Cover Interviews

I’ve never and will never launder money – Peter Obi

*Politics made me poorer

*Nigeria’s economy is seriously collapsing 

Former Governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi after what is called Pandora Papers leakages, granted a no-holds-barred interview to theArise TVbreakfast programme, The Morning Show, speaking on the issue linking him with stashing money away in offshore accounts in places referred to as tax havens. Excerpts of the interview is reproduced below:

You were named in the Pandora Papers as someone involved in setting up secret companies, involved in money laundering, illegal purchase of properties overseas, while you were in office as governor or Anambra State. Are you guilty as charged?

I’m not guilty as charged. Trust company is a legitimate vehicle used everywhere globally for investments, savings and estate planning purposes. It is allowed by law everywhere. 

In my particular case and that of my family, it was done on very valuable advice of our then bankers – Llyoyds PFB. This is what they did to all their international clients who operated at the time I lived in the UK. 

They would help you to see that you formulated a Trust Company offshore. And that’s what we did. This company was never used to launder money, before during and after, till date. It wasn’t used anytime I was in the office for anything.

Secondly, it was never used to buy property, before I went into office, during the time I was in office and after I was in the office. It was strictly a trust company for savings and family planning, used strictly to support our borrowings, which we even invested in this country. And these are facts. They are not hidden.

According to confidential information, you have about half a billion dollars stashed away in the British Island. Can this amount be described as legitimate earning?

I don’t think I will even be here if I have that kind of money. You know when people bandy money and talk about size of money here, its because we are not a productive country. People don’t work for their money; so we find it difficult to understand the value of money.

Let me explain. Globally, the world population is 7.8 billion, out of which only about 37.5 million is worth $1 million. Only three million is worth $10 million and only 300,000 is worth $25 million. So, when people call these figures, it’s alarming. It’s because of the fact that we live in a country where people make money they don’t need.

If you go anywhere near these companies mentioned globally and find more than about three per cent of the value you mentioned now – I am talking about $15 million out of which 70 per cent is supporting a loan on investments in this country, then confiscate everything I have. Do you know what half of a billion dollar is? That’s almost N300 billion.

My entire earnings while I was governor of Anambra State, was below N500 billion, out of which I saved 15 per cent – N75 billion. I don’t know how people call figures here and that is why people make money they don’t need. What do you need that kind of money for? Why do you need to do that?

One of the challenges that I am going to throw today, is to ask you and some other persons to select one, two, three, or four persons that I would foot their bills to follow the trail of this company to where it is today and see the formation – who gave the advice and how we came to where we are. You won’t even find 5 per cent of that the figure you mentioned anywhere. If I had $500 million, you would have seen me building universities everywhere. You know how many institutions I support? I will be building universities all over the places.

They said you didn’t resign as Director of NEXT International (UK), until 14 months after you became governor. Tell us about it?    

We have a company in Nigeria called NEXT International, Nigeria Limited. Its an offshoot of NEXT international (UK), which I run as Managing Director. This company is a UK-based company. It is a brand-management company and we are representatives of companies like Heinz and a number of multinational companies in West Africa. I was the CEO.

It is good that I tell you the background of how I became governor. I was living in the UK and operating in Nigeria. I was declared as governor, winner of the election on Tuesday, 16th of March, 2006. On that day, I was presiding over Fidelity Bank Board meeting as the Chairman. One of the members is Bismark Rewane. He’s a man you know very well. The late Ndubuisi Kanu was a member of the board and General Magoro too. I was the Chairman.

I was presiding over a board meeting and suddenly, the late Ndubuisi Kanu, said, stop Mr. Chairman. I said, what? And he said, you have been declared Governor of Anambra State. That was at a board meeting. That was how the meeting stopped. 

