Nigeria’s Senate president Bukola Saraki on Tuesday brushed off allegations of wrongdoing concerning his wife’s offshore assets revealed in the Panama Papers, as he went on trial in Abuja on fraud charges, AFP reports.
The latest graft claim to hit the senate president emerged from the “Panama Papers” investigation into a trove of 11.5 million tax documents leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specialises in creating offshore shell companies.
Saraki is alleged to have failed to declare at least four offshore assets listed under his wife Toyin’s name that appear in the leaked documents, according to the investigation’s media partner Nigerian newspaper Premium Times.
Under Nigerian law, it is mandatory for the president, the vice-president, state governors and their deputies to declare their assets along with those of their wife and children under 18 when they take office and before stepping down.
But Saraki said he did not do anything illegal and argued that the assets are listed as part of his wife’s “family estate”.
“I’ve fully complied with (the) law on asset declaration,” Saraki said in a statement issued on Monday and posted on his website.
“The law does not require a public officer to declare assets held by the spouse’s family,” Saraki’s spokesman Yusuph Olaniyonu said.
“It is public knowledge that Mrs Saraki comes from a family of independent means and wealth with numerous and varied assets acquired over decades in family estates and investments.”
– Huge payments –
Saraki’s corruption trial finally got under way before the Code of Conduct Tribunal in Abuja on Tuesday after months of delays.
He faces charges including false declaration of assets while he was governor of the western state of Kwara from 2003 to 2011, all charges that he denies.
Michael Wetkas, head of the team that investigated Saraki at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, took the stand as the first prosecution witness, telling the court Saraki had made massive payments into private company accounts.
He used the deposits to repay personal loans from a local commercial bank and purchased property in Nigeria and abroad, Wetkas said.
Wetkas also said Saraki had laundered money through his British and US Bank accounts and failed to properly declare most of the assets.
Between 2005 and 2013, his Nigerian account had a total inflow and outflow of up to 4 billion naira ($20 million, 17.6 million euros), Wetkas said, with the local bank loan being the major source of the inflow.
A trained physician and former banker, the senate president is considered Nigeria’s third most senior politician behind President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo.
Yet anti-corruption campaigners fear that the powerful politician will, like others before him, outmanoeuvre the law.
“The latest revelation about Saraki’s family should not surprise anybody,” Debo Adeniran, chairman of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders lobby group, told AFP of the Panama Papers leaks.
“We suggest that the Nigerian anti-graft agencies should collaborate with their foreign partners to move against Saraki and make him accountable,” Adeniran added.
“If Saraki escapes the Nigerian laws because of the loopholes and leniency in our laws, the international community should not allow him to escape.
“He should get the Ibori’s treatment,” Adeniran said, referring to the case of former Delta state governor James Ibori who was acquited in Nigeria on corruption charges but jailed in London for a similar offence.
Several high-profile politicians are currently standing trial as part of Buhari’s drive to tackle endemic corruption in Nigeria, Africa’s largest crude producer and biggest economy.
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