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INVESTIGATION: Dana, Wema Bank risk prosecution for flouting Money Laundering Act

Dana Air, owner of Sri Sai Vandana Foundation, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) and WEMA Bank Nigeria may be prosecuted by the anti-graft agency for the airline’s inflight donation collected between 2014 and 2018 without following due process.

“The EFCC will take it up. We will investigate and prosecute the crime element once prima facie is established,” the acting spokesperson to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Tony Orilade told The ICIR.

Dana started Nigeria’s Sri Sai Vandana Foundation  in 1995 and commenced the inflight donation in partnership with the Sickle Cell Foundation of Nigeria. But after the airline suffered a major crash in Lagos in 2012 in which 153 persons died, it ceased the collaboration, ‘re-strategised’, and solely ran the inflight donations. 

The ICIR earlier reported how Dana through Sri Sai Vandana Foundation, got the inflight donations between January 2014 and October 2018, raking in millions of naira deposited into the Wema Bank account number 0121291839 without due registration with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), a prerequisite for complying with the Special Control Unit against Money Laundering (SCUML) regulations.

When asked if it is the board or the organisations that would be sanctioned, “The company itself,” the EFCC official added.

“When there is a vacuum that is when we will lift the veil.”

He further explained what he meant by ‘Lifting the veil’: “The company cannot run without humans. So, it is when everyone denies being members of the company that we go after the individuals.” 

Envelop shared to passengers by Dana airline during flight. This particular envelope was collected by a passenger in April File Copy

In line with the Money Laundering Prohibition Act, it is mandatory every Designated Non – Financial Institution, DNFI, to register with SCUML in order to legally operate in Nigeria. This is not true

Drama at SCUML Headquarters 

At the SCUML headquarters, the reporter inquired about the implication of an NGO not registering with the Unit and operating a bank account as Sri Sai Vandana Foundation did, and an official told the reporter that it is a “jailable offence”.

“Are you bothered about the years of imprisonment?” she responded when asked the likely jail term. “You are going to put the person into a big problem because they are all corporate. First, the account officer that opened the bank account is in problem because he has committed a criminal offense against the government.”

“How are you able to open the account in the first place when you don’t have the corporate document?” she queried.

SCUML is charged with the responsibility of monitoring, supervising and regulating the activities of DNFIs, which includes NGOs. In fact, the Unit works in collaboration with the EFCC for the enforcement of the provisions of the anti-money laundering law through the prosecution of non-compliant DNFIs.

SCUML’s responsibilities also align with the provisions of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act (TPA) 2011 and functions under the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment provisions.

What the law says 

Contravening the SCUML guidelines have some specific penalties, including “suspension or revocation of license, fines or imprisonment or both,” according to Sections 15 to 17 of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2011 (as amended). 

It stipulates a maximum of 14 years jail term for an individual but, in the case of a corporate organisation, the law says such organisation would pay “a fine of not less than 100 percent of the funds and properties acquired as a result of the offense committed” and would also have its license withdrawn.

Precisely, the law defines the unlawful act listed in subsection (2) of the Act to include “corruption, bribery, fraud, counterfeiting, and piracy of products…or any other criminal act specified in this Act or any other law in Nigeria.”

As such, Wema Bank officials involved in Dana’s account opening process may as well be prosecuted by the anti-graft agency, as soon as SCUML forwards its findings to the EFCC.

The Federal Government set up SCUML in 2005 as part of measures to track illicit financial flow and monitor likely funding of terrorism activities to enforce the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2011 (as amended).

But all through the years under investigation, findings revealed that Dana contravened the SCUML guidelines, the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2011 (as amended), and yet succeeded in running a bank account with Wema Bank.

Acting EFCC Chairman, Ibrahim Magu                                    File Copy

In June, Ibrahim Magu, the Acting EFCC Chairman during a workshop in Abuja described DNFIs as safe havens for money laundering and terrorism financing, due to poor supervisions and regulatory function. “As a result of lack of adequate supervision and regulation of Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs) and by extension DNFIs, criminals have now turned their focus on the DNFIs sector to perpetrate money laundering and terrorism financing,” said Magu, who was represented by Francis Usani, the Head of SCUML.

