• Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Indian govt goes after fugitive brothers ‘balling’ in Nigeria

Sandesara Brothers (Bloomberg)

The Indian government has approached an Abuja High Court seeking an order compelling the Federal Government of Nigeria to extradite two of its nationals whom it has accused of financial crimes but are living large in Africa’s biggest economy.

After failed diplomatic efforts to have the Nigerian government extradite the Indian brothers, Nitin and Chetan Sandesara, who own Sterling Energy and Exploration Production Ltd in Nigeria, the country is seeking a court order to extradite them and seize their Nigerian assets.

When contacted, Vipul Mesariya, spokesman of the Indian high commission in Nigeria, said: “It is sub judice. The matter is in court. We cannot comment on it.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has accused the tycoons of absconding after defrauding public banks of more than $1.7 billion. They were declared Fugitive Economic Offenders.

A Fugitive Economic Offender is a legal term in India. It relates to any individual against whom a warrant for arrest in relation to a “scheduled offence” has been issued by any Indian court under the Fugitive Economic Offenders Act. It applies to individuals who either left India to avoid criminal prosecution or, being abroad, refuses to return to India to face criminal prosecution.

However, under Nigerian law, extradition isn’t often a straightforward process. It gets complicated when the subject has been accused of a crime in Nigeria.

Last year, a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja rejected an application by the Federal Government seeking the extradition of Abba Kyari, the suspended deputy commissioner of police, accused of fraud and money laundering in the United States.

In dismissing the application, Justice Inyang Ekwo said “the application is in breach of Section 3(f) of the Extradition Act, and by that Act, it is incompetent.”

Section 3(f) provides that “a fugitive criminal who has been charged with an offence under the laws of Nigeria or any part thereof, not being an offence for which his surrender is sought, shall not be surrendered until such a person has been discharged either by acquittal or on the expiration of his sentence”.

Read also: Two Indian brothers wanted at home are living big in Nigeria

Extradition matters in Nigeria are governed by the Extradition Act 1966, the Extradition Act Modification Order 2014, Federal High Court Extradition Proceedings Rules 2015, Extradition Amendment Act 2018 and its various treaties with nation-states.

Section 1 empowers the president to extend the application of the Extradition Act to any country with which Nigeria has signed a treaty regarding the surrender of persons wanted for prosecution or punishment.

Under Nigerian law, a Nigerian citizen, as well as a non-citizen, can be extradited provided that such a person has been accused of a crime and proper application has been made for the surrender of such person to face trial.

The case of the Indian brothers is more nuanced. While the Indian government has charged them with crimes, the Nigerian government is treating them like guests as they have enough dollars to invest in the oil sector.

Sandesara Group’s Nigerian arm Sterling Global Oil Resources Ltd in 2004-05 won a small area of 29 sq. km for exploration in Nigeria via bidding. The company said it has a licence to explore and produce crude oil from four onshore blocks with a total acreage of almost 2,000 sq. km, with Shell and Chevron as neighbours.

The group’s subsidiaries — Sterling Oil Exploration & Production Co. and Sterling Global Oil Resources Ltd. — pump about 50,000 barrels of crude a day in the delta via contracts with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited.

Another unit expects to bring a third block into production this year that will eventually raise total daily output to above 100,000 barrels per day in a period of five years.

Section 3 of the Extradition Act provides that a fugitive may not be extradited for political crimes, or if he sought merely to be punished on account of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion. If the application was otherwise not made in good faith or in the interest of justice, or in the case that if surrendered, the person is likely to be prejudiced at his trial.

Nigeria has refused India’s request to extradite them, and BusinessDay has seen Nigerian government documents shielding them from extradition to India.

Some analysts contacted said the issue has implications. Paul Ananaba, a senior advocate of Nigeria, said: “Nigeria has a moral obligation to allow anyone being prosecuted to face trial; however, countries often act in their best interest and Nigeria may have its reasons for refusing.”

There is a concern that sheltering persons accused of using the proceeds of crime to facilitate oil investments in Nigeria apart from damaging the country’s reputation does not help current efforts to remove Nigeria from an international list of countries with weak systems to check money laundering and other financial crimes.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, identifies jurisdictions with weak measures to combat money laundering and terrorist financing in two FATF public documents that are issued three times a year.

The FATF’s process to publicly list countries with weak anti-money laundering and counter-financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regimes has proved effective. As of June 2023, the FATF has reviewed over 125 countries and jurisdictions and publicly identified 98 of them. Nigeria is one of them.

Nigeria is classified under Grey-list countries, which refers to those actively working with the FATF to address strategic deficiencies in their regimes to counter money laundering, terrorist financing, and proliferation financing.

Nigerian authorities responsible for implementing the country’s AML/CFT framework say they are working hard to exit Nigeria from FATF’s grey list.

At a retreat in Abuja on June 23, Modibbo Tukur, CEO of the NFIU, through a representative, said: “Stakeholder agencies involved in the country’s AML/CFT framework together with representatives from the private sector met in May this year and agreed a revised strategic roadmap to exit the grey-list.”