Nigeria's Halliburton Probe Closes in On Corrupt Officials

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Nigerian investigators are said to be focusing on six high-ranking officials in efforts to trace the beneficiaries of a multimillion-dollar bribery scandal involving construction of the Bonny Island LNG terminal (IOD Mar.31,p3). The five-member anti-graft panel was set up in April by the government and given eight weeks to probe the scheme. They are looking into allegations that bribes were paid by engineering group KBR to government and other senior officials, some working for Nigerian National Petroleum and Nigeria LNG (NLNG), to secure $6 billion worth of contracts for the Bonny Island plant between 1994 and 2004. Last week, the panel -- led by Nigeria's head of police, Mike Okiro -- quizzed a number of officials, including former Oil Minister Don Etiebet and NNPC's former group managing director, Jackson Gaius Obaseki. Also in the spotlight is another ex-head of NNPC, Funsho Kupolokun. Former Oil Minister Dan Etete is also being sought for questioning. Three former presidents, including the late Sani Abacha, Abdulsalami Abubakar and, more recently, Olusegun Obasanjo, have also been indicted in the scandal, which spanned three governments. The US government in February formally charged KBR in the $180 million bribery scheme following a deal with its erstwhile parent, Halliburton, to pay $559 million to end the probe. KBR was charged on five counts, including conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The Nigerian government subsequently announced that most of the $180 million Halliburton slush fund had been traced to a bank account in Zurich, Switzerland. The key question now is whether Nigeria will make good on its pledge to bring the corrupt officials to book. It could prove risky given their long-standing links to militant and criminal gangs in the oil-producing Niger Delta, where violence has recently exploded. Testifying last month in Washington before the House Financial Services Committee, Nuhu Ribadu, former head of Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) -- which is involved in the Halliburton-KBR probe -- urged Congress to expand the FCPA "to bite both givers and takers of bribes." He called for eliminating safe tax havens and secret offshore bank accounts and pressed for public programs to promote investigative journalism and transparency. In 80% of the corruption that takes place in Africa, the money is stashed abroad. Above all, Ribadu said, international cooperation is key. During Ribadu's four-year stint as EFCC head, which ended controversially in 2007, the commission opened hundreds of investigations, securing convictions in over 275 cases against high-ranking officials, including former governors allied to Obasanjo. At the hearing, Ribadu highlighted the destabilizing financial impact African corruption has on global markets -- and warned that taking a soft line on sleaze would only store up problems for the future. The African Union reckons corruption drains the region of some $140 billion a year, which is about 25% of the continent's official GDP. Ribadu's pursuit of James Ibori, ex-governor of oil-rich Delta state, marked the beginning of the end for the former EFCC chief, sparking a chain of events that led to his eventual dismissal. He left Nigeria temporarily in 2008 after a failed assassination attempt and is now in the UK as a visiting fellow at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. Ibori was charged on 103 counts, ranging from money laundering to abuse of office. During the investigation, Ribadu claimed he was offered $15 million to drop the proceedings. Ibori, who was said to have been the biggest financial sponsor of Yar'Adua's 2007 presidential campaign, has still not been brought to trial. "Sadly, today [Ibori] is still one of the most powerful political figures in both the ruling party and the country," Ribadu said. "This clearly highlights the problem of the Delta -- money meant to have gone for development has gone to very few hands and is used for negative ends." Deb Kelly, London

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