Raj Bhojwani, an alleged associate of Nigeria’s former Military Head of State, Sani Abacha and Nigeria’s present Ambassador to South Africa Buba Marwa has been sentenced to six years after depositing tens of millions of pounds from army deal in St Helier bank
Raj Bhojwani was jailed for depositing millions in a Jersey bank from a deal to provide trucks to the Nigerian dictator’s army. In the 12 years since Nigeria‘s corrupt dictator General Sani Abacha died in office, investigators have struggled to find out what happened to the estimated £2.2bn he siphoned out of his country’s coffers during his brutal five-year rule.
Though at least $700m (£470m) has been returned to Nigeria, only a handful of people have ever been put on trial for their role in the brazen kleptocracy.
But in a historic move, a court in Jersey has sentenced one of Abacha’s business associates to six years in the island’s only jail, after he deposited in a St Helier bank account tens of millions of pounds from a deal to provide overpriced trucks to the Nigerian army.
Jersey’s Royal Court heard how Raj Bhojwani – a 53-year-old multimillionaire businessman who set up a charity in Lagos providing free glasses to all shortsighted school children – deposited US$184m (£122m) in a Bank of India account on the island after checking Jersey’s bank secrecy laws.
The money came from selling military vehicles to the Nigerian government at up to five times their actual price between 1996 and 1997 and then using the profit to pay bribes to top Nigerian officials, including Abacha and allegedly Colonel Mohammed Buba Marwa, Nigeria’s current high commissioner to South Africa and a man touted as a future Nigerian president.
These two men were said to have received $100m (£66m), while Bhojwani’s cut of the deal, according to the prosecution, was US$43.9m (£29.4m).
Bhojwani’s deception came to light back in 2000, when the Financial Times printed an investigation into Abacha’s looted billions – in particular money which was squirrelled away in two Swiss bank accounts registered in the names Kaiser and Seuze.
Keyser Soze was the name of a shadowy mafia leader in the film The Usual Suspects and these movie-influenced accounts were owned by Mohamed Abacha, the dictator’s son and heir.
The day after the report was printed, Bhojwani withdrew the US$43.9m (£29.4m) out of his Jersey accounts for 11 days in an attempt to avoid detection.
After a long investigation, Bhojwani was arrested in 2007 and released on bail with a US$50m (£33.4m) surety.
Bhojwani himself never denied agreeing to overprice the trucks, but in a letter to the court maintained that his profit from the deal was actually around $25m (£16.6m), which grew to $43.9m (£29.4m) as a result of the way he invested it. While acknowledging that what he did was wrong, he said it was impossible to do business in Nigeria during Abacha’s reign without paying enormous bribes.
But at the sentencing hearing last week, prosecution advocate Matthew Jowitt said that Bhojwani knew how much ordinary Nigerians suffered as a result of Abacha’s repressive regime and yet he was happy to profit from their misery.
“The frauds committed in Nigeria, the criminal proceeds of which were received, possessed and handled by the Defendant in Jersey, were not frauds against fellow businessmen, or a limited class of investors,” said Jowitt.
“They were frauds against a nation, and against its people. A people who, it is a matter for judicial note, rank amongst the most impoverished in the world.”
He added: “This was money, both his own $40 million share, and the $100 million for Abacha and Marwa, which the people of Nigeria could not afford to lose.
“It was money which could and should have been spent for the good of the Nigerian people, in improving their lives. Instead it was siphoned off for the private benefit of these men.”
The Royal Court in St Helier found Bhojwani earlier this year of three counts of money laundering. He has never been tried for any crime in Nigeria.
In a statement to the Guardian, Bhojwani’s lawyer Paul Sugden suggested the case against his client was unfair.
He said: “Mr Bhojwani has not been charged with and has not anywhere been tried for offences of corruption or bribery.
“He alone amongst those against whom the Crown’s case alleges wrongdoing in Nigeria has faced prosecution, a proposition which even the Swiss lawyer acting for Nigeria in its efforts to recover monies said to have been ‘looted’ by the Abacha regime suggests might be thought off as ‘unfair’.”
General Sani Abacha took power in the Federal Republic of Nigeria on 17 November 1993 following a military “coup d’Etat” and stayed in power until his death on 8 June 1998.
As well as being head of state, he also appointed himself Commander in Chief of the armed forces, Minister of Defence, President of the Provisional Ruling Council, and President of the Federal Executive Council.
Due to his wide-ranging power, he was able to do whatever he liked, particularly in regard to the country’s finances. He awarded himself the power to approve all contracts with the Government of Nigeria worth over US$50,000.
Using these arbitary powers, Abacha set up a system of systematic corruption in favour of himself, his family, friends and acolytes, overpricing national contracts by at least 40% and transferring funds out of the treasury and into accounts of his associates.