Story Filed: Monday, May 01, 2000 10:53 AM EST
Lagos (The News, May 1, 2000) - The News speaks with the men that unearthed the $6 billion debt-buy-back scam in the Babangida era. The News also unravels an attempt to cover up Nigeria's biggest fraud ever, even as the Obasanjo government freezes the accounts of Babangida's allies abroad but keeps mum over the affair at home.
Last week, the Swiss Federal Banking Commission extended its probe of the close to one billion dollars of Nigeria's money stashed in the Swiss banks by the Abacha family and surrogates. Officials of 15 banks and their foreign subsidiaries were interrogated over the stolen money, now frozen following Nigeria's request. The accounts are in the names of General Sani Abacha, his son Mohammed, his widow, Mariam and his brother, Abdulkadir. The Swiss are probing possible breaches of Swiss and Nigerian criminal laws. "Our procedure will probably be the fastest", Urs Zulauf, deputy director of the banking commission said at its annual news conference in Berne.
The zeal with which Nigeria was pursuing the Abacha loot, contrasted sharply with the half-hearted way the regime has reacted to the report of a $6 billion debt buy-back fraud exposed by football star, John Fashanu. He claimed in a report published by Africa Confidential and Sunday Times, all based in London, that Nigeria's leaders between 1988 and 1993 plundered the country's treasury in the name of reducing her debt stock. The report merely confirmed an earlier audit by a panel headed by the respected economist, Dr. Pius Okigbo, that funds running into $12.4 billion, including the Gulf War windfall, were misappropriated by the government of General Ibrahim Babangida, then Nigeria's leader. Babangida, who ruled Nigeria between 1985 and August 1993, dismissed the Okigbo report as a hatchet job for the opposition members of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO).
For Babangida, with the latest release of the damning Fashanu report, the chicken has come home to roost again. Fashanu claimed he conducted a three year investigation that slammed several foreigners, who were all friends of Babangida.
The kingpin of the elaborate fraud on an unsuspecting nation, was Abdulkadir Ahmed, Governor of the Central Bank in the Babangida era. Ahmed died of brain tumour several years ago. And while he ruled the CBN, he presided over a complex debt buy-back scam involving a chain of surrogates and off-shore companies, not controlled by the Nigerian government but only by Babangida, Ahmed and their allies. The role of two American bankers identified with the scheme was quite instructive. The men were Jeffery Schmidt, also involved in the Ajaokuta debt buy back scam and Robert Minton.
"Schmidt had worked for Shearson Lehman and got to know Babangida and Ahmed when he worked on a Nigerian-Romanian debt swap deal. He became particularly close to Babangida and converted to Islam. Some regarded him as an unofficial presidential financial advisor," reported Africa Confidential recently.
Since The News broke the story three weeks ago, the Federal Government has curiously kept quiet over the matter at home. Spokesmen of a government that makes transparency and anti-corruption its planks have been disquietingly mute, although sources said government may have sent the Fashanu dossier to Babangida for a response. As at press time it was not clear if the query was formal and if Babangida had made an attempt to clear himself. Apart from the freezing of some accounts related to the $6 billion deal, nothing else has been done, even though the same government has pursued the Abacha loot with religious fervour.
"If they actually have evidence against IBB, I can assure you that Obasanjo will not spare him", said the Emir of Gwandu, Mustapha Jokolo, in a telephone interview with The News recently.
But observers said the Obasanjo government has shied from behaving vintage-like for fear of being locked in a deadly war of attrition with Babangida's military-political machine. Indeed, some sources said the caution by Aso Rock may have been justified by the big drama that unfolded at the Senate, when Arthur Nzeribe, a long-standing Babangida ally made a very unpopular move to trigger an investigation and impeachment of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Nzeribe's move was being interpreted as one of the acts of the master puppeteer, at Minna.
In an interview after the Fashanu report broke, Babangida denied allusions that he has been undermining the Obasanjo presidency. In an interview with the Saturday Tribune, Babangida said of his relationship with Obasanjo: "People will not like to see that I have a good relationship with the president. People create fictions but fortunately, both of us are no fools".
Obasanjo too had in the past dispelled hints of a crisis of strained relationship with IBB. In France, Obasanjo made such a gesture, when he dismissed as malicious, stories that Babangida looted Nigeria's treasury.
