The United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, has said she was involved in the alleged illegal export of African rosewood, also known as kosso, from Nigeria to China.
The trade is estimated to be worth $1 billion in the last four years. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a non-governmental organisation, which specialises in investigating environmental crimes, had claimed that Mohammed might have derived personal benefits from signing thousands of allegedly backdated permits in January 2017 which it said were used to clear illegal rosewood exports to China.
This was at a time she had been appointed UN deputy secretary general.
The environmental agency had reported 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 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) certificates signed by her.
However, Mohammed at the weekend in an interview with TheCable, an online newspaper, she maintained that she spent her time at the ministry working to eliminate the illegal export of the tropical hardwood used for rosewood furniture in China.
According to her, “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.”
She emphatically told the online medium, “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.”
The former presidential adviser, who was appointed by the UN Secretary General António Guterres as deputy secretary general in December 15, 2016, was recently named Diplomat of the Year by the Foreign Policy Group.
She said when she was appointed 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… For me, protecting the environment is sacrosanct. When I was minister, one of my first acts was to tackle illegal logging. What I found on ground was alarming.”
However, Guterres, the secretary-general, has said Mohammed, has his “full support and confidence.” This is coming amid claims that she retroactively authorised the exportation of the protected wood while she was minister of environment.
Stéphane Dujarric, the UN secretary-general’s spokesman, expressed the secretary’s confidence in Mohammed.
He said, “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.”
Dujarric added, “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. Ms. 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.”
An environmental advocacy group, the Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), had alleged that multiple sources told its undercover investigators that over $1 million was paid to top government officials in Nigeria to release wood stopped by Chinese authorities because there were no CITES certificates.
CITES on Thursday released a 40-page report alleging that Mohammed’s approval of the kosso exports violated the CITES agreement.
According to report, the former environment minister spent her final days as minister doing something that has angered activists. It added that despite a ban then in force on the export of rosewood, an endangered resource, she signed thousands of certificates authorizing the shipment of vast quantities of the wood.
The certificates “came in bags, and I just signed them because that is what I had to do,” she recalled in an interview last month in her U.N. headquarters office “I don’t remember how many,” she admitted.
EIA said rosewood is coveted in China for furniture and over the past five years “exploding Chinese demand” has depleted forests across West Africa. As supplies in Gambia and Benin dwindled, it said Chinese traders moved to Nigeria, which had the largest untapped resource.
Mohammed’s last minute decision to approve the kosso shipments was first documented by the Washington-based environmental group and is now part of an inquiry by the secretariat of CITES, to which Nigeria is a signatory.
In a letter to Nigerian authorities in August 2017, John Scanlon, CITES’s secretary-general, raised concern about information his agency had received indicating that as many as 10,000 containers of Nigerian rosewood had been stopped by Chinese authorities between May and December 2016, because they were not accompanied by the proper CITES documentation, according to Michael Osakuade, the acting director of Nigeria’s Department of Forestry. On Dec. 31, 2016, Mohammed herself imposed a three-month ban on the trade in rosewood. Yet following her mass signings, more than two weeks after the ban went into force, the trade quickly resumed: Chinese trade data show that between then and April, as many as 12,000 containers of kosso logs were cleared to enter the country.
EIA estimates that Mohammed’s approval of certificates in January 2017 allowed the delivery of more than 1.4 million kosso logs that had been illegally exported between May and December 2016 and were detained in Chinese ports. EIA furnished FP with six copies of certificates signed by Mohammed and dated Jan. 16, a little more than two weeks after she ordered the temporary three-month ban on the export of kosso wood. A senior Nigerian forestry official confirmed the authenticity of the certificates but denied that they were issued for rosewood that had already left for China.