From there, I called and they said you had to proceed to Abuja, for INEC to give you Certificate of Return. So, I left the board meeting, went to the airport, boarded the next flight to Abuja. By 6pm that day, they gave me Certificate of Return. I said to them that I wanted to go back to Lagos the next day to get my clothes, just my clothes and to bring a few things so that I could go to Awka for swearing-in. They said, no, you need to proceed to Awka immediately, because the then governor, Dr. Chris Ngige, because of the circumstances, had left the country. 

Immediately I was declared, he lost his immunity. So, he went through the boarders and left the country. So, there was no government in Anambra state. That was how the next morning, I moved to Awka. I took a flight to Enugu and arrived Awka. As I arrived Awka, they took me to the Chief Judge in a small space. He said these are your forms to fill to declare your assets. It took me about 30 minutes and I put in whatever I could remember and the next thing, I was sworn-in as the governor.

When I finished the swearing-in, I asked, where does the governor live? They said, there is no house, because the Governor’s House had been burnt. Where is his office; there was no office. So, what do I do? I then managed to get across to somebody who got across to Ngige and he said nothing. So, I moved to my village. And that’s where I stayed. From there, I phoned every company. Let me start with NEXT International (UK). NEXT International (UK), as at the day I am telling you, received overdraft from Lloyds Bank of over $7 million. This was a trading company. As at that day, it had over 200 containers in the high seas. And I had just been announced governor and here I was running a company. The only thing I could do was to phone my wife, because she worked with me and everybody knows that – she was my deputy. So, I said, you take charge, I will never come to London again. See what has happened to me. And I was chairman and director of about 11 companies. I phoned all of them to say I have resigned.

From that day I went to Awka, until I was impeached in November, I never left Awka. Not for one day. I resigned. I am wondering why this, 15 years after!

Did you do the needful? Did you include NEXT in your assets declaration forms?

You see, when they are talking about declaration, I told you that this company is owned by NEXT Nigeria. I didn’t declare assets I dint own. I didn’t declare some other assets because they had been declared somewhere. So, if I declared NEXT Nigeria that I owned five per cent, I don’t have t declare another interest that NEXT Nigeria owns. Besides, I didn’t declare other things because there were so many things that were bought from borrowed money. 

If you borrow money and buy this suit, when they ask if you are the owner, you have to put a remark that you are owing somebody because it is not your suit. He can come and collect it tomorrow. So, what I tell people is that I declared what belonged to Mr. Peter Obi. Not even Peter Obi, wife and children. No. Because, I can tell you – I don’t know how other people operate. 

In my house, my wife will always remind me that this thing belongs to me, its not your own. My daughter will even say it with emphasis. When I told them that I wanted to go and do politics, you know the first thing they asked me? Daddy, I hope what you want to use to go and do politics is your own money? So, I can’t go and start declaring things that do not belong to me. Besides most of the assets I declared, had been declared somewhere. 

For instance, I own shares in a bank with my name and I declared it. I didn’t declare the one NEXT International owned, because I had already declared my Interest in NEXT International. It will amount to double declaration.

But did you set up this offshore company to avoid tax due to the Nigerian government?

I can tell you that I am a faithful citizen of anywhere that I’ have passed through. I cannot evade tax. It will never happen. Every investment I’ve done globally is legitimate. If you are a black man in London, you are a suspect. If you’re a Nigerian, you are a double suspect. For me to live in the UK, where my bank said his account has been conducted in unimpeccable manner, and gave me over $7 million overdraft, it showd I’m a man of integrity. 

If I owned anything in the UK, I pay the UK government their tax. I own a property in London, I pay tax. I cannot come and pay property tax in Nigeria for property I own in the UK. Money I earn here, I pay. Don’t forget I was a subject of probe for tax two years ago in Anambra State and I showed evidence that in the past 20 years I had consistently paid my tax and I have never paid less than N50 million annually. So, I pay my tax. May be they expected that $500 million and they think it is all about tax. No. The taxes were duly paid for investments, incomes as expected. I cannot evade tax.

But what about the specific allegation that you flouted the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau and the constitution by having a foreign account as a public officer? 