“The DNFIs has been identified as the most vulnerable sector in money laundering and terrorism financing because criminals no longer use conventional financial systems like banks to launder their ill-gotten wealth.”

DANA – It’s a learning process, we are committed to giving back

In response to questions from The ICIR, Kingsley Ezenwa, Media and Communications Manager of Dana Air said the entire situation was a learning process for the organisation, restating airline’s commitment to give back to the society. On why it failed to register the NGO, he rather emphasised on the zeal of Dana’s commitment to its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Kingsley Ezenwa, Dana Corporate Communications Manager
Photo Source: Whistler NG

“When you work on certain things, you learn along the line,” says Ezenwa.

He explained further, “After the accident, we were not even carrying loads (passengers). We were trying to rebuild. We did not even do it [Inflight donation] in 2014 at all. We felt that as a management team, considering our commitment and the incident of 2012, we needed to focus on re-strategising our CSR.”

This was also his narration on reasons Dana terminated its partnership with the Sickle Cell Foundation.

“We looked at it, conducted research and felt cancer is something we should focus on; got organisations working on cancer awareness, so we adopted Project Pink Blue and started supporting them.”

“We have been supporting Project Pink Blue and it’s been like that since 2015.”

The spokesperson’s response apparently showed a lack of understanding between the airline’s charity work through Sri Sai Vandana Foundation and its corporate social responsibility, as he appeared to confuse the two.

When asked if Pink Blue Project, an NGO devoted to providing cancer awareness and counselling to Nigerians, Runcie Chidebe, the project director said, indeed, Dana Air had assisted it, by offering free tickets for some of its activities.

“Since 2015, we have been partnering with Dana Air and working together and it is amazing seeing corporate organisation support us from 2015 till today (July 22 2019). We are also working with them on a programme called Port Harcourt Cancer Walk. I just arrived from the Dana Air flight from Port Harcourt to Abuja.”

“I can’t really say emphatically now but they actually have been providing flight tickets for us, the medical team and our patients to receive medical treatments anywhere Dana Air flies,” the cancer awareness advocate said when asked specific amount the airline offered since 2015 till date.

A look into the NGO’s 2015 annual report, as at 31st July identified only five donors excluding Dana. The airline was only listed among the supporters. 

Donors are those organisations and individuals that donate money to the Cancer-fighting group, while supporters are those who render free services or provide food for the NGO among other non-financial supports. 

 

Prostate Cancer Awareness organised by Project Pink Blue with supports from Dana Air
Photo Source: Dana Air

The 2016 annual report revealed that Dana also supported with free air tickets. The airline was excluded among the four major donors which include Tony Elumelu Foundation, Union for International Cancer Control, Pfizer Oncology and Civicus World Alliance for Citizen Participation. Dana Air tops the list of 18 supporters in the report, though there was no financial commitment.

In 2017, the annual report prepared by K. E. Onuoha and Co. (Chartered Accountant)  showed 17 donors and Dana was also not part of the list. The following year, the report, prepared as at 31st July 2018 by the same auditor had a list of 17 donors. Only 11 made financial support including the United States Embassy, Nigeria. Dana Air was also not included. This understandably is part of the airline’s corporate social responsibility but it would be dubious for the airline to claim that it pays itself for these free tickets from donations by Nigerians meant for charitable purposes.

Asked how it was able to open an account with WEMA without registration, Ezenwa responded that his focus as a Public Relations (PR) person was not where the money goes but its right utilisation. “As a PR person, my focus is to ensure that the CSR is carried out, which is what the money is meant for based on the commitment of the organisation since 2012. And that’s why I’m giving you information on what we have done and what we will continue to do.”

“My business is not with how an account was opened but we have re-strategised our job to ensure the money is used for its purpose.”

