It was a meeting of two of Nigeria’s most influential politicians in London – President Muhammadu Buhari was visiting political kingmaker and senior member of his ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu.
In July, the presidency announced that Mr Buhari was heading to London for an education summit. The office also added that the president would also see his doctors for “medical check-up”.
Coincidentally, Mr Tinubu, who had travelled to London earlier, was also receiving treatment for an undisclosed ailment in the British capital. So, a perfect setting for both men to meet was created.
Media handlers of the two men later flooded social media with photos of both men having what seemed like a jovial conversation in a London house. Another photo of both men standing, with their face masks drawn underneath their chins, was also shared.
“President Muhammadu Buhari this evening in London, the United Kingdom, visited Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu,”Bashir Ahmad, one of Mr Buhari’s media aides, captioned the photos on Facebook on August 12.
Certainly, it was not the first time both men were meeting, and photos of their encounter were released to the public. However, on this occasion, the release of their photographs angered many Nigerians.
Many called out the two politicians for releasing photos of themselves on medical tourism while doctors in public hospitals in the country were on strike.
But what most Nigerians did not know was that the property at which the duo met was linked to one of the biggest corruption scandals in the country since Mr Buhari became president in 2015.
A PREMIUM TIMES investigation has now revealed that the mansion where Mr Tinubu welcomed President Buhari is not only embroiled in a multi-billion fraud scandal, the Buhari government had actually secured a freezing order on the property from a Federal High Court before the previous owner, who is now an international fugitive, sold it at a huge discount to an offshore company owned by the governor of Osun State, Gboyega Oyetola, a known proxy and a relative of Mr Tinubu.
This revelation emerged as part of the ongoing global Pandora Papers reporting project, led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and in which PREMIUM TIMES is a key participant.
The project involved 600 journalists from 150 news organisations around the world sorting and analysing a trove of almost 12 million confidential files, tracking down and interviewing sources, and adding context using public records and documents.
The leaked files were retrieved from some offshore services firms around the world that set up shell companies and other offshore entities for clients, many of them influential politicians, businesspersons, and criminals seeking to conceal their financial dealings.
The Mansion at 32 Grove End Road, London
The property, which is situated at 32 Grove End Road, in the wealthy Westminster neighbourhood of London, has become a sort of mecca to associates of Mr Tinubu, and politicians of the ruling APC, after the former Lagos governor started staying there for what appears to be recuperation.
Apart from Mr Buhari, other politicians who have visited Mr Tinubu at the expanse 6,975 sq ft property are the governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu; a former governor of Ogun State, Ibikunle Amosun; Mr Amosun’s successor, Dapo Abiodun; the governor of Ekiti State, Kayode Fayemi; the governor of Ondo State, Rotimi Akeredolu; members of the Lagos State House of Assembly; the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila; a contingent from Kano State led by Governor Abdullahi Ganduje; top fuji musician; Wasiu Ayinde, among other dignitaries.
The 32 Grove End Road villa exudes stunning opulence. According to an advert brochure of the property released by popular United Kingdom real estate company, Savills, the estate is made up of two buildings – a five-bedroom property with a formal reception, a study, a master bedroom with an en suite dressing room, bathroom and a cinema suite with a balcony overlooking the rear garden. Two of the other four bedrooms in the property are en suite.
The second building on the estate is a self-contained two-bedroom flat which is built above the property’s double length garage. The property comes with a gym, two guest cloakrooms, a carriage driveway that can park up to eight cars, and front and rear gardens, and an electric gate.
Bought from a fugitive at a £8 million discount
Documents obtained from the UK property register revealed that in July 2013, the property with title number 340992, was bought for £11.95 million by Zavlil Holdings Ltd, a shell company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, a notorious tax haven. Further documents obtained by PREMIUM TIMES revealed that Zavlil Holdings Limited is owned by Kolawole Aluko, an international fugitive wanted by law enforcement agencies in Nigeria and the United States for money laundering.
Kola Aluko and his associate, Jide Omokore, were indicted in the U.S. and Nigeria for multi-million-dollar fraud and money laundering violations allegedly in collusion with a former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke.
In 2016, the Federal Government of Nigeria filed a Mareva injunction at a Federal High Court in Lagos seeking to confiscate a list of properties belonging to Messrs Aluko and Omokore valued at $1.8 billion.
A Mareva injunction is a Court order which freezes the assets of a defendant pending the outcome of a litigation.
In the suit against Messrs Omokore and Aluko, alongside their companies, Atlantic Energy Drilling Concepts Nigeria Limited and Atlantic Energy Brass Development Limited, the Nigerian Government asked the court to grant it seven orders to prevent the accused from disposing the assets. The government alleged they were acquired through fraudulent means.
The third prayer the government made to the court was to grant it an order restraining the accused “from giving any instruction, demanding, accepting, receiving payments and/or transacting, transferring, mortgaging or howsoever dealing in any manner with assets of the Defendants in both houses and land in Abuja and Lagos and others located outside Nigeria.”
The government then listed 17 properties in Abuja, Lagos, the U.S., Canada, Dubai, Switzerland, and the UK.
Among the listed properties was “Grove End Road, London”.
The court granted the government all its prayers. In October 2017, an attempt by the defendants to dismiss the Mareva injunction granted on the properties was subsequently dismissed by Oluremi Oguntoyinbo, the trial judge.