No, I didn’t. I didn’t break the law. Everything I did was within the law and I have told you the circumstances under which I became governor. Notwithstanding, the reason why it takes about three months after to be sworn-in after winning election is to be able to have orientation. Notwithstanding that I never had any orientation, nobody said to me you have to do this and that. But by my own commitment to do the right things I tried to stay within the law. And I can tell you, I worked within the law. 

What you’re seeing now is a situation where they have looked and said if we can’t find anything against this man, since he has been going about preaching about savings and all that, let’s just throw anything at him.

When I was preaching about savings, that’s exactly what I did in government. The very first day I became governor, the first thing I discussed with my executive in my first meeting was that we must save money. They came up and said why and I said, as a father I must save money for my children and they know. So, I must save money for the children of Anambra State. 

Even when I was impeached, go and read my impeachment notice, one of the charges against me was saving money without the authority of the House. I came back from that impeachment and said we must continue saving. As long as I am here, whenever we receive our FAAC allocation, the first thing we do is remove money for pension, remove money for gratuity, remove saving, pay salary, then the rest we can work with. If you don’t do it, I am not part of it. This you can see everywhere. 

If you go to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s book, on page 61, she said it there that all the governors who were at the meeting, refused when she was talking about savings. She said there that only Peter Obi, who argued for saving, but was shouted down by his colleagues. It was only Liyel Imoke that supported me. If you call Segun Aganga, when he was doing Sovereign Wealth Fund, he will tell you. It is in his own note that it was only Peter Obi who supported Sovereign Wealth Fund to be set up as saving. 

And I have said it. If I have the opportunity of being at the leadership of Nigeria at the helm, the first executive bill I will take to the House is that Nigeria must save money. We must have five to 10 per cent of our resources from oil, from mineral and natural resources saved for future generations. That’s why we have a problem whenever we have a downturn because we don’t save. You must save money, you must bequeath your children a better place than you found it. And that includes saving for them.

Just confirm what you said about not having $500million or one-third of that?

I didn’t say one-third. I said three per cent of that, which is about $15 million. If I bequeath $500 million for my children, I have cursed them. There’s money you bequeath to people and you have cursed them. You bequeath to them what is manageable so that they can start their lives. If you see anything more than that, confiscate whatever I have overseas and locally here.

But you always question President Muhammadu Buhari’s borrowings? What do you say about his position that the government would spend it’s way out of recession?  

The first thing you do when you have a recession is very simple; you cut your costs. You cannot continue to live the life you lived when things were normal. You say you spent your way out of recession. What did you achieve? Before recession, a bag of rice was about N12,000 and we went into recession and it is now about N30,000. Let’s leave economics, let’s deal with reality on the ground. When we say we have come out of recession what are you talking about. If we must borrow when we are in a recession to come out, we have throw the money into critical areas that will not just pull you out of recession but can grow your economy and make it work. The borrowing was thrown away. Can they tell us how it was spent to come out of recession?

 We are not in America where people can just borrow money to consume because it’s a developed economy. This is an economy that requires critical investments in critical areas and moneys were borrowed for consumption.

But the President is arguing that the problem Nigeria has is not about debt but about revenue problem and that his administration is committed to a revenue to GDP ratio of 15 per cent. Is that achievable?

It is not achievable! Not even in the next five years. We have a debt problem and not revenue problem. Don’t look at your debt to you GDP; look at your debt to your revenue. That’s what you should compare. 

Why do I say this? There is a simple link between pulling people out of poverty and increasing your revenue. We’re talking about tax revenue. Everywhere in the world you cannot have 98 million people in poverty and you are talking about revenue. Who is going to pay you the tax? 

Let me give you an example of comparable countries of our size. Philippine today has revenue to GDP of 14.1 per cent, their unemployment rate is four per cent. Vietnam is about 12 per cent, their unemployment is 6; Bangladesh is nine per cent, their unemployment is six. I can go on and on.

