Some of Nigeria’s wealthiest industrialists, former government officials and their relatives, are amongst thousands of individuals around the world who operated highly secretive foreign accounts with the Swiss branch of banking giant, HSBC, PREMIUM TIMES has reported.
The individuals concealed their identities for years using codes perhaps to shake off tax authorities from the accounts, some of which held illicit assets from criminals, traffickers, arms dealers and other outlaws, secret files published last week by a consortium of journalists around the world have shown.
The trove, released by the French Daily, Le Monde and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in partnership with PREMIUM TIMES, and a host of other major media organisations around the world, showed how HSBC profited doing business with people who stole from their countries and some of the world’s most notorious con artists, including people who made a fortune fuelling wars in Africa.
PREMIUM TIMES is the only Nigerian publication involved in the investigation, which lasted several months.
The bank helped questionable characters conceal their wealth despite knowing their sources, and devised ways to hide the identities of the owners of the secret accounts from governments around the world.
At least 100,000 secret bank account operators who owned about $100 billion were exposed in the leaks, unsettling investigators in several countries.
A Roll-call of Nigerian Clients
French authorities have so far linked 201 individual and corporate HSBC clients with Nigeria – either nationals or having business interests in the oil-rich West African country. However the sorting procedure might be faulty and some of those listed may end up having nothing to do with Nigeria.
Top on the list of Nigerians whose names appeared on the file is Africa’s richest industrialist, Aliko Dangote.
Another Nigerian businessman and owner of mobile telecom company, Globacom, Mike Adenuga, also appears on the files.
Vikky Preye Mark, estranged wife of Nigeria’s Senate President, David Mark, was also listed.
Many of the accounts date back to the 1990s and up to 2005/2006, when the data were stolen by a former staff of HSBC, Hervé Falcian.
According to details pieced together by the ICIJ, HSBC fashioned a series of layers of privacy schemes to ensure the worst of criminals and characters were protected.
The methods used were simple but had complex implications.
First, the account owner opens an account in his or her name, and the bank, in connivance with the customer, replaces the account holder’s name with a number code that is then given to the client.
At times, the clients are encouraged to incorporate offshore shell companies in notorious tax havens, which then indirectly hold the accounts on behalf of the real beneficial owners.
The bank repeatedly reassured clients it would not disclose details of the accounts to national authorities, even if evidence suggested that the accounts were undeclared to tax authorities in the client’s home country.
The code meant the client would no longer be tied to the account with his name, but in all transactions with the bank, he or she will be identified with the number.
But correspondences from the bank would be sent to the holder’s personal address. There was also an option for customers to ask the bank to withhold their mails. That practice was later discontinued.
The account holders were given the option of being contacted directly, or through proxies.
To access the account, there were options too. A client could do so from his home, whereby he will need to declare the account to tax authorities; or travel there in person, or do so through a courier who flies to Switzerland to collect cash from time to time.
Ultimately, the bank ensured the account details were kept secret and separate from the personal details of the holder.
That entire process allowed the bank’s clients hide from tax authorities and governments around the world, while criminals could hide stolen wealth.
Not all holders of the HSBC private accounts are however criminals, but there are concerns regarding why they chose a banking platform with emphasis on secrecy and concealed identities.
Very little of Dangote’s transactions with the bank were made available.
As head of a conglomerate operating in 16 African countries, including Nigeria, Dangote made his fortune producing salt, sugar, flour, cement and noodles. He has also expanded to real estate and oil.
Dangote is the president of the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
In November 2014, Forbes magazine ranked him the richest man in Africa and the 23rd in the world with an estimated fortune of $21.6 billion.
The mogul became an HSBC private account client in July 2003. The account appeared in the name of Development Projects Corporation, its registration address in Tortola the British Virgin Islands, a notorious tax haven, where individuals and corporations usually incorporate shell companies to hide assets. Dangote’s account was in operation till August 2004.
It is not clear to what use he put the account and perhaps because he closed it long before the data were stolen, bank records did not indicate any balance on the account.
Globacom’s owner, Adenuga, had an account in his name tied to Sunbow Express Limited, a company based in Panama and for which HSBC described him as beneficial owner. The leaked file gave the company’s postal address as 86 West Green Road, GB-London N15 and c/o Arosemena Noriega-Contreras, Calle Elvira Mendez Street, 10 ED. DEL Barco Do Brasil P-Panama City, Panama.
Adenuga’s own address was given in bank documents as 37 York Terrace East GB-London NW1.
