LONDON (Reuters) - Jailed Nigerian former oil state governor James Ibori used front men and shell companies to acquire a hidden stake in privatised Nigerian fertiliser company Notore, a British police detective told a London court on Wednesday.
Detective Constable Peter Clark also said Ibori had bought two apartments in Washington in 2001 worth a total of $4.43 million, previously unknown assets to add to a list of six other Ibori properties in four countries worth $11 million.
The court was shown footage of one of the properties, a palatial residence in the Nigerian capital Abuja complete with marble columns, crystal chandeliers and a private gym.
Ibori, who governed oil-producing Delta State from 1999 to 2007, was jailed for 13 years in Britain last year after pleading guilty to 10 counts of money-laundering and fraud in one of the biggest embezzlement cases seen in Britain.
He is the most senior politician to be held accountable for the corruption that blights Africa’s most populous nation, where the majority have little or no power or running water.
A three-week confiscation hearing began at London’s Southwark Crown Court on Monday during which prosecutors will present evidence of Ibori’s assets and seek court orders to have them seized.
Clark, who has investigated Ibori’s finances since 2005, said the ex-governor was linked to Notore via a shell company incorporated in Mauritius and a circle of associates.
“It is my belief that James Ibori has some sort of hidden interest in the company Notore,” Clark said.
A spokesman for Notore who was present in court on Wednesday denied that Ibori had hidden assets in the firm.
“He does not own shares in the company and no other shareholder or shareholders hold shares for him in trust so far as the company is aware,” the spokesman told Reuters, asking not to be named.
Shares in Oando, Nigeria’s biggest home-grown energy firm, have fallen by 10 percent for two days in a row after alleged links with Ibori, denied by Oando.
“3 PERCENT FOR FRONT MAN”
Notore, which is not listed, grew out of the state-owned fertiliser company NAFCON which went bust in 1999. As part of a privatisation programme, Notore took over NAFCON’s assets for $152 million in 2005, according to its website.
Clark told the court that police had seized five files labelled NAFCON that linked Ibori to Notore at the office of London lawyer Bhadresh Gohil, who is serving a 10-year jail term for his role in laundering Ibori’s millions.
Gohil had incorporated a company in Mauritius under the name Notore Chemical Industries Mauritius Ltd, which Clark said appeared to be a shell company that would own part of Notore, Clark said.
Gohil had written in 2005 to Jite Okoloko, now chief executive of Notore, asking him to “confirm your instructions” regarding NAFCON and giving bank coordinates for transfers.
Gohil also wrote a memo about a visit he made to Lagos in 2005 during which he took part in a meeting with Ibori, Okoloko and Henry Imasekha, who is named as a co-conspirator in one of the two British indictments against Ibori, Clark said.
Gohil’s memo said the men discussed how equity in Notore would be split between various shareholders. They put the value of the company once it would be up and running at $1.2 billion.
A separate diagram drawn up by Gohil was described by prosecutor Sasha Wass as a “route map for the ownership of Notore”. It suggested that more than half of the firm, a stake valued at $39.7 million, would go to Ibori, Okoloko and Imasekha.
Clark testified that a 3 percent stake was allocated to Mike Orugbo, now a member of the Notore board.
“He was a front man used to purchase NAFCON from the Nigerian government. He obtained 3 percent to do so,” Clark said.
Ibori, who is at a maximum security prison in central England, has not attending the court hearings.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall