Sunday, 14 October 2007

Nigeria blunts graft inquiry

By Matthew Green in Abuja

Published: October 9 2007 18:21 | Last updated: October 9 2007 18:21

Britain’s chief prosecutor has accused the Nigerian authorities of jeopardising attempts by UK police to recover funds they suspect were looted by powerful politicians under the previous government in Abuja.

The criticisms, contained in a letter seen by the Financial Times, appear to confirm fears that infighting in President Umaru Yar’Adua’s administration is undermining his pledges to crack down on graft.

The controversy centres on investigations into James Ibori, the former governor of Delta state, which has enjoyed soaring income from oil production. Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is investigating Mr Ibori on suspicion of stealing state funds during his eight-year tenure as governor, which ended in May. British police are investigating him under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

Britain is a popular destination for wealthy Nigerians seeking to buy houses and open bank accounts. UK officials have worked closely with the EFCC on several investigations of former state governors.

Sir Ken Macdonald QC, the UK’s director of public prosecutions, wrote to Michael Aondoakaa, Nigeria’s justice minister and attorney-general, to request evidence compiled by the EFCC against Mr Ibori. He said a failure by the Nigerian authorities to supply evidence had led to “major difficulties” with the case.

Activists see the investigation as a test of whether Mr Yar’Adua’s government will build on the limited progress made under his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, in bringing senior figures before the courts. Mr Ibori’s case is being watched closely since he is widely regarded as having been instrumental in the campaign that brought Mr Yar’Adua to power in April’s general elections.

Mr Ibori declined to comment on the case while it was pending. He has not been charged in the UK or Nigeria.

Britain’s Metropolitan Police obtained a freeze on $35m (€25m, £17m) of Mr Ibori’s assets on August 2 while they pursued investigations. The investigation dates back several years and has been carried out in co-operation with the EFCC. But the police suffered an embarrassing setback last week when a judge lifted the freeze, citing the time the investigation had taken and the lack of progress on a decision on whether to charge Mr Ibori.

Mr Macdonald said a lack of co-operation by Nigerian authorities was endangering the Ibori case. The letter said investigations against other former governors were also pending.

“The difficulty and lack of progress in obtaining hard evidence from Nigeria is causing major difficulties in relation to the court proceedings in the United Kingdom and putting these other cases in jeopardy,” Mr Macdonald wrote in his letter, dated October 2.

The letter said officers from London were due to arrive in Nigeria on Wednesday to collect evidence from the EFCC. Mr Macdonald asked Mr Aondoakaa to assure him that the requested evidence would be made available, warning he would otherwise have to abandon an appeal against the judge’s lifting of the asset freeze. The High Court in London on Monday upheld the prosecutors’ right to appeal.

Mr Yar’Adua’s government raised hopes it would not shrink from confronting once untouchable politicians when the EFCC, an anti-graft agency, took the unprecedented step of charging five other ex-governors soon after they lost their immunity to prosecution after their tenures ended in May.

But activists say a growing power struggle between branches of the judicial system in Nigeria has undermined investigations in both that country and Britain. Campaigners have accused Mr Aondoakaa of attempting to undermine the independence of the EFCC since he took office in July by insisting he should take over prosecutions by the agency.

But the EFCC has also been accused of targeting opponents of Mr Obasanjo, whose government created it in 2003. Each side blamed the other for delays in providing evidence to British police in the Ibori case.

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