 These countries have achieved GDP of about nine or 10, but look at their unemployment, it’s below 10. But here, we have unemployment and underemployment of about 50 per cent, which will even be more. 

The working population of Nigeria is 120 million out of which only 55 million is working. So, if you want to double this revenue, by the time you put 30 million people to work, you double the revenue. But if they are still there you cannot double the revenue. It is a simple thing. If you are not working will you pay tax. It’s because you’re working that you can pay tax. 

In my own village, I can tell you, 70 per cent don’t pay tax. They actually live off begging. So how would they pay tax? The more you pull people out of poverty, the more your revenue increases. The faster the economy, the more you create room for development. That is why I say, borrowing is not a problem, you can borrow money. But what is it for? On the issue of saving, you can even save when you’re borrowing. 

Norway with $1 trillion Sovereign Wealth Fund, their debt to GDP is 34. they’re borrowing and saving. Japan, with 200 per cent debt to GDP is saving. So, if we organise ourselves properly, we can do all these things – pull people out of poverty, create more revenues, invest it properly and that’s it.

The Minister of Finance Budget and Planning said Personnel Cost, Debt Servicing, and Capital Expenditure account for 85 per cent of the 2022 budget and there is scope for cuts in the medium term. What’s your response to that?   

You know, I don’t like talking directly about their budget. First, you have a budget that is skewed towards personnel costs. Recurrent Expenditure. It shouldn’t be for a developing economy. We have agreed that our borrowing is N6 trillion, which is about 35 per cent of the budget. But I can tell you that it will be worse. In that budget, you will see where they made a provision of putting money into the sinking fund. 

This year, unless it started yesterday, we have not put a kobo into the sinking fund. And you’re borrowing more. And they’re saying they’re borrowing for infrastructure and all that. Show us in specific terms. Egypt borrowed money to fund Siemens Power. Be specific so we know what we are borrowing for. May be we want to give it to Siemens because we want to generate so so amount of power or that we are giving it to those who are generating power, so that they would do this or that. But don’t just speak in general terms. Anyway, he is a Minister of Government. But just know that things are not going the right way.

What about the benchmark?

The benchmark is reasonable. But what I want to see about the benchmark is where Nigeria will say, anytime we are above the benchmark, anything extra we earn, goes into the Sovereign Wealth Fund. That shows seriousness. 

This idea of having Excess Crude Account, is what I find unhelpful. Why can’t we have a law that says anything that is above the benchmark will be saved. Oil is an asset that is depreciating and diminishing and one day it will end. Why don’t we have an amount that we throw into saving and have our sinking fund protected because this is how we’re going to pay back this loan. They said GDP is growing. You can make anything out of GDP.

The President promised to pull 100 million out of poverty in 10 years, that’s 10 million a year. But in the last six years, they have thrown more people into poverty. That means nobody was pulled out. And now, one year to go, he says he will pull 100 million in 10 years. I can tell you what I want to see is a GDP that can pull one million people out of poverty in the next one year. Let’s see people who have come out of poverty. Let them show us the critical areas they are investing this money and how it is going to happen. That’s what we want to see.

On your state, Anambra, where there are talks about the likelihood of a State of Emergency. The Attorney-General of the Federation is saying one thing and the governor of the state saying one thing. There is also talks centred around the holding of the governorship election of November 6, especially as INEC is asking for more security. What do you say to all these?

Let me just say that people in government when they make statements should always first of all evaluate the implications of their statements to the overall wellbeing of the country. People don’t know that the greatest contributor to GDP growth is the intangible assets, which is security, law and order and even behaviours and statements of the leaders. Their statements can hurt the economy and hurt the place. So, they must ensure that their words and their statements are somethings that have gone through scrutiny. 

