UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed faced accusations from an advocacy group on Thursday that she granted illegal permits to Chinese firms to import endangered Nigerian timber when she was Nigeria's environment minister.
Documents provided by Mohammed were used by Chinese importers to clear more than $300 million worth of rosewood logs held up by Chinese border authorities for months, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a Washington-based environmental campaigning organization.
The EIA said its investigation had found that Nigerian officials were paid over $1 million to help the importers release the rosewood, which was put on a list of endangered species last year by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
In January, Mohammed allegedly signed thousands of retroactive CITES permits allowing the export of 1.4 million rosewood logs in one of her last acts as environment minister before she was sworn in as deputy secretary-general in late February.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq said Mohammed "categorically rejects any allegations of fraud."
The signing of the permits for the rosewood exports was delayed after Mohammed insisted "that stringent due process was followed," said Haq.
"She says that she signed the export certificates requested before the ban only after due process was followed and better security watermarked certificates became available," he added.
Mohammed, the highest-ranking woman at the United Nations, served as environment minister from November 2015 to February of this year and had previously lead the UN's efforts to agree on a new global anti-poverty agenda.
Foreign Policy magazine quoted a senior Nigerian forestry official, who asked not to be named and who said that Mohammed had signed 2,992 export certificates on January 16.
Mohammed had been due to begin her new post at the United Nations on January 1, joining Antonio Guterres as he began his term as UN chief.
But she delayed her move to New York to stay on as environment minister at the request of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and was finally sworn in as deputy secretary-general in late February.
The UN spokesman said Guterres has been informed of the reports and "reiterates his full support and confidence in her."
Exploding Chinese demand for African rosewood, also known as "kosso", has depleted forests across West Africa, prompting CITES to impose strict restrictions last year.
According to EIA, Nigeria since 2013 has become the world's largest exporter of rosewood logs, which are mainly used for luxury furniture.
CITES is scheduled to discuss the Nigerian rosewood exports to China at a meeting later this month in Geneva.