He refused to comment on if Dana’s chairman was a director in WEMA, as it is assumed that the chairman used his position to open the purported account. “I am not aware of that,” he said.

However, Ezenwa made available pictures of projects, which he claimed were implemented by the airline either independently or in partnership with other NGOs. He also disclosed that the airline would henceforth send detailed reports to the email of the passengers on how the inflight donations are spent.  

Project Pink Blue Cancer Awareness Campaign Supported by Dana Air Photo Credit: Dana Air

Some of the projects he listed include: Free breast cancer screening organised in partnership with the Project Pink Blue in 2016 at Lagos Television, Agidingbi, Ikeja; Walk, Race and Cycle Against Cancer 2017 organized by Project Pink Blue in partnership with Dana Air, on Allen Avenue, Ikeja Lagos; Free Prostate Cancer Screening, Awareness walk in Lagos 2018 and a few others.

Ajide Shola, Convener, Divine Eagle Support Ministry, was listed among those whose NGO was used to reach orphanages. The ICIR contacted Ajide via a text message after repeated unanswered calls and he listed the orphanages. They are Ijamido Children Home, Sango Ota, St. Monica Orphanage (Catholic Orphanage Home) Iju-Ishaga, Light for the Lost Orphanage Alagbado and Navidad Home for the Orphanage and Less Privileged, also in Sango Ota, Ogun State.

Divine Eagle ministry, he said, is the supporting arm of Divine Eagle Civil Solutions Limited but he refused to say if the NGO was registered. But findings by The ICIR revealed the company was registered but the NGO was not.

“We approached Dana Air when I organised this outreach for the less privileged in 2017 and they supported all the orphanages that came with bags of rice, household materials, toiletries, noodles etc.” Shola said. “We also organised the event in 2018 and Dana gave the same support. We are looking to approach them again, hopefully, this year. We hope to have more of passionate firm supporting the needy.”

However, he said ‘cash’ was not given to the orphanages. He also did not respond to other specific questions on how he received the bags of rice, the quantity and number of other items offered including pictorial evidence.

Checks on social media showed no information relating to the NGO. The only Christian group found on Facebook, which bears a similar name is owned by a woman based abroad and it has a non-profit arm known as Daughters of Esther Charity.  

However, further searches revealed that Ajide does have a Facebook account in the name of Ajide Sola joseph (Divine Eagle), where he promotes the work of his ministry, including Divine Eagle Civil Solutions. However, there is no mention of any Dana Air supported activity or anything relating to the outreach to orphanages.

Ezenwa further listed support offered to a team of United States-based Doctors, led by Dr Mfon Essiet, a Nigerian based abroad, to engage in a free surgery in Uyo communities. “…Dana Air provided free round trip tickets for our medical professionals between Lagos and Uyo once we landed from USA,” says Essiet in a Direct Message sent to The ICIR via social media. She added all the Doctors were from the US. We got support for “12 round trip flights. Originally planned for 22 tickets but some team members did not make the trip.”  

Mfon Essiet (with black top) alongside members of the team arriving in Uyo for the Surgical, Medical, Dental, Optometry Mission
Photo Source: Global Image Foundation

Search by The ICIR also showed short footage of medical assistance and surgeries offered to 1,784 patients by her NGO – Global Image Foundation in Akwa Ibom State.

It further showed a similar surgical, medical, dental and optometry mission the NGO – Global Image Foundation held in Akwa Ibom state at St. Luke Hospital, Anua in late May.

“Join us! Seeking medical professionals and volunteers for our second annual surgical, medical, dental and optometry mission in Nigeria on May 27-31, 2019”.

Every other question asked especially on SCUML registration, compulsory filing to the CAC, SCUML and NFIU, he said they are being taken care of.

But, from the list of NGOs DANA claimed it supported, only four were registered while others are not. The registered ones are Ijamido Children Home, St. Monica Home for the Elderly, Light for the Lost Orphanage Home and Project Pink Blue – Health and Psychological Trust Centre. 

