The acting Managing Director of Nigerian Ports Authority, Mohammed Bello-Koko, is involved in offshore business, hiding behind two shell companies incorporated in a tax and secrecy haven to anonymously invest in the United Kingdom property market and potentially violating Nigeria’s public service code of conduct laws, the ongoing Pandora Papers reporting has revealed.Mr Bello-Koko is possibly hoping to be confirmed the substantive NPA chief by President Muhammadu Buhari.
The current substantive head of the agency, Hadiza Bala-Usman remains on suspension following her disagreement with Transportation Minister, Rotimi Amaechi. It’s unclear if she would be recalled with a probe of her tenure seemingly unending.
Mr Bello-Koko, with his wife, Agatha Anne Koko, enlisted the services of financial secrecy seller, Cook Worldwide and Alemán, Cordero, Galindo & Lee (Alcogal), an offshore law firm, to secretly register Coulwood Limited (reg. number: 1487897) and Marney Limited (reg. number: 1487944) in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), one of the world’s most commonly used tax havens, in 2008. Both companies were registered the same day, June 19, 2008.
However, Mr Bello-Koko remains a director of the two companies even as a public servant in violation of Nigeria’s Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act (Sections 5 and 6). The regulators in the BVI also had his companies under watch for suspected money laundering, a problem Alcogal appeared to have helped him avoid with some misinformation provided to the regulators.
The revelations came from Pandora Papers, a trove of 11.9 million leaked confidential records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, ICIJ. The ICIJ then coordinated a team of 617 journalists from 150 news outlets, including those from PREMIUM TIMES, to dive into the data. The reporters spent two years sifting through the leaked records, tracking down sources, and digging into court files and other public records from dozens of countries. It is the biggest collaboration of investigative journalists – from 117 countries and territories – in history.
The leaked records came from 14 offshore services firms from around the world that set up shell companies and other offshore nooks for clients like Mr Bello-Koko, who seek to shroud their financial activities, often suspicious, in secrecy.
Using the two companies, Coulwood Limited and Marney Limited, tucked away offshore, Mr Bello-Koko then anonymously acquired five London properties, Pandora Papers, and public records from the UK Land Registry showed, based on collaborative research by PREMIUM TIMES and Finance Uncovered of London within the larger Pandora Papers project.
One of the properties was acquired in May 2017, after Mr Bello-Koko had taken office at the NPA. He was appointed executive director for finance and administration in 2016 and later acting MD in 2021.
Headquarters of Nigerian Ports Authority
The other four properties were acquired between 2009 and 2012, making Mr Bello-Koko potentially exploit UK tax loopholes that allowed the owning of UK properties using so-called envelope structure, that is, anonymously owning properties through offshore companies.
For instance, up to 2012, when former Finance Minister, George Osborne, declared new rules, owning property via an offshore company meant that ownership could be transferred by selling the company’s shares rather than the property itself, and in doing so, no U.K. property sale tax or capital gains tax would be paid.
Mr Bello-Koko is a former banker with responsibility for managing accounts of energy firms at the defunct FSB International Bank and later Zenith Bank, where he managed Rivers States government accounts in Nigeria’s oil-abundant Niger Delta region.
Although shell companies have been a key feature in illicit financial flow and are used to facilitate drug deals and terrorism financing, owning one is not necessarily illegal and can be for legitimate purposes.
In Mr Bello-Koko’s case, having the shell companies at the time he did as a private-sector worker was not, on the face of it, criminal under Nigerian law.
Experts, however, say shell companies are frequently used to conceal assets and avoid or evade taxes. They are also used by players in corruption high-risk sectors such as banking, government contracting, petroleum, and real estate to facilitate the flow of dirty money, sometimes for shadowy political patrons.
PREMIUM TIMES and Finance Uncovered sent Mr Bello-Koko a written request for comment. For weeks, he declined to explain his acquisition of the properties and provide evidence that he declared them in his Code of Conduct fillings, in accordance with the law. He also declined to provide clarity on why he remained director of the offshore company while a public office holder in Nigeria, in violation of the law.
However, if he did not declare the BVI shell companies or any of the properties they hold, that would be a violation of Nigeria’s code of conduct law for public officials, which requires the declaration of “all” assets and liabilities owned by a person, their spouse and unmarried children under 18 “immediately” after taking office