Nigeria to permanently seize ex-oil minister's $37.5 million property

LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigeria has been told by a court it can permanently seize a $37.5 million apartment block owned by a former oil minister who is wanted for money laundering.

The property belongs to former petroleum minister Diezani Alison-Madueke, who was in office between 2011 and 2015. It had previously been seized temporarily.

Alison-Madueke’s whereabouts are unclear, but she was last known to be in Britain. In April, she was charged in absentia with money laundering by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

A judge at the federal high court in the commercial capital Lagos on Monday ordered the forfeiture of the 15-storey apartment block, comprising of 18 flats and six penthouses.

It is located in Banana Island, a gated community where some of the richest people in the country have properties worth millions of dollars.

Alison-Madueke and two other defendants did not respond to an order at last month’s hearing to demonstrate within 14 days that the property should not be forfeited to the government.

“(The judge) ordered the final forfeiture of the property to the federal government, in view of the failure of any interested parties or persons to contest the interim forfeiture order”, the EFCC said in a statement.

Permanent seizure of a further $2.74 million and 84.54 million naira ($269,000) that were said to be part of the rent collected on the property was also ordered.

The seizures are the latest development in a series of corruption allegations that have dogged the former minister over the last year.

The U.S. Justice Department in July filed a civil complaint aimed at recovering about $144 million in assets allegedly obtained through bribes to Alison-Madueke.

In October 2015, she was briefly arrested in London for questioning about allegations related to missing public funds but no charges were brought against her.

Prior to her arrest she had denied to Reuters any wrongdoing when asked about missing public funds and corruption allegations.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari took office in May 2015 vowing to crackdown on corruption, but there have been no high-profile graft convictions during his tenure.

A number of former government officials have faced criminal charges, which they have denied, since Buhari took office.

The opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which ruled for 16 years prior to Buhari taking office, has previously accused the 74-year-old former military ruler of mounting a witch-hunt against its members.

Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram and Oludare Mayowa