Saying that you want to declare State of Emergency in Anambra because of insecurity should actually mean that you have to declare a State of Emergency in Nigeria. So, that statement from the Attorney-General shouldn’t be. Also, he’s the Attorney-General of Nigeria and not Attorney-General of the APC. The position you are, you are now working for Nigeria. When I come to the Economic Council, I don’t come there as Peter Obi, Governor of Anambra State, I come as one of those who are leading Nigeria as one of the sub-nationals contributing to the growth of Nigeria and that’s how I speak. He’s the Attorney-General of the Federation and not of the APC.

Also, I listened to the comments of my Governor. He said he did not attend the meeting (of South East leaders) because his colleagues are sponsoring those who are coming to cause problems or kill people in Anambra State. I think that is the reason why he should have gone to the meeting, where there was a gathering of these people and the leadership of the South East, look in their face and say, you are the problem. All these things people come to the TV and grandstand should stop.

I also listened to an insensitive statement from him, saying, just because 15 people died. Those 15 people include two professors of medicine. I went to collect Chike Akunyili’s corpse from the police and there I saw three headless people. We are a country. We should be sensitive to one person dying as we are to 20. 

When people ask me about insecurity, I say, people are dying in the North everyday. Everyday I wake up, I pray for this country and say, God whatever offence we have committed, forgive us. What is happening in the North is of worry to me as it should be to everybody, even though I am not from there. So, Federal Government should not talk about State of Emergency. 

Failure of security is their failure because they are in charge of security, unless they are saying they are going to declare State of Emergency in the country. All we are asking in Anambra is, let us have a free and fair election. That’s all. One person will be governor. I was once a governor. There’s nothing there. In fact, I never knew Anambra will get to this stage.

Where do you stand on the election? Should the election hold or should it not hold?

For me, the election must hold. There is no reason shouldn’t hold. The issue of insecurity which is now being raised, if the government wants to address it, it will be done. That’s why I said the governor should have attended that meeting and resoled the issue with his colleagues.

When I was governor, I had a notorious criminal coming from Enugu to operate in Anambra State, I had another notorious criminal coming from Abia. The one from Enugu, they called him “Ngwu ekere omu”, and the one from Abia, they called him “Osisi ka nkwu”. But because we were working together, I was able to agree with then Enugu governor. We knew the day this man came for operation with his gang and we decided on that day. Once he entered Anambra State, they blocked Enugu. The police were chasing him, he abandoned his car and wanted to swim across the stream and he was caught. The same thing happened to the one from Umuahia. The one from Umuahia kidnapped the people that came to work for Innoson Motors. We followed him to Umuahia and with the co-operation of the Governor of Abia State, that was the end of him. Even the other one that was from Anambra but came to operate from Umuahia, called “Ofe akwu”, it was the same thing. 

So, you’ll go and sit with your colleagues, look into their faces and say, I have a problem. This thing is coming from your state. That’s how to resolve the problem. They will resolve it. 

The election should go on. INEC should ensure free and fair election and even transmit results electronically. If you ask the people to come out, they’ll vote for who they want.

The picture we seem to get is that the leadership of the PDP has zoned the chairmanship of the party to the North, the presidency should come to the South. But some people are saying that’s not cast in stone. And Chief Raymond Dokpesi says the presidential ticket should be zoned to the North. What’s your reaction?  

The National Executive Committee of the party has decided. I didn’t attend as a person. What I heard from the feedback is that they decided that the chairmanship should go to the North and that the presidential ticket should be open to everybody. That is the position. And once that’s the position of the party, everybody should obey it. I am an obedient party person. Whatever the party decides I am for it. 

My commitment is that if they say it’s by zoning, please, any zone where it goes, let’s go and find competent persons. Every zone in this country has competent persons that can do the work. Let us find a competent person with capacity and that is visionary enough to pull this country in the right direction. Not to pull it out of the blues but pull it in the right direction because the problem is much and you can’t pull it out. Let us start moving in the right direction. 