If President Obasanjo had thought the sweet words were meant to compensate a former junior who literally came to drag him into his second presidency, it was a mistake. The IBB defence by Obasanjo only spurred more outcries, more damning evidence that Babangida's books be re-audited. The greatest challenge yet has come from Fashanu, who last week also cried out that his life was in danger.
In an interview with a London-based tabloid, The Voice, Fashanu disclosed that an anonymous caller had warned him to back off from further investigating the plunder of the Babangida era. According to Fashanu, the caller told him he was playing a deadly game of Russian Roulette.
The News editors in the last two weeks have also been warned to keep off the story. The editors have alerted Nigerians about the threats.
Last week, The News got wind of tell-tale dossiers sent to the Nigerian government about the banking accounts of those involved in the alleged debt buy back fraud.
"Government is secretly acting on the reports", said a source at the weekend, who revealed that government has despatched letters to three banks, the Swiss Bank, Discount Bank and Trust in Geneva and Bank Austria, urging them to freeze deposits for Minton.
More banks are billed to receive official requests this week.
If the Nigerian government is truly eager to act on the Fashanu Report, the following information will be instrumental in freezing the accounts at Bank Austria and Discount Bank and Trust, which is where more Nigerian Funds are residing.
To facilitate the secret Nigerian buy back scheme, Mr. Minton arranged the formation of an off-shore company by the name of "Greenland Holdings" in Panama with nominee directors showing an address of Stauffacherstrasse 5, CH-8039 Zurich. Greenland Holdings was set up with bank accounts at the Osterreichische Landerbank in London and Vienna as well as Cantrade Bank in Switzerland. These bank accounts were administered by Mr. Kurt Bylang of Centrapriv, Switzerland for Greenland Holdings. Additionally Mr. Minton set up a secret investment account under the name of Predilect with accounts at Morgan Stanley and Cantrade Bank in Switzerland.
Subaccounts were reportedly set up to divert fees and commissions off these transactions and into dedicated accounts in Osterreichische Landerbank and other nominee banks which would then transfer these diverted funds to Discount Bank and Trust in Geneva and Osterreichische Landerbank London and Vienna offices, where funds would be deposited into separate personal accounts of Robert Minton. The accounts at Discount Bank & Trust Geneva were set up in 1982 and 1983. The account manager was Mr. Albert Cezanna. Mr. Minton was introduced to Mr. Cezanna at Discount Bank and Trust by his Turkish business associate Joe Bicaco. One of the personal accounts of Mr. Minton is in the name KAROSA Foundation and is administered by a Mr. Nessim Habib. A transaction involving nearly $4 million took place as recently as November 19, 1998 involving Mr. Minton and the KAROSA Foundation with an account number of 108: 10179140900 and confirmed Telex number of # 422766 DBG CH for that specific transaction, which shows the account still to be active. Mr. Minton used a code name: B. Katy to identify himself with Discount Bank and Trust. A code name is also referred to as a subjunctive name, made up by the individual to identify himself to the bank without disclosing his name.
It has been reported that, in an effort to hide funds and obstruct the investigation into Mr. Minton's Swiss finances he has transferred looted Nigerian funds into his wife (Therese Minton) overseas accounts at Discount Bank and Trust Geneva and London offices along with accounts and trusts set up in his children's names. Patricia Cousins in the London office of Discount and Nessim Habib in the Geneva office are said to be assisting officials in their duties. Osterreichische Landerbank was one of the many custodian/nominee financial institutions Mr. Minton, Mr. Eckels and their business associates used to hold, trade and transact their debt finance deals while diverting millions of dollars in margin profits and commission fees to their primary Swiss and Austrian accounts. Mr. Ben Brittain (living at White Acre Highgate Rd. Forest Row, was President of Osterreichische Landerbank during the time Mr. Minton and Mr. Eckels transacted their business there. Mr. Brittain has recently confirmed Osterreichische Landerbank did a large amount of transactions concerning Greenland Holdings, Triolet and other Minton business. Osterreichische Landerbank exclusively dealt in commercial transactions with a very limited private banking section that would not normally make a mortgage on a property in the United States.
The exception in this case involved the mortgagee (Mr. Minton) obtaining a mortgage through a cash collateral loan by borrowing his own money (now suspected to be Nigeria's money) using one of his Swiss or Austrian accounts. Mr. Gerald Croninberg was in charge of private banking in Vienna during that time. Croninberg became the representative for Bank Austria in Brussels. Osterreichische Landerbank was a subsidiary of Bank Austria. The private banking section was transferred to Standard Bank of London in 1996 and this would be where the records are maintained.
The News learnt that all the information has been sent to government. The Nigerian envoy to London, Bola Ajibola is said to be enthusiastic about chasing the loot. But for Babangida himself, his major headache will be how to swim free of the troubles triggered by the Fashanu Report.
My Probe Of The IBB Era-Fashanu
Three years ago, the English football star, John Fashanu sought to invest in his country, Nigeria. He decided on opening a duty free shop at the Murtala Mohammed Airport but there was a hurdle to skip. Nigeria's image was facing its worst assault in a decade- the advance fee fraud syndrome being the most disturbing of all. He chose to hire a group of investigators led by former French intelligence officer, Pierre De Monte, to check out his prospective partners. Below, Fashanu and De Monte touch on aspects of their investigation and the motivation that triggered the process.
"Before I invested there, I wanted to do a little bit of investigation on the people I was doing business with. I gave my investigating team a three-month contract. After three months, I was staggered by the volume of money which had been moving through certain people's accounts. I then gave them another contract to go on for another year and they ran with it. I then got another associate of mine, a very successful gentleman, financially very wealthy, to help me fund the team. Over the next two - three years we uncovered numerous documents and we realised that it was the secret Nigerian debt buy-back scheme. We have been able to identify substantial chunks of the missing $12.4 billion outlined in the Pius Okigbo Report submitted to the government in 1995.
(De Monte cuts in:) "So what we came across were the individuals and banks involved in the scheme. I would prefer at this stage to focus on the foreign crooks so that the present Nigerian government can identify them and indeed pursue them with the aim of reclaiming Nigeria's stolen money. When we started digging into the relationship between individuals and the banks, we then discovered the architects for one of the biggest financial frauds in history, namely, two American financiers, Robert Minton and Robert Smith. Minton, the operations manager set up the accounts and started the actual purchasing of Nigeria's debt through his old business partner, Smith and his U.S. company Turan. The Fashanu Report comprehensively details the dubious relationship between the two American bankers".
(De Monte continues:)
"So far the second part of the investigation revealed that there were actually no Nigerians involved in the conspiracy with the IMF and World Bank that seems to have been colluding with Robert Minton and a few of his front companies and individuals who manipulated the Nigerian debt being traded on the secondary market. These two American bankers conspired with numerous American and international banks to run billions of dollars of Nigerian funds through this secret mechanism making hundreds of millions of dollars in undisclosed fees and commissions while diverting Nigerian funds into their own secret Swiss and Austrian accounts.
Are there positive aspects of the debt buy-back scheme? De Monte says: "They did retire a lot of debt that Nigeria was under the burden of, however the problem is that they did not do it as per the terms of the contracts with the banks and debt holders that were originally involved and defrauded by the pair. They were involved in one of the most lucrative insider trading programmes".
The IMF and the World Bank were involved too? DeMonte: "The very same IMF and World Bank that are currently big news with various scandals being exposed worldwide. It's the same IMF and World Bank everybody falsely believes is this great big wonderful organisation that financially assists Third World countries in emerging markets and development programme. These financial institutions (IMF and World Bank) were set up to suppress Third World countries and keep them under control with money from the rich capitalist institutions that want to control the human and natural resources in these developing nations".
"Minton was quoted in the newsletter, Africa Confidential (31 March 2000) that he had "tacit approval" from the IMF and the World Bank to secretly defraud creditors and buy back Nigerian debt, both activities are prohibited due to the terms of the contracts that clearly state Nigeria has to treat all its debt equally so they can negotiate properly and above board in debt restructuring matters. However, what they did was to set up a secret mechanism so that they could go round and buy up certain specific debt, some real, some manufactured, to launder vast amounts of money while getting capital out of Nigeria. It was a very sophisticated operation run through certain bankers. For example, Chase Manhattan New York, Discount Bank and Trust Geneva, Bank Austria, Bank Boston, Morgan & Stanley Investments, GML (Growth Management Limited owned and operated by Robert Minton in London) to name but a few". Fashanu interjects: "I am pleased to inform you that (Nigeria) government has acted swiftly and purposefully to freeze looted funds identified in our report as belonging to Mr. Robert Minton and others".