The ICIR could not reach out to three of the registered NGOs as their contacts were missing from the company name searches conducted at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC). They were as well not visible on social media. They include Stella Ifeoma Willoughby (Secretary) Ijamido Children’s Home; Umunmwagho Omosede Onuwaje (Secretary) St. Monica Home for the Elderly and Lady Evangelist Glory Ebenezer (Secretary) Light for the Lost Orphans Home.   

WEMA Bank remains indifferent on offence 

Oluwafunmilayo Falola, Wema Bank Brand and Marketing Communications Manager Picture Source: Social Media

However, Wema Bank declined to comment regarding the allegations, except for a terse response by the bank’s Brand and Marketing Communications Manager, Oluwafunmilayo Falola, “…Please note that Ramesh Hathiramani is not on the board of the bank,” she wrote in an e-mail. The ICIR’s check showed that Hathiramani was a board member until  2014. This implies that Hathiramani left Wema as Director about six months after Dana ended its partnership with the Sickle Cell Foundation to start operating its inflight donation for Sri sai vandan foundation. 

Falola referred The ICIR to the bank’s Chief Compliance Officer as the right authority to respond to the questions about account opened for Dana’s NGO. “Given that this issue involves account opening documentation, our chief compliance officer will provide a response in due course,” she said.

She, therefore, promised to inform the chief compliance officer to call back. Three days after, no response came from her or the compliance officer. The ICIR later sent a reminder, and she promised the Bank’s chief compliance officer would respond ‘soon’. On July 19, nearly a month later, there was still no response. Another reminder was sent and she replied saying, “In truth, we would rather you do not proceed with the story. Recall you had published one at a time and it really put us in a bad light, we would rather we do not continue with this line.”

The ICIR insisted via a reply to her email demanding an explanation as to why the bank opened the account for Dana’s NGO without the appropriate document, then she responded, “You have published this story in the past, are you republishing it?

“I do not have an update to the last time inquiries, except that Mr Ramesh resigned his appointment since 2014.”

“In response to your mail on Mr Ramesh Hathiramani, kindly be informed that Mr Ramesh Hathiramani resigned his appointment with the Bank effective July 31, 2014. He was a Non-Executive Director,” She earlier said in response to the question about when Hathiramani ceased to be a director in Wema Bank.

But as at the time of filing this report, there was no response from Wema’s chief compliance officer.

The ICIR also observed that as at July Dana still solicited and collected in flight donations from passengers for charity purposes.

Experts react

Barrister Uchena Amuleo, a human rights lawyer, described the operation of Dana’s NGO as deceitful which should be investigated by the anti-graft agencies. 

“It is a fraud and criminal,” says Amuleo. “Since they were not registered, they could be picked and prosecuted. A lot of that is going on in Nigeria as we speak.”

“Are you sure they did that and were collecting money… It is a corrupt practice. We can write to ICPC so that they account for the money they illegally collected from people between those periods.”

Mrs Lauretta Ugwoke, a barrister opined it would be difficult to register an account for an NGO without the CAC registration, except, “maybe the bank made a preference for them.” But she doubted such a possibility.  “Or they are using individual account or account of one of the trustees.”  

“It is not actually legal because it cannot be traced back to the NGO. It is not the right thing to do because there won’t be any connection to it (the NGO).”

Hadiza Gamawa, Head, External Cooperation of the EFCC, during a recent event themed “Effective Implementation and Regulations of AML/CFT within the NPO Sector” called for a national risk assessment of the sector. She said it helps identify weaknesses and gaps within the system and also offers likely solutions.

She believed good compliance will foster more Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) but regretted DNFIs ranked highest in vulnerability to money laundering in the 2016 risk assessment with a miserable score of 0.77.

Ibinabo Mary Amachree, Head Information and Data Management of SCUML, while doing an overview of relevant standards on AML/CFT, as it relates to NPOs, called for proper supervision as lapses could aid terrorist organisations that pose as legitimate corporate entities.

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