Where we are going now, our compass is pointing that we are moving in the wrong direction. And it is not about this government. It is rather that we have done the wrong things over the years. We need to see people who are committed in pulling this country in the right direction, who will understand that now, we don’t have money and we don’t have to be doing all sorts of things, we need to cut our costs, we need to do this, get a competent person at the helm of affairs. It is critical; it is important.

Again, if they say it will be open, let all those who say they are interested come out so we can actually start evaluating them. What we are seeing now is that everybody is keeping quiet. Somebody told me a year ago that: Peter, in this country, they usually don’t like somebody who comes out and talks. He gave me an example that this man was talking too much they brought this man and the other man was talking too much and they brought this man. And I said that this is the problem, because we never heard from this man and he just comes from the blues and nobody knows where he really stands. 

They said to me, you know during your tenure in Anambra State, people suffered and they are saying that people are afraid that people will suffer when you get there because they won’t eat anything. And I said to him, weren’t people being paid salaries, weren’t people eating? People were eating. Those who suffered were people who wanted to take public money for free. We didn’t have money to offer anybody for free and that is how we saved. He said, oh! What about the one you saved? I said, I saved it because it belonged to the people of Anambra State.

But why are you not putting your hat in the ring?

We are waiting to see what the party will decide.

That means you’ll be running?

When they decide, we are going to make up our minds to say we are going to go in this direction or that direction. You don’t go before the party. I am a party man. We will see what the party wants to do. But for me, I continue to say it, 2023 is critical. 

This country is collapsing economically. All these our problems you see are an economic problem. If you start pulling people out of poverty, you will start reducing all this criminality that you’re seeing today. It’s happened everywhere from Brazil to Philippines to Bangladesh to Indonesia, the more they pulled people out of poverty, the more you see the countries growing. You can’t throw people into poverty and think you can go home and sleep.

Back to Pandora Papers. People are asking that since you are known more as an economist and businessman, what business do you do that you can afford to keep $15 million in an offshore account?

That’s a good question. When I came here, I brought a few things that ought ordinarily be personal to me. I lived in England when they introduced American Express Platinum card and they said 5,000 people will get it. Those 5,000 people, their cards showed charter number, this is my own, showing my charter number with membership since 1987. 

I lived in England when American Express introduced Black Card and they said 1,000 persons will be issued with this card, I have it here showing charter number. To show you my experience with this card, they told me to go and collect this card somewhere in Sloane Street, when I came out from the station, the man who was in the office when I came to collect it, asked when I introduced myself where I came from and I told him that I came from underground. He said, underground? I said, yes. Then I called my name and he said we don’t have any card like that here. So, I left to go back to the station, because everybody who knows me when I lived in England, knew that I used the underground. 

So, I was going back to the station when my bank manager called me and said, Peter, go back there, I think they have found your card. The shock was, how could this man come from underground to collect this card when everybody coming to collect came in Rolls Royce. I had a viable business. If anything politics, I am not regretting because anywhere I find myself is the grace of God. 

That is why when I went into politics and people were saying this and that, I said, listen, I came to this place by the grace of God Otherwise, if there is anything I want to regret in my life, it is going into politics, because it made me poorer. But however, I am glad that God allowed me make a success of it.

The question is what kind of business were you doing?

That is what I was coming to. I was involved in the brand marketing management company that I run. I had Heinz franchise. I was the sole agent, salad creams, baked beans, just an example of one company. Then, there is the South African Breweries, I was their sole agent here. I was bringing in Ovaltine from Novatis. In fact to tell what the company is, the company that I was involved in before, when I left and my brother took it over and paid me off, became NEXT Cash and Carry that you see in Abuja and Port Harcourt now. 

I was a trader. Everybody knows, I was a very big trader. I was into importation of wines and champagnes. I had a viable business. Then I went into banking. If the person wants to know, I was sitting on the board of three banks including the one I was chairman before I became governor. So, that was also my business.

So you have shares in those banks?

Major shares!

Major shares in those banks?

Yes!

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