In Africa Confidential, Minton stated that Bank Austria formerly Osterreische Landerbank in London and Vienna was a large participant in the scheme along with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Morgan Guarantee in New York, and the Bank of International Settlements in Basle, Switzerland. We are now able to provide a comprehensive report that actually show the conspiracy between the banks and certain individuals.
Nigeria's reputation has been tarnished by numerous reports of corruption and financial scams which gave Minton and Smith the perfect environment and opportunity to engineer this bold sophisticated financial fraud. The point is they would not have been able to do this without the willing participation of what we have come to know as the most solid banks in the world. If you look at it, these banks actively helped launder the money and conspired against other debt holders of Nigerian debt to sell their debt for cents on the dollar, so that Minton and the banks could make hundreds of millions of dollars.
What is the fraud here?
The fraud revolves around, how they bought the debt, who they employed and the banks they conspired with in the scheme, essentially that is the crux of the story".
And here we are basically talking of reputable international banks. Chase Manhattan, Solomon Brothers, Bank Boston, Bank Austria, Ansbacher Limited, Maryland National Bank (Luxembourg), Goldman Sachs of New York, Bank of America, Standard Chartered Bank of London and the largest bank in the world, Citibank. Some of these banks acted as the holding or nominee banks. These were the banks in the scheme that knew exactly what was happening. Many of these banks are currently under investigation for other money laundering offense.
Chase Manhattan is so important because they were the official registered agent for all promissory notes for Nigeria. Chase knew all the details of all the holders of promissory notes issued by the Nigerian government. A promissory note is a note guaranteed by the Central Bank of Nigeria saying, "Yes, we recognise your debt and we have now turned that into a promissory note which is just as good as money. You just have to wait for us to pay it. Any time a Nigerian note was created, transferred or swapped, Chase Manhattan Bank knew about it, collected a healthy fee and documented the details. Chase would also assign an identification number to the note which was used to track and identify the note. This information was considered highly confidential and extremely valuable, in fact so valuable it enabled Minton and Smith to corner and manipulate the entire Nigerian debt market worldwide worth tens of billions of dollars.
Smith and his company, Turan soon became known as the best source of information regarding Nigerian debt. Traders, banks and other individuals would come to Robert Smith for advice and consultation regarding the value of their Nigerian notes. Once consulted by Turan and Smith on how "so called" valueless their Nigerian debt instruments were, Smith would then check the data at Chase Manhattan Bank and have someone approach the holder and purchase the debt at a deep discount. Minton was not only aware of this but worked closely with Smith to consult and manipulate the Nigerian debt being traded on the secondary market. Smith had an arrangement with Minton to not only run the debt through the secret Nigerian buy back programme, but to use the Nigerian funds Minton was secretly controlling supplied by the Central Bank of Nigeria and the NNPC".
Whose money facilitated this scheme?
De Monte: "Can you imagine, they did not even use their own money, but Nigerian money to manipulate and corner the debt market while generating millions of dollars in fees and commissions not only for themselves but for the banks conspiring with them. The secretive Smith and Minton never disclosed their business relationship or insider activities to their business partners or debt traders they defrauded".
(Fashanu cuts in...)
"Billions of dollars of Nigeria's money went to Chase Manhattan Bank. What's nice is that this is not another familiar tale of Nigerians stealing money. Everybody concluded that it had to be Nigerians all the time. But in this case the investigation shows that it was the international finance institutions that endorsed and lead the secret programme. The big financial institutions are already on my back trying to obtain or buy copies of the report, I will not allow the facts to be distorted or covered up for any reason. I am distressed that Mr. Robert Minton and the banking institutions may be building their defence on the grave of the Central Bank Governor, Abdulkadir Ahmed who passed away a few years ago. If asked, I will be perfectly willing to explain this to the House of Representatives and senators. They are all young men, these are my friends, these are my associates and they have my full cooperation".
"By presenting these facts, we will educate the public about the dubious characters within the banking industry, which in recent years proved themselves to be unprincipled and totally profit motivated.
