The United Nations Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed is enmeshed in a rare controversy around her involvement in the illegal export of about 1.4 million logs of the precious rosewood valued at $300 million.
The former Nigerian minister of environment is accused in a report by Washington DC based NGO, Environmental Intelligence Agency (NIA), of authorizing retroactive export permits to release 10,000 containers of rosewood from Nigeria blocked for months on the Chinese border by the Customs authorities.
We have tried to help you understand the issues.
Why it matters?
- The West African rosewood is a rare forest specie which is protected by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
- The convention added rosewood – also known locally as kosso – to a list of flora and fauna species in May 2016 that require a CITES certificate before logs can be legally exported.
- Nigeria is a signatory to the convention which requires that exporters of rosewood obtain a CITES permit first before exporting. Also, the importing States are required to verify the legality of timber entering their territory.
- China desires a lot of rosewood for its furniture industry, and it has moved to Nigeria, which has the largest untapped resource. The Chinese have already depleted forests across countries in West Africa such as Gambia, Benin, and the Island of Madagascar.
The two accusations:
On the 16th of January, 2017, just one month to her resumption at the United Nations, Amina Mohammed signed 2992 certificates permitting exports of the precious wood in one day. That’s a whole lot of certificates to issue in a day.
Bribery: But the bigger issue, according to her accusers – the EIA – is that she allegedly signed 4000 retroactive CITES permits a few days before flying to New York to take her appointment as DSG. Basically, the wood had been exported illegally and Mohammed retroactively issued the permits after officials (including the minister), received up to $1m bribes from Chinese businessmen. Her retroactive action reportedly ensured the release of 10,000 containers from the Chinese ports where they were blocked.
According to Amina Mohammed, the certificates arrived “in bags and I signed because I had to do it”.
When asked by Le Monde magazine about the main issue in contention – the 4000 retroactive export permits – Mohammed denied ever signing any retroactive export permit for China. Amina was quoted by Le Monde (translated from French), as saying she has “no idea.”
“I have no idea of the cargo stuck in Chinese ports because we have no record of it. But I learned that some exporters, in anticipation of obtaining their document CITES, had exported their wood. An exporter who does so is liable to a fine. But it may also be that his situation is reconsidered if he has a good reason to have done so… How many cases have we reviewed? It certainly was not thousands or millions of certificates,” she said.
According to the Le Monde interview, Amina described these permits as “arrears” corresponding to export requests not processed by the current President Buhari administration (which she served under) because of the total embargo on exports of Rosewood introduced for a few months by Nigeria in 2016. This suggests that she simply made a regularization.
CITES (The Convention) Disagrees with Mohammed:
CITES has shown no indication that it is satisfied by Amina Mohammed’s account and has communicated its intent to address Nigeria’s conduct (Rosewood exports to China) during a meeting of treaty signatories in Geneva from Nov. 27 to Dec. 1. It is likely that the EIA charges will trigger an investigation.
The United Nations stands with Mohammed:
According to a UN spokesman, DSG Amina Mohammed “categorically rejects any allegation of fraud.” He also said that the SG Antonio Guterres has been briefed on the issue but “reaffirmed his full support and confidence.”
According to the statement, “The Deputy Secretary-General welcomes the effort to shine more light onto the issue of illegal Rosewood logging and exportation that she fought hard to address during her tenure in the Nigerian Government. She says that her actions as Nigerian Environment Minister were intended to deal with the serious issue of illegal wood exportation.”
In the statement, the DSG Amina Mohammed claimed to have instituted a ban on Rosewood exports and set up a high-level panel “to find policy solutions to the crisis of deforestation in Nigeria.”
According to the U.N. spokesman, “the legal signing of export permits for Rosewood was delayed due to her insistence that stringent due process was followed.” It authoritatively claimed, “the deforestation linked to the trafficking of Rosewood has been one of the most important topics” of the Amina Mohammed tenure as Environment minister.
Bribery Allegations in the Report
Testimonies reported by EIA indicate that a million dollars would have been paid to Nigerian parliamentarians to unblock the case. One of the general issues is that there was a lot of political pressure which Amina admitted to in the interview.
“Of course there are pressures. Hundreds of people came to my view by saying ‘Sign it because you know that we have already sent all!’ And I said no… I cannot sign. It is not possible. I will not sign anything that has not gone through an appropriate process,” she said.
Links to Boko Haram Financing
The EIA believes Boko Haram benefited from the Export. “It is likely that the export of kosso benefited Boko Haram”, the group wrote in its report.
Mohammed said that was another angle to the issue, but admits it is possible. “This is the first time I hear that Boko Haram could finance themselves like that. I think Boko Haram can finance itself with anything. So it’s always possible.”