The businessman, who is among Africa’s richest personalities, opened the account on February 2, 1997 and it had a balance of $115, 405.00 as of 2006/2007 when the data were stolen.
Adenuga did not respond to ICIJ’s repeated requests for comment.
Mark also operated an account with the bank but with details made largely secret. Although she was known within the bank as the beneficial owner of the account, she was largely identified with a secret code – 14312MP.
Mark opened the account on December 18, 1989 and closed it July 12, 1991. About that time, her husband, then a top ranking army officer, had served as military administrator of Niger State and federal minister of communications, a period during which he is believed to have made a fortune.
He has been a senator since 1999 and President of the Nigerian Senate since 2007. Court papers during a messy divorce with his wife suggested that some of his children schooled in Switzerland, but it is not clear whether it was during that period that Mark operated the HSBC account.
The court papers also showed that the Marks operated foreign accounts elsewhere. About six million pounds in four accounts – three at the Northern Bank, Isle of Man, and one at the Allied Irish Bank, Jersey – were frozen in October 2000 as a result of the ancillary relief sought by Victoria Mark in the couple’s divorce case. Mr. Mark’s operation of those accounts while a senator is a violation of Nigerian law which bars public officials from operating foreign accounts while in office.
Nigeria’s former defence minister, Theophilus Danjuma, was also linked to HSBC account 15731CD, which was opened in 1993 and closed in 2001. The documents did not provide details regarding the balances in the account and the use to which Danjuma put it.
Danjuma has emerged one of Nigeria’s richest former public office holders through ownership of one of Nigeria’s most lucrative oil blocs and a lucrative shipping firm.
Another notable name on the leaked file is Adamu Wakili, Nigeria’s former Ambassador to the United States. Wakili was linked to account 17404B01, opened in 1991 and closed two years later. Wakili served as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development as well as that of Environment,
The list also has Aminu Jibril, former Senator, minister and ambassador. Jibril’s account has no details beyond his address, listed as Yola, former Gongola State.
Deribe Alhaji Mai, who also operates one of Nigeria’s richest oil blocs, was listed in the leaks. His details were not provided.
Peter Igbinedion Osawaru, was also named in the leaked file as the Director at Okada Air with an account code of 15418MP, opened in 1991 and closed in 1995.
Ibrahim Dasuki, a former Sultan of Sokoto who was deposed in 1996, was linked to account 15372HTNL, opened in 1991 and closed in 1993. The account coincided with when he was Sultan.
Another prominent Nigerian listed on the file as an HSBC client is Inuwa Wushishi, a retired General, former chief of army staff between 1981 and 1983 and former Board Chairman of UAC of Nigeria. Wushishi, 75, and his wife, Aishatu, were identified as beneficial owners of an account with code 6808AW. The couples opened the account on December 18, 1989 and closed it July 12, 1991. It remains unclear to what use they put the account.
Headquartered in London, HSBC has offices in 74 nations and territories on six continents.
The leaked account records show some clients making trips to Geneva to withdraw large wads of cash, sometimes in used notes. The files also document huge sums of money controlled by dealers in diamonds who are known to have operated in war zones and sold gemstones to finance insurgencies that caused untold deaths.
On Sunday, HSBC published a full-page advert containing an apology in several newspapers, over claims that its Swiss private bank helped clients evade tax.
The advert reproduced an open letter signed by chief executive Stuart Gulliver, which said recent coverage by the media had been “a painful experience”.
Mr. Gulliver, whose letter was addressed to the bank’s customers and staff, said in his letter that he wanted to reassure customers that its Swiss private bank had been “completely overhauled”.
“We have absolutely no appetite to do business with clients who are evading their taxes or who fail to meet our financial crime compliance standards,” he was quoted by the BBC as saying.
“The media focus has been on historical events that show the standards to which we operate today were not universally in place in our Swiss operations eight years ago.
“We must show we understand that the societies we serve expect more from us. We therefore offer our sincerest apologies.”
Mr. Gulliver also said that the recent media coverage about its clients and past misdeeds must be put “into context”.
“A former employee of the Swiss private bank stole data more than eight years ago.
“Major UK media outlets have focused on approximately 140 names included in the stolen data.
“Many of the people mentioned have been named simply because they are well-known individuals. The vast majority of these 140 people are no longer clients.
“The media has been mentioning a number of 100,000 clients. At its peak, the Swiss private bank had about 30,000 accounts.
“We have absolutely no appetite to do business with clients who are evading their taxes or who fail to meet our financial crime compliance standards.”
*This report was first published by PREMIUM TIMES. We have the newspaper’s permission to publish it here.