In conclusion, let me reiterate that there are those within the financial community who see Nigeria's assets as something they must plunder. What they must be taught is that Nigeria has a government now committed to anti-corruption and it is this government that sets the moral tone and culture and like most things, ethics starts at the top. Our people cannot exist on hope. They need money. We need the looted money back in Nigeria and this depends on how fast the Nigerian government can act. I am not interested in any political post, only the missing $6 billion coming back to Nigeria which bring smiles to the faces of all Nigerians".
Is this the whole story?
De Monte: More is yet to come if those involved in the fraud do not cooperate with the Nigerian government. I believe some form of contact is being made to those involved whilst some have had their banks accounts frozen. The next stage will be to reveal the identities of all those we have investigated if they do not cooperate. We have the details of their bank accounts including the secret codes of these accounts. Good enough, the stolen monies cannot be moved into different accounts. "It is too late. All eyes are on them ... it is too late now".
The Bad Guys
Profiles of some wheeler dealers in Nigeria's debt-buy-back scam
Robert P. Smith is the president, founder and sole proprietor of Turan Corporation. Smith is the self proclaimed oldest and largest independent dealer in Third World debt instruments. An examination of his background indicates that Smith and Robert Minton formed the company Turam in 1980. Smith and his company Turan ran over 45 Nigerian debt deals through the secret Nigerian Debt Buyback Scheme under the direction of Robert Minton. Smith was born in 1940. He graduated from Boston University Law School in 1965 and Bowdoin University, Burnswick, ME in 1962. His father founded Smith, Levenson & Smith, a small local law firm specializing in commercial collections for such companies as the Boston Globe, 3M and Gillette.
Smith, a lawyer, but joined the U.S. State Department in the 1960s. He spent most of his State Department career with the Agency for International Development (AID) and speaks French, Portuguese, and Spanish fluently. He chiefly administered foreign aid to some of Latin America's lesser-developed countries and from 1971 to 1973 was AID's chief of industrial development in Brazil. The officers of the company include, Marilyn Fischer, vice President, and Saleh Daher, treasurer. Fischer, who was born in 1937, has been with the company since 1982. She use to work for the State of Massachusetts Auditing Division from 1977 to 1982. Saleh Daher, who was born in 1955, graduated from MIT in 1976 and Stanford Business School in 1978. From 1978 to 1984 he was with Citibank. From 1984 to 1988 he worked for the Bank of Boston. Turan started in 1979 and was incorporated in April of 1981. It is a domestic corporation. 100% of the capital stock is owned by Smith. It is located at 160 Federal St. Boston, MA 02110. Also at the 160 Federal St address is a business called Turan Asia Private Limited. Turan has 22 employees, 12 who work at the Boston office. It maintains branches in Moscow, Nigeria and Singapore.
Robert Minton Robert S. Minton Jr. is a 53 year old retired investment banker. He is married to Therese Sheehan Minton and they have 2 female children- ages 11 and 13. Minton is currently separated from his wife and living at his home at 137 Fremont Rd. Sandown, New Hampshire. Therese Minton and their children are currently living in their Beacon Hill home located at 39 West Cedar St. Boston MA. Minton's financial background started in a couple of small New York and New Jersey banks when he was in his early 20's. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, he moved to New York/New Jersey and pursued a career in international banking. He went to work in the New York office of a small English based merchant bank named Bremar. He was taught a specific type of banking method by the owner of the company named Erwin Brecher. Bremar specialised in the restructuring of 3rd World debt for emerging markets in these 3rd World countries. This was in the mid to late 1970's and this is when Minton started to make a good living.
Brecher was the pioneer behind many complex and sophisticated finance methods to aide businesses and governments in 3rd World countries, especially Turkey. Minton focused on learning the practice called forfaiting and pre-export sales that was very much accepted in Turkey. It was in Bremar that Minton got his big start in 3rd World financing. In 1982 or 1983 Minton left Bremar. He started numerous companies of his own and went to live in Turkey for a few years, and then in Brazil for 6-12 months.
