Ending China’s Rosewood Racketeering in Nigeria

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With Chinese encroachers in Nigeria’s forests, the country’s rosewood has become endangered. Corrupt activities ranging from bribery of forestry guards to misrepresentation of logging shipments bound for Chinese ports have created the conditions for the illegal logging businesses to flourish. Adedayo Adejobi reports

In 2017, the Nigerian authority regulating the export of wood issued a retroactive permit to export timber to China, and then it issued another permit and countless others, thereafter.

Evidence gathered by the environmental investigations agency indicates that these permits allowed transnational organised criminals to smuggle 1.4million illegal rosewood logs from Nigeria to China. How could official permits be used to smuggle illegal wood? The answer involves one of the largest timber laundering operations in history.

According to the Director of Forest Campaigns Environmental Investigation Agency, Lisa Handy, from March 2015 to September 2017, the EIA conducted an in-depth investigation into the illegal rosewood trade between Nigeria and China undercover with all the main players in the supply chain, from the forest in Nigeria to the tree furniture boutiques in China.

The United Nations Secretary General who is a former Nigerian Minister of Environment, Amina Mohammed, also alluded to this illegal trade. In her words, “The illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products include elephant ivory, high value timber and marine species, which constitute a threat not only to sustainable development but to peace and security.’’

The illegal trade in rosewood has become the world’s most lucrative form of wildlife crime. Since 2012, the demand for rosewood has triggered in China, triggering cycles of boom and bust in forests all over the world. The environmental investigations agency has discovered that most of the billion dollar rosewood trade between Nigeria and China was illegal and focused on single dry forest specie known as “kosso” (Pterocarpus erinaceus).

In the words of Director of Forest Campaigns Environmental Investigation Agency, Lisa Handy, ‘‘We found massive harvest of illegal harvesting smuggling from the neighbouring country of Cameroun. The felling of trees in national parks, violation of Nigeria’s log export ban, and the systematic forgery of legal documents, all of these routinely facilitated by bribery in both Nigeria and China.’’

The common thread is to obtain pre-signed and pre-stamped official documents through bribe with the information of the shipment conveniently left blank. The race to grab any remaining kosso has led traders to source from areas controlled by the terror organisation Boko Haram, which may have benefitted from the illegal trade.

In 2016, in an effort to save their forests, West Africa turned to the Convention on international trade in endangered species or CITES in a national treaty ratified by all United Nations member states. As a result, in 2016, China stopped and forbade more than 10,000 containers full of illegal kosso from Nigeria with at least $300million. Stocked up these containers would be as high and wide as three empire state buildings, a whole forest of endangered trees.

Chinese and Nigerian traders told undercover reporter that they pay more $1million in bribes to senior Nigerian officials who assured them that they would be able to issue the required permits. After sitting for months, the containers were be suddenly released and entered into China in the early 2017. This was possible only because of the actions of the Nigeria authority who issued over 10,000 CITES permits in breach of the convention’s principles.

In Nigeria, the Minister of Environment alone is allowed to sign CITES permits. At the time, these permits were issued, the then Minister of Environment, Amina, Mohammed, was a world’s renowned diplomat. Well-placed sources says, she spent time signing tens of thousands of permits with her red ink pen, then she took-off from Abuja, the Nigerian capital to New York, where she was sworn in as the United Nations Deputy General in February 2017.

Speaking on his trajectory into the timber business and counting his losses as a result of Chinese racketeering in Nigeria, Femi Oki said, “I started the wood business in Nigeria. In 2006, Nigeria Export Promotion Council organised for us, wood exporters, during the Obasanjo regime. We went to China. We were trading solely in Apa and Iroko hardwoods in Nigeria. There was a shortage in Apa and Iroko, so I looked inward and proposed the hardwood species to the Nigerian Export Promotion Council.”

“So they organised a trade fair. We went to Vietnam and China in 2006 and 2007. In China, they picked rosewood. We began to export until the Chinese started to troop into Nigeria. When they came in, some people advised the federal government to join the World Wood Trade Organisation, under the United Nations. When Nigeria signed the memorandum of understanding, they did not read the clauses before appending their signatures. The United Nations told them that the rosewood is an endangered wood. Nigeria should never have signed the MOU in the first place because it’s not beneficial to the government. Before then, if we export things out of Nigeria, the government gave us incentives and 30 per cent of the export proceeds. But when they joined the WWTO, the grant was cancelled. And so we couldn’t expand. Although we have been exporting rosewood since 2013, but in 2016, the CITES was introduced and we were then asked to be paying N200, 000 to export Rosewood, and that the monies would be used to plant the wood. We weren’t bothered, as we paid the money on each container. Without the CITES, the buyer would not be able to get his wood. Sometimes, it could spend six months on ground in China or Vietnam before the CITES would be issued. One has lost money. I have lost nothing less than over $60m in the last three years, as a result of the Chinese rosewood racket in Nigeria,’’ Oki added.

Now, hundreds of Chinese factories are transforming more than a million illegal rosewood logs into luxury.

Confirming the involvement of Nigerian officials in the transnational organised timber crime, these were his words, ‘‘The Nigerian government wouldn’t issue the certificate. Once you load your container, they then inspect the log, and then they will issue the certificate after the payment of N350, 000.00, of which you only get a receipt for N200, 000.00. We are not even bothered about that, but instead of issuing the quote given to them by the United Nations, they issue thrice the quote to the Chinese. There are case where they’ve issued over a 1000 CITES to people who don’t even have wood. They issue the certificates in anticipation. The Nigerian government was supposed to attend a meeting last year at the United Nations in Geneva. At the meeting, Nigerian officials were asked to make a report on how many CITES they’ve issued. Because of the racket on-going in the system, officials from the ministry of environment couldn’t present a report on the amount of CITES it has issued, because they have exceeded the quota.

“For that reason, Nigeria was suspended. I had three containers that have gone to Vietnam since last year, I cannot collect it because there is no CITES. So the Chinese are trading with their earlier bought CITES, whilst Nigerians can’t export. Where we are at a loss is that, we don’t have monies to bribe Nigerian officials for the CITES upfront.

“Those who buy upfront are the only ones exporting log now, after buying the wood at rather ridiculous prices. In a bid to foster their trade and make gargantuan profit from the illegal timber laundering, a huge chunk of the Chinese have set up factories in Sagamu, Lagos, and Ijebu –Ode to mention a few. The prices they pay for these woods are so ridiculous. Some woods cost between 4-5million to get to the Chinese in these mentioned locations, and on getting to them, they haggle to pay as low as N2million. They have monopolised the business and it’s not supposed to be so. They shouldn’t be allowed such privilege. No Nigerian can do that in China. I’ve been exporting for over 25 years to Italy, Germany, Vietnam and China, and it’s been lucrative until the Chinese came in with this racket. Officials of the Ministry of Environment should be killed.

The Chinese are in forests of Taraba, Ogun and the hinterlands of Nigeria. In Ijebu Ode, the Chinese have over 2,000 workers, whereas you have less than 200 Nigerians employed. The government should ban Chinese from exporting wood from Nigeria. We can plant woods by ourselves. It’s not the right of Chinese to come to plant wood in our country. A lot of Nigerians are becoming jobless due to this racketeering.’’

According to the Director of Forest Campaigns Environmental Investigation Agency, Lisa Handy, CITES must urgently adopt more modern measures to deal with 21st century criminals and corruption. All CITES member states must join in this fight and particularly China as the leading importer of this endangered rosewood and timber globally. China has the unique opportunity to ban the import of illegal wood and put an end to the destruction of the world’s most endangered timber species.