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Queen’s lawyers acted for politician now accused by US prosecutors

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Queen’s lawyers acted for politician now accused by US prosecutors

After almost 70 years on the throne, the Queen has been served by 14 prime ministers and been advised by nine private secretaries. But in that time one thing has remained unchanged: her choice of solicitors.

Throughout her reign, the Queen’s has been advised by Farrer & Co, an elite London firm with a long history of representing members of the royal family and aristocracy.

The firm that has remained by the Queen’s side since her coronation is now under a spotlight, thanks to the Pandora papers.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing. The documents do not show rules were broken. They do, however, show that one of its clients has been Abubakar Bagudu.

Bagudu is a Nigerian politician who the US Department of Justice (DoJ) has accused of playing an “instrumental role” in a notorious corruption scheme through which billions of dollars were looted from the west African nation.

So how did a company like Farrer & Co end up in the company of Bagudu?

What are the Pandora papers?

The Pandora papers are the largest trove of leaked data exposing tax haven secrecy in history. They provide a rare window into the hidden world of offshore finance, casting light on the financial secrets of some of the world’s richest people. The files were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which shared access with the Guardian, BBC and other media outlets around the world. In total, the trove consists of 11.9m files leaked from a total of 14 offshore service providers, totalling 2.94 terabytes of information. That makes it larger in volume than both the Panama papers (2016) and Paradise papers (2017), two previous offshore leaks.

The hunt for Abacha’s money

This saga has its origins in the late 1990s with the death of Sani Abacha, the country’s notorious dictator.

After Abacha’s death in 1998, the country’s new government accused the former military ruler of overseeing a vast conspiracy to steal between $3bn and $5bn (£2.2bn to £3.7bn) from Nigerian state coffers. A hunt for the money has been going on since – the decades-long search has traced the allegedly looted billions through a chain of front companies to accounts in Paris and London.

Bagudu was an associate of Abacha and as early as 1999 he accepted in a Nigerian court that he had received funds from the dictator. The Nigerian government alleged he was directly involved in Abacha’s corruption, but in 2003 the two sides reached a court-approved settlement and Bagudu agreed to return about $300m of his fortune with no admission of wrongdoing.

Enter Farrer & Co.

According to the Pandora papers, the law firm was acting for Bagudu as early as February 2010, helping him and his brother Ibrahim transfer the ownership of €98m (£113m) from a British Virgin Islands (BVI) trust to a complex structure in Singapore and the Cook Islands, a secretive jurisdiction that offers high levels of asset protection.

Documents show Farrer & Co engaged the services of Asiaciti, a family-owned trust company in Singapore, to administer the new structure, which was called the Blue Group. Once it was created, Farrer & Co continued to be involved in managing the trusts and the Bagudu family’s relationship with Asiaciti.

Though Bagudu had settled with the Nigerian government seven years earlier, the claims about Abacha’s looted money had not gone away. They still haven’t.

But both Farrer & Co and Asiaciti appear to have taken a reputational risk in taking on Bagudu as a client. Ultimately it was one they were prepared to take. Farrer & Co explained to the Guardian it had conducted “extensive due diligence” on Bagudu, which had met the firm’s “legal and regulatory obligations”.

Certainly, checks were made. The documents show that in April 2010, Farrer & Co received a response from another firm representing Bagudu, which it had contacted to ask about their mutual client’s source of offshore wealth. The other firm acknowledged Bagudu had faced criminal investigations relating to the embezzlement scheme and had been arrested and detained in the US for six months.

But it assured Farrer & Co that Bagudu had reached a settlement with the Nigerian government allowing him to retain the funds held in the BVI trust.

In August 2010, Farrer & Co submitted a suspicious activity report (SAR) to the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) to obtain the law enforcement body’s consent to transfer the assets held by Bagudu’s trust in the BVI to the new structure.

A spokesperson for the firm said a “detailed precautionary report of the transaction including the assets and their whereabouts” was made to UK law enforcement, which granted consent in early September. Two days later, the €98m of cash and securities were transferred into the Blue Group, documents suggest.

Some of this money soon began flowing directly to Bagudu and his brother, who helped manage his financial affairs.

Asiaciti appears to have made its own assessment of Bagudu, too. An internal memo written by the head of Asiaciti acknowledged he had “a somewhat controversial background”, but still accepted him as a client.

Describing Asiaciti’s rationale, he wrote he was “further comforted” by the fact “a prestigious London law firm, who act for the royal family, have accepted the explanations provided and have been prepared to act for the client”.

By May 2013, Asiaciti had decided it needed to conduct “enhanced due diligence” on Bagudu and his request for funds from the Blue Group. Farrer & Co intervened. Documents show the firm pointing out that Bagudu’s brother was “not entirely happy about the level of scrutiny”, and suggested to Asiaciti that this was unnecessary.

