by Alexander O. Onukwue
The former Nigerian Minister of Environment, Amina Mohammed, has been accused of authorizing a multi-million dollar racket involving the illegal trade in Rosewood, an endangered species, between Nigeria and China.
The charge stems from a report published by a Washington DC-based environmental watch group, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), following a two-year investigation it carried out on a an illegal network of Chinese importers of Rosewood and their moles and collaborators from West African countries.
- 1.4 million logs of an endangered wood species, Rosewood, valued at over $300 million, were illegally exported from Nigeria to China with the approval of Nigeria’s immediate past Minister for Environment and current Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Amina Mohammed.
- $1 million was paid by many influential Chinese and Nigerian Business men to Senior Nigerian officials to sign off on permits allowing the export of the endangered wood species.
- Ms Mohammed signed about 4000 permits before leaving her role as Minister of Environment in January 2017. According to her, “that’s what I had to do”.
- The Forestry department of the Federal Ministry of Environment says that the permits were for processed and semi-processed wood, not for raw logs. However, the investigation shows that permits were for raw logs and, contrary to the department and Ms Mohammed, the logs had already left Nigeria and were being detained in China for not having the requisite CITES certification. The permits Ms Mohammed signed, the report claims, effectively sanctioned the logs of Rosewood as meeting standards for being sustainably sourced, thereby permitting their passage through Chinese Customs.
MEET ROSEWOOD, THE ENDANGERED WOOD
“The illegal trade in precious ‘rosewoods’ is the world’s most valuable form of wildlife crime” EIA’s report says. “Hundreds of people have been killed around the world trying to protect these rare trees from the gangs seeking to profit from the rapidly growing demand for luxury furniture in china”
Pictures of a transverse section of the African Rosewood (Pterocarpuserinaceus, also called “kosso”) contained in the EIA investigation report shows the wood shedding its thick reddish-brown juice, as though it were bleeding. The wood is desired for its pinkish appearance and its unique purple brown streaks. According to the report, Rosewood is a major feature of furniture found in many Chinese showrooms and middle to upper-class lifestyle spots such as restaurants and bars.
More than the trade of elephants, reptiles and rhinoceros, “Rosewoods are now the most illegally traded wildlife products in the world, both in value and volume”. What’s more? Nigeria is the world’s biggest exporter of the endangered resource, after having been only a net importer as recently as 2013. The turnaround almost coincides with the fall in oil prices and the country’s slip into negative economic condition.
WHAT IS CITES?
CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Entering into force in 1975, the convention represents an agreement between member nations to “subject international trade in specimens of selected species to certain controls” according to its website. Classifying it as highly endangered (depleting in availability worldwide bordering on extinction), Rosewood was listed in Appendix II of CITES in 2016, with the requirement that any trade in the resource be accompanied by relevant CITES certifications.
Ms MOHAMMED SAYS: BLAME THE PRINTERS
According to the report, Ms Mohammed explains that she had to sign the permits as part of a balancing act between ensuring wood from Nigeria was sustainably sourced, keeping to agreements with Chinese buyers, while catering to the agitations of those whose businesses appeared to depend on the sale of Rosewood.
She says the permits she signed in January should have been signed in December but that the papers were not available at the time from the printers. The Ministry had taken the initiative to reproduce the permit documents after it was discovered that some persons were producing fake papers.
She denies any wrong doing, particularly as to the fact that the permits she signed were for logs which had already left Nigeria and were being detained at the Chinese customs. The former Minister does not agree that she issued retroactive permits.
In any case, she maintains that the permits were for those who had agreed deals to export Rosewood to China before a December 2016 ban went into effect.
BOKO HARAM GAINED FROM ROSEWOOD
The yet unnamed syndicate of exporters and importers are evidently the highest gainers from the illegal Rosewoods scheme. But of particular concern is the statement in the report that Boko Haram may have used the sales to finance itself because Rosewood has been frequently sourced from areas the terrorist sect controlled. Ms Mohammed, when this was suggested, thought it was possible. A Chinese respondent to EIA said “neither authorities nor members of the industry care about the origin of the timber or its connection to terrorism”
WHO ELSE WAS INVOLVED?
From the report, it appears an awful lot of brown (and other colours of) envelopes went from Chinese (and Nigerian) to more than a few Nigerian hands to the tune of up to N4 billion (considering the high exchange rates of January 2016). The Taraba state commissioner for Environment, named as Rebecca S. Manasseh, blamed China “for bringing the idea for cutting down the wood” and the federal level of Nigeria’s Environment bureaucracy for the rosewood racket. But the top Forestry official in the Federal Ministry, Michael Osakuade, pointed the finger back at the Taraba detachment for their eagerness to use receipts from Rosewood as part of Internally Generated Revenue.
WHO WILL TAKE THE FALL FOR THIS?
CITES has launched an inquiry into the matter. Nigeria is a party to the convention and the CITES Secretariat has corresponded with the Nigerian and Chinese authorities “on the identification of potential compliance matters” regarding trade in Rosewood, according to Article 8 of the document for its Sixty-ninth meeting of the Standing Committee scheduled to hold in Geneva (Switzerland), from 24 November – 1 December 2017.
Ms Mohammed is the Deputy Secretary General who has been instrumental to the UN’s focus on the environment and sustainability. She worked on the MDGs and was a key member of the SDGs formation team. This obviously calls into question the calibration of her ethical compass as a top UN official who allegedly sanctioned acts that are at cross purposes with the goals of the organisation.
Ms Mohammed does not appear to be pointing fingers at any persons as could be deduced from her “that’s what I had to do” statement. However, should the substance of her claim that the logs were not already outside Nigeria bump against more evidence, coupled with the fact that she did not take up her role as Deputy Secretary General on January 1, 2017, opting instead to stay back (supposedly at the urging of President Buhari) to sign those many thousands of permits (even working long hours), some influential names tied to the timber harvesting industry may begin to sift through. Pictures from the report show well-dressed men of the Nigeria Police Force in uniform at the sites of the loading of the logs, giving an idea into the status and ‘force’ of the persons involved in this.
Also, members of the Sino-Nigerian diplomatic circle from both sides will reasonably come under more scrutiny, particularly those who work at the intersections of the trade and environment sectors.
Some readers of the report have questions as to the point of Nigeria agreeing to certain international treaties when there is no sincerity apriori to keep to them. Irresponsible timber felling is dangerous to the environment, leading to deforestation and ecological disruption. However, a look across to Makoko from Lagos Third Mainland Bridge and many other communities reveals business around logs is one of the first lines of defense against poverty for many persons. The peculiarity of Rosewood as being of very high aesthetic quality makes it both endangered but also of high life-saving commercial value.
Clearly, the ignorance of most poor residents on the matter of the dangers and costs far outweighing any benefits of logging has been taken cruelly advantage of, in multi-million dollar proportions, by some highly placed persons driven by the desire for their pockets.
EIA’s report sheds light on the workings of a dubious trade to which many have become alarmed. However, for many Nigerian readers, the most glaring deduction from this fiasco is that she who should have known better, the globally-renowned leader on environmental policy, recently named Diplomat of the Year by Foreign Policy magazine, and Nigeria’s current highest ranking global public servant, appears to have aided one major hit for a gang in the woods, before leaving Abuja for the sprawling 34th floor of her New York office…
…well decorated with wood?