Why Obasanjo Can't Probe IBB
Attempts to investigate and recover any funds misappropriated from the 1988-93 buy-back would be delicate, involving detailed enquiries into big transactions under Babangida. Answering demands that Babangida should be personally probed by the government, Obasanjo says he has yet to see any conclusive evidence implicating his predecessor in fraud. The President needs to keep Babangida on side; he is still influential at home and abroad and, as a northern Muslim who still holds court in his mansion in Minna, has kept studiously silent about the Sharia (Islamic law) controversy (AC Vol 41 No 5).
The $6 billion buy-back operation was secret because Nigeria was breaking the rule that all types of debt must be treated equally. The scheme's kingpin, Abdulkadir Ahmed, Governor of the CBN, died of a brain tumour in the mid 1990s. The buy-back's complex structure involved a chain of front companies and offshore companies set up but not controlled by the government. The scheme was engineered by two American bankers, Jeffery Schmidt and Robert Minton. Schmidt had worked for Shearson Lehman and got to know Babangida and Ahmed when he worked on a Nigerian-Romanian debt swap deal. He became particularly close to Babangida and converted to Islam: some regarded him as an unofficial presidential financial advisor.
Schmidt and Minton initially used a London-based company, Growth Management Limited (GML) to buy-back Nigerian debt on the secondary market. The Nigerian government would pay funds into the Osterreichische Landsbank, which would pass on the credits to GML. They worked closely with traders of 'exotic debt,' such as Bob Smith of Turan Corporation in Boston, USA, an old partner of Minton's from a project in Turkey.
The Nigerian authorities feared that the close links with the London offices of the Osterreichische Landsbank might help creditors uncover the secret buy-back deal and insisted that the companies running the buy-back be based in the USA. There, Minton and Schmidt established one company to buy the debt (Shamrock Financial) and another to warehouse it on Nigeria's behalf (Triolet). To finance the buy-back, funds would be sent from either the CBN or the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to three banks: the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Morgan Guaranty in New York or the Bank of International Settlements in Basle, Switzerland. In turn, they would route the funds through an offshore company, Greenland Holdings, Incorporated in Panama.
Creditor banks at the time suspected Nigeria was buying back its own debt but did not know how. A member of the steering committee of Nigeria's creditors said: "Some of us were happy to get rid of our Nigerian liabilities. Partly because we were unsure about Nigeria's political future and partly because the Bank of England's new provisioning rules made it more expensive to hang on to it. So fraught were Nigeria's debt-rescheduling negotiations at the time-involving tortuous dealings with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank-that many commercial creditors didn't want to muddy the waters by demanding an investigation.
Minton, then chairman of Shamrock Financial, says many of the banks were aware of the buy-back in 'general terms' and took full advantage of it. For example, Britain's Barclays Bank sold some $300 million of Nigerian debt to the Osterreichische Landsbank in late 1991. Minton strenuously denies there was any financial wrongdoing or that any funds were secretly channelled to Swiss or Austrian accounts. He said the late CBN Governor, Ahmed, was "transparently honest and there was almost no possibility of fraud.
'We kept the Nigerian authorities fully informed with detailed reports submitted on a monthly basis accounting for all the funds received and disbursed... these reports are still with the Central Bank today, I believe." He added that he and his partner, Schmidt, had notified the IMF and World Bank about the debt buy-back scheme and that they had given it tacit approval. "It was a good deal for Nigeria, they bought their debt back at a heavy discount and avoided paying millions of dollars in interest."
The only foul play arose, Minton said, when security men abducted Schmidt from his Lagos hotel at midnight and accused him of funnelling all the country's foreign exchange abroad. They then demanded a cut and Schmidt told them to contact Governor Ahmed, Minton denies he and Schmidt made super-profits out of the buy-back. "We did well, we made tens of millions of dollars... not hundreds of millions and certainly not billions." Other bankers less closely involved insisted the scheme was legitimate. Stefan Pinter, managing director of GML, said: "It was one of the most effective buy-backs I've seen and of great benefit to Nigeria."
Minton says the investigations into the buy-back are being used as an opportunity by the Church of Scientology to discredit him. He says he has spent some $4 million in the last five years defending the right of former scientologists to criticise the church and has been the target of a campaign of abuse. "No one from the US or the Nigerian authorities has raised questions with me about the probity of the buy- back deal since it wound up in 1993," Minton said.
Publication date: May 8, 2000