The London firm reminded Asiaciti that Bagudu had years earlier specified he wanted the trusts’ assets to be managed in a way that ensured funds would be made “readily available” for his wife and children who, he said, should be “generously supported in the style to which they are accustomed”.

US prosecutors intervene

Four years later, the judgments made by Farrer & Co and Asiaciti about the “somewhat controversial” Bagudu were put in an uncomfortable light.

In 2014, the DoJ homed in on Bagudu’s assets, alleging he had helped Abacha to “launder the proceeds of the conspiracy” through an elaborate network of fake companies. Prosecutors alleged Bagudu then siphoned some of the stolen money into bank accounts he controlled.

In a public statement, the DoJ said: “The complaint alleges that General Abacha, his son Mohammed Sani Abacha, their associate Abubakar Atiku Bagudu and others embezzled, misappropriated and extorted billions of dollars from the government of Nigeria and others, then laundered their criminal proceeds through US financial institutions and the purchase of bonds backed by the United States.”

In March 2014, US prosecutors brought civil forfeiture proceedings against more than $500m of assets they said were derived from an “international conspiracy” to launder the proceeds of the Abacha-era embezzlement scheme.

Within months, the UK authorities assisted US prosecutors in obtaining a court order freezing Bagudu’s assets in the UK: €107m held in investment portfolios with exclusive wealth managers in Mayfair. In early 2015, Soca’s successor, the National Crime Agency (NCA), was in court again to ensure the freeze remained in place.

Bagudu, 59, has denied any wrongdoing.

Farrer & Co told the Guardian any criticism of the firm was unwarranted, pointing out it had received consent from UK authorities before transferring control of the assets to the new trusts. However, that raises questions for Soca about why its own due diligence and anti-corruption checks had not picked up the same concerns as the Americans.

Both Farrer & Co and a lawyer for Bagudu also denied there was any attempt by their client to hide the assets in the new trust structure, saying they had disclosed details of how the assets were ultimately controlled to relevant authorities. They did not explain why Bagudu formed the trusts, which are not illegal, but said he had been allowed to retain the funds as part of the 2003 agreement with the Nigerian government.

A spokesperson for Farrer & Co said the UK authorities knew the whereabouts of the assets. They added: “Criticism based on subsequent events and allegations is misplaced and unwarranted.”

The legal fight goes on

According to the Pandora papers, Farrer & Co continued to act for Bagudu in subsequent years, a relationship that generated significant revenues for Asiaciti. Between 2017 and 2018, it received almost $80,000 (£60,000) in fees from services conducted for Bagudu’s trusts, internal records suggest.

Today, the Bagudu family assets are at the heart of an ongoing legal battle involving the governments of Nigeria, the US and UK. Court papers suggest a team of specialist anti-corruption prosecutors in Washington DC have spent the past year locked in discussions with Bagudu and his representatives.

Bagudu’s lawyer said there had been no findings of wrongdoing against her client in either criminal or civil cases. She said Bagudu’s 2003 settlement stated there was no admission of wrongdoing. She declined to comment on the US settlement discussions.

In an update filed in late September, the US prosecutors said the UK order freezing the assets remained in place while negotiations were “ongoing”.

Asiaciti did not comment on its work for Bagudu, but in a statement said: “We are committed to the highest business standards, including ensuring that our operations fully comply with all laws and regulations.”

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UN chief warns of ‘catastrophe’ from global food shortage

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UN chief warns of ‘catastrophe’ from global food shortage

The head of the United Nations warned Friday that the world faces “catastrophe” because of the growing shortage of food around the globe.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the war in Ukraine has added to the disruptions caused by climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and inequality to produce an “unprecedented global hunger crisis” already affecting hundreds of millions of people.

“There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022,” he said in a video message to officials from dozens of rich and developing countries gathered in Berlin. “And 2023 could be even worse.”

Guterres noted that harvests across Asia, Africa and the Americas will take a hit as farmers around the world struggle to cope with rising fertilizer and energy prices.

“This year’s food access issues could become next year’s global food shortage,” he said. “No country will be immune to the social and economic repercussions of such a catastrophe.”

Guterres said U.N. negotiators were working on a deal that would enable Ukraine to export food, including via the Black Sea, and let Russia bring food and fertilizer to world markets without restrictions.

He also called for debt relief for poor countries to help keep their economies afloat and for the private sector to help stabilize global food markets.

The Berlin meeting’s host, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, said Moscow’s claim that Western sanctions imposed over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were to blame for food shortages was “completely untenable.”

Russia exported as much wheat in May and June this year as in the same months of 2021, Baerbock said.

She echoed Guterres’ comments that several factors underlie the growing hunger crisis around the world.

“But it was Russia’s war of attack against Ukraine that turned a wave into a tsunami,” Baerbock said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that Russia has no excuse for holding back vital goods from world markets.

“The sanctions that we’ve imposed on Russia collectively and with many other countries exempt food, exempt food products, exempt fertilizers, exempt insurers, exempt shippers,” he said.

