Rosewood Exports: Amina Mohammed Acted within the Law, Says Environment Minister

 Debunks reports that ex-minister is under probe

Abimbola Akosile in Lagos and Adedayo Akinwale in Abuja
The Minister of State for Environment, Usman Jibril, has said the former Minister of Environment, Mrs. Amina Mohammed, who is now Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, acted within the law of Nigeria and the protocols of International Environmental conventions while in office during which she signed CITES permits for rosewood exports to China.
Jubril also denied media reports that the former minister was being probed by the ministry following allegations of impropriety by a non-governmental organisation.
In a statement on Saturday in Abuja, Jubril said the report by Environmental Investigation Agency, an NGO that specialises in investigating environmental crimes, contained spurious and unsubstantiated allegations. Jibril stressed that Mohammed’s actions as minister did not involve any illegal activities. 

The EIA report said that Mohammed might have derived personal benefits from signing thousands of allegedly backdated permits in January 2017. EIA alleged that the permits were used to clear illegal rosewood exports to China. It stressed that the permits were signed at the time Mohammed was preparing to leave as Minister of Environment after her appointment as Deputy Secretary-General of the UN.

The EIA report alleged that over 1.4 million illegal rosewood logs from Nigeria, worth $300 million, were detained at the ports in China in 2016 but were released after the presentation of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) certificates signed by Mohammed.

But in a statement Saturday, Jibril said, “The attention of the Federal Ministry of Environment has been drawn to reports being widely circulated in the media alleging variously that the ex-Minister of Environment and now Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Mrs Amina Mohammed, was allegedly involved in wood export racketeering to China.

“The report, which contained, spurious and unsubstantiated allegations against the former minister, is a pure misrepresentation of facts, baseless and intended to smear not just Mrs Mohammed, but the Nigerian government.”

The statement said, “The Ministry of Environment wishes to state unequivocally that the ex-minister is not under any probe whatsoever over any purported wrongdoing whether locally or internationally.

“The ex-minister acted within the ambit of the law of both the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the protocols of International Environmental conventions while in office between November 2015 to February 2017

“For clarity, the processes involved in issuing approvals for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) are as follows: potential exporters are required to apply to the Ministry; inspection of factories and premises for compliance by wood experts; qualified exporters are issued letters of support; invitation of the Ministry by the exporter for the stuffing of the containers; exporter applies for CITES permit; granting of approval

“The Ministry states clearly that all the CITES permits signed by the ex-minister was done in line with stringent guidance and procedures.

“Specifically, Rosewood (Kosso) is under CITES Appendix II which allows sustainable trade to improve the livelihood of people in line with international best practices. For the records, the CITES permits signed by the ex-minister were in batches from August, 2016 to January, 2017.

“In line with established public service norms, the ex-minister continued to perform her duties diligently up to the last minute of her last day in office on February 24th 2017.

“In conclusion, it is important to state that Mrs Amina J. Mohammed, during her tenure as Minister of Environment, carried out far reaching reforms in the environmental sector particularly in bringing Rosewood from unguided trade of CITES Appendix III to Appendix II, which sanitised the wood industry in Nigeria. In addition, she led the Review of Endangered Species Act, Convention on International Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora, and duly signed by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, on 3oth December, 2016.”

Meanwhile, the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Antonio Guterres, has reacted to the allegations against Mohammed, insisting he has confidence in his deputy. Guterres’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, who signed a statement on his behalf, said Mohammed had the UN Secretary-General’s “full support and confidence.”

Mohammed has also denied the allegations that she was involved in the illegal export of African rosewood, also known as kosso, from Nigeria to China, a lucrative trade estimated to be worth about $1 billion in the last four years. Mohammed, who was Nigeria’s Minister of Environment before resigning to take up the UN job, made the assertion at the weekend in an interview with an online newspaper, TheCable.

Dujarric stated, “I will say the following. First of all, just to be clear that the secretary‑general was informed by the deputy secretary‑general about the reports, and he reiterates his full support and confidence in her. She, the deputy secretary‑general, Amina Mohammed, of course, categorically rejects any allegations of fraud.

“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.”

“As a result, she instituted a ban and set up a high‑level panel to find policy solutions to the crisis of deforestation in Nigeria. Mohammed says the legal signing of export permits for rosewood was delayed due to her insistence that stringent due process was followed. She said she signed the export certificates requested before the ban only after due process was followed and better security watermarked certificates became available.”

