed the seizures were unfair and politically motivated.

Before his business empire began to crumble, Arumemi-Ikhide had been quietly storing increasing amounts of his wealth in UK property. Between 2000 and 2008 he and his wife bought 14 upmarket properties, estimated to be worth more than £35 million at today’s prices.

All were purchased using one of four offshore companies. Three BVI companies were formed with the help of Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm at the centre of the 2016 Panama Papers data leak. The fourth company, also in the BVI, was identified in the Pandora Papers.

The most lavish purchase was Waverley, a sprawling country mansion, in more than two acres of landscaped gardens on a private housing estate around a golf course in Surrey, about an hour’s drive west of London. The property, which has indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a steam room, sauna, gym and tennis court, was put up for sale earlier this year with an asking price of more than £13 million.

Other homes bought by Arumeni-Ikhide through offshore companies include an apartment in upscale Kensington, West London, now estimated to be worth more than £10 million, and a pair of neighbouring properties in affluent Richmond, South-West London, each worth more than £3 million today.

As Arumemi-Ikhide’s heavily indebted business empire crumbled, all of his UK properties were sold off or surrendered to creditors.

Documents from the Panama Papers record how Arumemi-Ikhide’s UK property empire suffered a setback in 2015 after media reports linking him to corruption allegations began to unsettle staff at the offshore law firm who were responsible for administering his UK property-owning companies.

Some reports suggested anti-corruption officers had been investigating whether Rockson’s power plant contracts had been used to launder funds for a politician; others reported allegations that Arik Air was a front, secretly controlled by political interests.

After a rapid reassessment of their client, Mossack Fonseca decided to resign as the BVI registered agent to all three companies Arumemi-Ikhide was using to control his UK property empire.

In an effort to prevent the resignations, Arumeni-Ikhide’s UK lawyers had sent Mossack Fonseca copies of private correspondence with the EFCC, which, they insisted, showed that there was “no substance to the allegations” against their client.

Though investigators had indeed probed Arumemi-Ikhide’s power plant construction business, letters from the EFCC confirmed they found no evidence of an improper relationship or any other wrong-doing.

Arumemi-Ikhide’s lawyers told Mossack Fonseca that the allegations against their client were “politically motivated”.

Far from being a money launderer, the lawyers claimed Arumemi-Ikhide had been knighted by the Pope and, in 2011, was made a Commander of the Order of the Niger by then president Goodluck Jonathan.

Despite these arguments, however, Mossack Fonseca cut ties with Arumemi-Ikhide in March 2016, resigning as the BVI agent of all three companies he used to own property in the UK.

Finance Uncovered asked the EFCC to clarify the status of these investigations. In response, a spokesperson said that they are investigating both Rockson Engineering and Arik Air.

The probes were triggered after AMCON took over the affairs of the heavily indebted companies and reported a number of alleged irregularities to the law enforcement agency for further investigation, according to the EFCC.

An investigation into Rockson is “at an advanced stage with key elements covered and personalities involved, including Arumemi-Ikhide, already questioned,” the EFCC spokesperson said.

Meanwhile a probe into what the spokesperson said included the “mismanagement/non-repayment” by Arik Air of a restructured N70 billion (£12 million) loan from AMCON was “ongoing”.

Contacted for comment and asked specifically about his UK property empire, Arumemi-Ikhide said: “I don’t see why I should get into any of that … those properties have been disposed of a long time ago.” He agreed to receive detailed written questions, but did not respond to them.

  • 4 offshore companies
  • 14 UK properties
  • Total price paid: More than £5.8 million
  • Currently owned: 0 properties

*This story was updated on October 27 to include three further case studies

*Contributing research to this investigation: Taiwo Adebayo, Nicholas Ibekwe and Musikilu Mojeed.

*Main photo: Visualisation builtwith Flourish.

*Story edited by Nick Mathiason and Ted Jeory