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Bandits release Zamfara wedding guests after payment of ransom

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Bandits release Zamfara wedding guests after payment of ransom

Local and federal highways in the North-west have become vulnerable as bandits continue to ambush and abduct travellers.

The gunmen who abducted 29 people returning to Zamfara State from Sokoto State where they had gone to attend the wedding of colleagues have released them after the payment of an unspecified ransom.

The victims, who were mostly dealers of mobile phones and phone accessories at Bebeji Communication Market (Bebeji Plaza) in Gusau, the capital of Zamfara State were abducted in Sokoto 13 days ago.

Secretary of the GSM Dealers Association in the state, Ashiru Zurmi, confirmed the release of the victims but didn’t give details.

One of the victims reportedly died in captivity.

Though the amount paid as ransom to secure the release of the hostages has not been revealed, Abdullahi Lawal, whose brother was among those abducted, said their relatives were asked to make donations. He said his family raised N33,000 while the phone sellers’ association “provided the remaining money.”

“Every family was told to gather N400,000 while the members of the plaza and their colleagues in the state provided the remaining money. Some family members were able to raise the money in full, but we couldn’t. I took the money to the plaza and I was told that they were still negotiating with the bandits” he said.

He said he didn’t know how much was given to the bandits “but I’m happy that my brother is okay,” he said.

From N5m to N700,000

A phone accessories seller, Sharhabilu Muhammad, told PREMIUM TIMES over the phone that the officials of the phone dealers association negotiated with the bandits to reduce the ransom they originally demanded to release the captives.

“You know that the initial money they said was N5m for each of the captives but our officials kept negotiating with them (bandits) until they reduced the money to N700k,” he said.

When asked about the person who reportedly died in captivity, Mr Muhammed said his identity has not been revealed.

“We don’t know because even the bandits didn’t tell but we’ll surely find out when they (captives) arrive at Gusau tonight,” he added.

The police command spokesman, Mohammed Shehu, didn’t respond to calls and SMS sent to him on the development.

Backstory

PREMIUM TIMES reported that the wedding guests were abducted when bandits opened fire on the two buses they were travelling in a few kilometres after Bimasa in the Dogon Awo junction, Sokoto State.

They were returning from Tambuwal town in Sokoto State where they had attended the wedding of a colleague, Jamil Umar.

The captives were travelling on a Toyota Coaster bus belonging to the Universal Basic Education Commission UBEC and another bus owned by Gusau Local Government.

The bandits had demanded a ransom of N145 million to release the 29 hostages.

Bandits have been terrorising North-west states and a part of North-central Nigeria, killing and displacing hundreds of people and rustling domestic animals.

Travelling on federal and local highways is becoming dangerous as bandits block roads, abduct and kill motorists.

Major federal highways including Abuja-Kaduna, Gusau-Sokoto-Birnin Kebbi, and Birnin Gwari-Kaduna have become travellers’ nightmares with attacks and abduction or killing of travellers becoming a daily occurrence.

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Reps demand review of public officers’ salaries, allowances

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Reps demand review of public officers’ salaries, allowances

A motion seeking the intervention of the House of Representatives in the conflict between the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad, and Justices of the Supreme Court, over issues bordering on welfare and working conditions suffered a setback on Thursday.

While the House called for a general review of salaries and allowances of all political office holders and public servants, the members were divided over which committees should handle the task.

The Chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, Onofiok Luke, had moved a motion to seek the intervention of the chamber in the crisis rocking the apex court and better welfare package for judicial officers across the courts.

Luke, who moved the motion titled, ‘Need to Address the Deteriorating Working Conditions of Judicial Officers,’ prayed the House to urge the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission to upwardly review the remuneration of judicial officers in line with present economic realities.

The lawmaker prayed the House to urge the Federal Government to increase the budgetary allocation of the judiciary for the upcoming fiscal year and provide special intervention funds for the development of the arm

He further prayed the House to mandate the Committee on Judiciary to ensure compliance and report back within six weeks for further legislative action.

While the lawmakers were making amendments to the prayers, the Deputy Speaker, Ahmed Wase, called for an upward review of the welfare package of all public office holders.

Wase, who stated that he appreciated the memo from the Justices to the CJN, noted that only the RMAFC had the responsibility to review remuneration of government officials.

The Deputy Speaker made reference to a part of the motion that read, ‘The remuneration of judicial officers was last reviewed in 2008 by the RMAFC when the official exchange rate was N117.74 to $1, whereas the naira has considerably depreciated.’

Wase partly said, “I think this particular element does not affect just judicial officers, maybe because they cried out now. I don’t think it is right that we have to wait every time until people write letters of complaints and there is protest before we begin to do the right thing.”

Rephrasing Wase’s proposed amendment, Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, said: “The DSP’s amendment is that we should not isolate the Judiciary and all those enumerated constitutional bodies and public office holders. They should be reviewed; a comprehensive review based on all the things that Hon Luke said – the exchange rates and this and that.”

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