But just around the time (on October 18, 2017) the court dismissed the defendant’s attempt to dismiss the injunction, documents obtained from the U.K. property register revealed that Mr Aluko sold the house for £9 million to Aranda Overseas Corporation, an offshore company incorporated in the British Virgins Island by two of Mr Tinubu’s most trusted surrogates – Adegboyega Oyetola, formerly chair of Paragon Group of Companies and incumbent governor of Osun State and Elusanmi Eludoyin, Mr Oyetola’s successor at Paragon.
The huge discount at which the property was sold is curious and raised questions of whether Mr Aluko desperately needed to sell the property even while a court of law had placed a freeze order on it.
The United Kingdom, especially the greater London area, is noted for rapid increase in the value of properties. According to PREMIUM TIMES’ calculation of the likely value of the property when it was bought by Aranda Overseas Corporation done on the website of UK’s National Building Society, which is the largest building society in the world, the property should be worth approximately 17 million pounds. Thus, Mr Aluko sold the property at a discount of £8,000,000.
How we used public photos to confirm Identity of London villa
In the application filed by the Nigerian government, the house number of the property on Grove End Road was omitted. However, PREMIUM TIMES’ extensive investigation in Nigeria and the U.K., including a detailed analysis of photographs of visits to Mr Tinubu, has shown that the APC leader is staying at the same property the Nigerian government wants forfeited.
We were also able to determine that it was at the same property that Mr Tinubu welcomed Mr Buhari on August 12 as well as other politicians who visited him. Our reporters carefully analysed some of the photos of these visits. Sources close to Mr Tinubu also confirmed that he stays and welcomes guests, including Mr Buhari, at the property.
Two photos of the visit of Mr Abiodun, the governor of Ogun State, were particularly helpful in making the initial connections.
We compared the photos with those of the estate published in an advertisement brochure for the property by the real estate firm Savills, and they matched with features seen in some of the photos shared by those who visited the political kingmaker and presidential hopeful.
In one of the photos, Mr Abiodun, wearing a blue jacket and brown pants, stood beside Mr Tinubu, who spotted a white robe just behind. Double door entrance in front of a staircase. They smiled as they touched each other with their elbows in what seems like a playful coronavirus “shake”.
The floor tiles of the doorway and the intricate mental work of the railings of the staircase are identical to one of the photos in the advertisement brochure of 32 grove End Road published by Savills.
In another photo, Messrs. Abiodun and Tinubu were captured having what seemed like a hearty laugh. A comparison of the concrete rectangular concrete slabs around the garden with those of the garden in the Savills brochure showed that they are identical.
We also compared the photos taken during Mr Buhari’s visit and those taken during the visit of the Kano State governor and his entourage and they clearly showed that Mr Tinubu met with them at 32 Grove End Road.
Beyond analysing photographs of the interior and exterior of the building, we also sent representatives to visit the location and determine that the APC leader stays there.
We put our findings to Tunde Rahman, the spokesperson for Mr Tinubu. He promised to get back within 24 hours when we reached him on the telephone. Four days after, we are yet to hear from him.
When reached for comments, Garba Shehu, the senior special assistant on media to Mr Buhari, asked that questions be emailed to him. We did as he instructed. However, we did not hear from him subsequently.
How Oyetola broke the law
In November 1999, eighteen years before it was used as a vehicle to purchase the London property, Mr Oyetola and his billionaire partner, Mr Eludoyin, sought the service of a Bristol, UK-based international company registration agent, Jordans Limited, to help them set up a company.
They wanted a kind of setup that would guarantee some secrecy and on November 11 of that year, the company was registered.
Leaked confidential records revealed that Messrs Eludoyin and Oyetola became the shareholders and directors of Aranda and we did not see any record that the latter resigned from the management of the company even as he served as chief of staff to his predecessor, Rauf Aregbesola, thereby breaking Nigeria’s law.
In Nigeria, a person is statutorily obligated to withdraw from engaging in or directing a private business, except if it is farming, upon becoming a public officer, Section Six (6) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act stipulates.
Apart from Aranda, Mr Oyetola has another footprint in the offshore shadow economy. He and Mr Eludoyin, in 2003, incorporated another shelf company in the British Virgin Islands, Global Investments Offshore Limited.
He ran the company as a director almost throughout his term as Mr Aregbesola’s Chief of Staff. However in June 2018, months before he became governor, he withdrew from the company and made his children – Rukayat Oyetola, Hafiz Oyetola, and Rasheedat Oyetola directors.
He also transferred his shares in Global Investments Offshore Limited to Mr Eludoyin and his son Haifz in June 2018. A register of directors we saw shows that all the formalities for the transfers were concluded and signed on June 1, 2018.
By remaining a director of Global Offshore for the entire period he was Chief of Staff to Mr Aregbesola, Mr Oyetola violated Nigeria’s code of conduct law and could be arraigned before the Code of Conduct Tribunal if authorities decide to prosecute him for the infraction.
It however remains unclear why Mr Oyetola would rush to buy a property his country was pushing to confiscate due to well-known corruption allegations against its then owner.
Also unclear is why Mr Tinubu, who apparently wants to become Nigeria`s president, would agree to stay at the controversial property.
As for Mr Buhari, it is yet unknown why he would visit Mr Tinubu at a property suspected to have been originally bought by Mr Aluko from the proceeds of alleged theft of Nigeria’s oil money.
Mr Oyetola ignored multiple requests for him to comment for this story. His spokespersons declined to revert days after they promised to do so.
As indicated earlier, the spokespersons for Messrs Buhari and Tinubu also declined to comment for this report despite multiple requests by our reporters.