By Charles Uche ESQ
Incorporating and fronting companies is a convenient and effective way of concealing identity, engaging in illicit transactions and evading liabilities. In many countries, a company can be formed without disclosing the identity of the individual who ultimately controls or profits from the business, i.e., the beneficial owner. Criminals and politically exposed persons (PEPs) can assign “nominee” shareholders to be listed on official documents or can list other legal entities (other companies can be shareholders in a company) as the “owners,” thereby creating a chain of companies–often across borders–that can be difficult for investigators and law enforcement to trace and recover.
Connected Development (CODE), has over the year, through its Conflict & Fragility project, in partnership with Oxfam-in-Nigeria advocated for a robust beneficial Ownership transparency through the instrumentality of a robust legislation as an essential means for combating corruption, stemming illicit financial flows, and fighting tax evasion. While many initiatives exist to maintain and disclose beneficial owners of companies in Nigeria, like the Beneficial Ownership Register launched by Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) in December 2019, none of them until the enactment of the 2020 Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) had the statutory backing for enforcement.
Documents from Panama papers on Dan Etete and Kolawole Aluko can be used as classical case studies in demonstrating how these two individuals, like many others, capitalised on the non-existent or fragile regulatory framework in Nigeria’s extractive “oil & gas” sector to launder money and evade liabilities which has cost the Nigerian government and people revenue in the billions of dollars. Till date, none of the aforementioned persons has been successfully prosecuted and convicted partly due to concealment of identities and fronting of shell companies in their transactions. Shell companies are legal entities “companies” that are non-operational and lack assets or staff. They are conveniently used by money launderers to keep their identities hidden while they engage in illicit transactions across borders and evade tax.
Dan Etete: Dan Etete, a former Petroleum Minister under Nigerias Dictator Head-of-State, Gen. Sani Abacha had in 1998, incorporated a Shell company named “Malabu Oil & Gas Limited” using a fictitious name “Kweku Amafegha”, with few other persons, while he was the ultimate and beneficial owner of the company – though his real name did not appear in any official documents. Five days after he incorporated this company, he, as Petroleum Minister, awarded this company an oil block “OPL 245”. He used this shell company to launder money across the Nigerian border and acquire luxurious assets, while escaping liabilities.
Kolawole Aluko: Kola Aluko is a businessman and oil executive. Media reports have described Aluko as a key ally to Alison-Madueke, a relationship both have previously denied. He rose to prominence around 2011 when Nigeria’s government awarded two companies he founded or owned valuable oil blocks on a no-bid basis. One of his companies, Atlantic Energy, was created the day before it inked the deals to acquire multimillion-dollar oil licenses.
In Nigeria, only a member of a Public Company (PLC) was under obligation, under the old 1990 CAMA, to disclose in writing when required, the capacity in which he holds any shares in the company; either as a beneficial owner or as a nominee of an interested person. See Sections 94-98, old CAMA.
The 2020 CAMA in section 119 has extended such obligation (to disclose the particulars of shareholding by notifying the company) to persons with significant control in all companies. Similarly, as provided in section 120 of the new CAMA, a person who is a substantial shareholder in a public company and holding (either by himself or by his nominee/proxy) shares in the company which entitle him to exercise at least five per cent (5%) of the unrestricted voting rights at any general meeting of the company, is required to disclose such holding by notifying the company within a stipulated time.
This new disclosure provisions are poised to enhance transparency and prevent asset shielding as well as combat money laundering, terrorism financing and all forms of illicit financial flows by legal entities having limited liability.
While there is no gainsaying that the above disclosure provisions would enhance transparency and accountability in the Extractive sector in Nigeria, especially in the Petroleum Industry, as many of the oil and gas companies are private limited liability companies (LTD); many of which have ‘rightly’ escaped disclosure obligations with no legal sanction – there is also an urgent need for the enactment of the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) which has as one of its core objectives – “to promote transparency and accountability in the administration of petroleum resources of Nigeria”.