The former minister denied the allegations in an interview with an online publication, maintaining, instead, that she worked hard at the ministry to stop the illegal export of the tropical hardwood used for rosewood furniture in China.

Mohammed, who was appointed environment minister by President Muhammadu Buhari in November 2015, said, “No permits were backdated or illegally signed by me. We are therefore appalled if any legally obtained or forged certificates were used by unscrupulous rosewood traders to circumvent exportation procedures…

“Not only do I decry fraud and corruption, we also categorically reject any allegations of corruption or coercion in our effort to better address illegal logging and exportation. I categorically deny receiving any bribe. It has never been in my character. I never demanded neither did I collect any bribe, either cash or material.”

Emphasising how passionate she was about environmental issues while serving as minister, Mohammed stated, “EIA did not say I am under probe, much less for taking part in a $1 billion illicit trade. I am a bit surprised by the impression created by the reports.

“When I became Minister of Environment in November 2015, one of the first issues I had to deal with was deforestation. It was a huge concern, as Nigeria was losing its forest cover at an alarming rate. As you know, sustainable environment is critical to the achievement of the sustainable development goals. Goal No. 15 is specifically about protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combating desertification and halting and reversing land degradation, as well as halting biodiversity loss. For me, protecting the environment is sacrosanct. As minister, one of my first acts was to tackle illegal logging. What I found on ground was alarming.

“Within a short period, we began to put policies in place at the ministry to tackle this menace. And we saw the results almost immediately. This was further helped by the listing of kosso, also known as African rosewood (Pterocarpuse rinaceus), in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix II. Kosso logging, therefore, requires issuance of CITES permits or certificates because it is a protected wood, if you will. The conditions for export are tough. Any shipment without CITES permits is illegal. The CITES regulation states that the country of import must report such shipments. They will either be confiscated or returned. That was a product of our efforts. The legal or legitimate rosewood trade is officially communicated between China and Nigeria. This is done through the scanning and sending of issued CITES. That way, fakes can be identified.

“The Nigerian CITES Management Authority and the Chinese CITES Management Authority have a good relationship. A very cordial one at that. They never reported to Nigeria that any container was stopped at their ports as of the end of 2016. But I am aware of two cases when exporters came to the ministry to complain. They came to us on their own, by the way. They wanted CITES certificates for exports that had already left Nigerian ports. One request was refused by the ministry outright. The other was granted on two conditions: one, that the company would be fined and, two, the company would be suspended for six months. The aim was to send a warning to others who did not comply prior to exportation. The ministry communicated this immediately to the CITES secretariat.”

On why she still signed CITES permits after her appointment as UN Deputy Secretary-General, Mohammed said, “I was still the Minister of Environment till February 24th. On January 16, 2017, I signed 2, 992 CITES permits. These were the last permits I signed. A quarter of the permits, I understand, were not used by the exporters since they could not ship their wood before the suspension on wood and wood products as at 31st December 2016.”

Regarding the permits she signed in January, while a three-month temporary ban imposed on December 31 was in force, she stated, “There were several reasons. One, there were delays in issuing CITES prior to the 31st December suspension because there were no physical certificates at the ministry. We asked the security printing and minting company — printers of all government security documents — to print new watermarked CITES permits with enhanced security features to avoid fakes. They were only able to deliver the physical certificates in the first week of January 2017. This played a role in the late signing of the CITES. Two, I was away from office in the first week of January. I was on an official duty to the Niger Delta. Three, between January 10th and 15th, I was on a special assignment as leader of the presidential delegation to the governments of Algeria and Tunisia on the African Union. I signed the certificates on January 16th on my return. It was a Monday.

“Four, we need to be clear on something: exporters were given prior notice that the suspension was coming into effect on the 31st December. They were therefore asked to initiate and complete processes for the issuance of CITES certificates before the period ending 31st of December if they intended to export. With the ban now in place, the department of forestry carried out due diligence and processed the requests in accordance with the established practice. The due diligence was on companies that had commenced and met all the requirements prior to the suspension date of 31st December. The certificates signed and issued in January were only to those who adhered to this process. Therefore, the issue of backdating or retrospective approval does not apply in any sense whatsoever.”