Taking the fight to the Nigerian courts

In a case already tainted by corruption, Peters & Peters’ Keith Oliver prepares to do battle for client Banco Noroeste

Keith Oliver, partner at the commercial and criminal fraud law firm Peters & Peters, says he enjoys pushing the boundaries of possibility in litigation. He claims to be doing precisely that in his latest venture: attempting to recover millions of pounds from Nigerian assets allegedly stolen by local businessmen from his client, the Brazilian bank Banco Noroeste.

To do this he needs consent from the High Court in Lagos to freeze and recover these assets. Oliver and fellow partner Jonathan Tickner are preparing for a long series of court actions, the first of which is due on 23 June.

A seasoned litigator, Oliver says there is little or no history of Western lawyers bringing cases before Nigeria’s courts, which are known for their corruption. But this is not entirely true. Nigerian courts occasionally hear claims brought by Western lawyers for non-Nigerian clients. For example, Paolo Ghirardani, a litigation partner at Stephenson Harwood, has brought civil actions, mainly arising out of frauds at sea, in the Lagos High Court.

However, Oliver is right in as much as his case has truly international dimensions, which is in stark contrast to most of the litigation taking place in Nigeria. The case has ended up in this unusual location because it is believed that many of the assets being sought are located there.

Oliver’s case comes in the wake of worldwide litigation connected with the alleged defrauding of $242m (£131.7m) from Banco Noroeste by Nigerians Emmanuel Odinigwe, Ikechukwu Anajemba (whose assets Oliver is seeking to recover through the Lagos High Court) and his wife Amaka.

Posing as executives of the Central Bank of Nigeria, they claimed the money was intended for a new airport in the country. Instead, the money was allegedly stolen and dissipated among banks in New York, London, Switzerland and, finally, in Nigeria. Among the extraordinary claims is that Lloyds TSB allegedly allowed some of the money to be laundered through its private bank in Zurich.

There is almost no precedent in Nigeria for such international cases. Even the litigation involving the millions defrauded by former Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha, while it involved getting witness statements from prisoners in Nigerian jails, was predominantly litigated in the UK. Oliver, therefore, will be placing the facts of a vast international dispute before a Lagos court utterly unused to such claims.

This will no doubt be irksome – and there are other problems. Corruption has already reared its ugly head in Oliver’s case – without it having even reached the court yet. The defence lawyers are facing prosecution for allegedly trying to bribe officials at the Economic & Financial Crimes Comm-ission (EFCC), Nigeria’s equivalent of the Serious Fraud Office.

So what chance has Oliver of success? He has some local support: EFCC director Nuhu Ribadu is running a criminal investigation in parallel with Oliver’s civil litigation against Anajemba and he has indicated that he will assist Oliver’s work.

Also, a culture of anti-corruption appears to be developing in Nigeria. According to one London lawyer, several Nigerian judges have been arrested recently (although these arrests are nothing to do with Oliver’s case) on corruption charges. Nevertheless, Oliver has quite a fight on his hands whatever the outcome.