Property Scandal: The Untold Story

It is a classic case of the hunter becoming the hunted. At least, that is the impression that was etched on the minds of many who followed the recent Senate inquest into allegations of corruption levelled against the nation’s embassy in the United States, US.

As a matter of fact, in contention was an allegation of corruption levelled against Ade Adefuye, professor and Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States, US, by Transform Nigeria Citizen Initiative, led by Daniel Elombah, a London-based Nigerian. Acting on a petition written by the Transform Nigeria Citizen Initiative, the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs summoned Adefuye; Gbenga Ashiru, minister of foreign affairs; Joy Ogwu, professor and Nigeria’s permanent representative to the United Nations, UN; and George Obiozor, former ambassador to the US.

 

However, the invitation appeared to have ruptured expectations in many quarters. Critics say the upper legislative chamber seems to be giving credence, either wittingly or unwittingly, to a malicious campaign of calumny. According to the three-page petition, Adefuye was allegedly involved in the “unauthorised spending of proceeds totalling $27 million realised from the sale of four properties” belonging to the Nigerian embassy in the US. “Since March 2012, there has not been any explanation of what happened to the millions of dollars that were realised from the sale of the embassy properties in the US, which were in the bank account at the time Ambassador Adefuye assumed office as the ambassador to Washington,” the petition alleged.

 

Acting on the petition, the Senate committee wrote Adefuye, the minister and other ambassadors. “We have invited you because of an allegation of embezzlement in our mission in Washington, particularly the sale of property in the US. It was alleged that the proceeds of the sales have been squandered by certain officials. Our job here is to give you a chance to address the committee and tell us what you know about the property sale, management and administration of the accounts while you were in office. The committee has got a petition and we are not taking it on its face value; we want to give the ambassadors opportunities to explain their own roles,” Mathew Nwagwu, a senator, told the diplomatic bigwigs.

 

Curiously, prior to the appearance of the invited ambassadors before the committee, copies of the petitions had been made available to the media, which in turn had written several reports on the basis of the petition. By the time the ambassadors eventually had the opportunity to clear the air on the spurious issues raised in the petition, the Senate committee said it didn’t want the media to be present at its hearing.

 

But that was not the only concern. Equally curious is the fact that the petition that ignited the “oversight” interest of the committee was written by an organisation that has no traceable address. Adefuye, refuting claims that the embassy under his watch squandered $27 million, disclosed that he only met $10 million in the account when he assumed office as ambassador in 2010. While explaining why part of the money was spent, the ambassador added that embassy operations in Washington D.C were poorly funded, as it was only receiving about $200,000 of its monthly entitlement of $600,000.

 

In order to meet its financial obligations, Adefuye explained and also tendered documents that proved that he sought and got authorisation from the ministry of foreign affairs to make up for the shortfall from the $10 million in the embassy’s accounts. This, he explained, was done pending the time the embassy’s funding would have been adequately taken care of by its budgetary allocation. At that stage, he said, the monies taken from the account would then be refunded. The magazine learnt that submissions of Ashiru and Ogwu before the Senate committee also corroborated Adefuye’s claims.

 

Apart from that, the magazine also learnt that the petition’s author, who appears to be fronting for Emeka Ugwuonye, a Maryland, US-based Nigerian lawyer, was merely waging a malicious war against Adefuye and the embassy.

 

Contrary to the claims in the petition, TELL learnt that at the heart of the petition is Adefuye’s insistence that Ugwuonye should refund $1.5 million embassy fund which he was said to have converted to his private use. The amount was allegedly paid into his account in error as tax on the property sales. By the time the embassy realised that it was not supposed to pay taxes on the sales, Ugwuonye being the lawyer who handled the transaction was instructed to request for a refund of the tax. He was said to have secured the refund but decided to convert the money to his personal use claiming that he had earlier been contracted to represent former head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, in a US court and had not been paid.

 

The embassy, in its official statements, has since denied that the federal government and the mission had anything to do with the case for which Ugwuonye was seeking compensation. It also refuted all allegations of corruption and money laundering which the lawyer has raised, while refusing to refund the money he allegedly converted. To the embassy, the lawyer’s allegations amounted to sheer blackmail of the embassy. Speaking to the magazine recently, Obiozor under whose tenure the entire transaction took place said he was ashamed by the turn of events. “Everything was done in accordance to good books of the foreign affairs and transparency of the highest order. Everything that was done went smoothly. The then minister of foreign affairs, Olu Adeniji, commended us. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo also commended us at the time,” Obiozor said.

 

Convinced that the lawyer’s claim was not genuine, Adefuye decided to sue him in order to recover the fund from him. The case was determined two months ago when Barbara J. Rothstein, a US district judge, ruled that Ugwuonye was not only guilty of theft but should be made to refund the $1.5 million to Nigeria’s coffers.

MTN

 

Before his conviction by the US court, the Nigerian government as part of efforts to recover the money Ugwuonye diverted had also unleashed its security and anti-corruption agencies on the lawyer. On February 4, 2011, Ugwuonye was picked up in Lagos by the State Security Service, SSS, and taken to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, headquarters in Abuja on February 18, 2011. On charges bordering on “conversion,” “failure to declare assets in violation of the EFCC Act” and “breach of trust,” Ugwuonye was arraigned at the federal high court before Justice Bello on April 6, 2011.

 

A source in the EFCC, who preferred anonymity, confirmed to the magazine last week that the allegations against Ugwuonye were indeed weighty. It was established that cases against him included converting the sum of $1.5 million belonging to the embassy to his personal use since 2007 and diverting the sum of $95,000 belonging to one Sola Adeeyo, his former client, to his personal use. Ugwuonye was said to have represented Adeeyo in a case and won, but refused to pay his client a sum of $95,000, which the lawyer collected on behalf of his client after the court had awarded same. The EFCC source said Ugwuonye jumped bail and flew back to the US. The case is still pending.

 

This background, perhaps, explains why critics are miffed that a Senate committee had to descend so low as to respond to a petition apparently sponsored by the same lawyer. In other words, the chief reason the duo of Ugwuonye and Elombah are waging a high-profile campaign of calumny against the embassy is to frustrate attempts to retrieve the tax refund, which the controversial lawyer had allegedly pocketed. His reason for singling out Adefuye for his multi-pronged offensives, the magazine gathered, was because Adefuye was courageous enough to ask questions about the whereabouts of the tax refund, which Ugwuonye had pocketed long before the former assumed office as ambassador in 2010.

 

But the magazine gathered that Adefuye was not the only ambassador that was piqued by the fact that a Nigerian pocketed a huge sum of money belonging to the Nigerian people. Christopher Oluwole Rotimi, retired general who served as ambassador before Adefuye, had tried without success in 2008 to get Ugwuonye to return the embassy’s money. In fact, by the time Rotimi left the seat, following a showdown with the then foreign affairs minister, Ojo Maduekwe, the embassy had reported Ugwuonye both to the nation’s anti-graft agencies, and the Maryland Bar where the lawyer was plying his professional trade.

 

Undeterred, Ugwuonye organised a much publicised “mega protest” on July 29, 2012 in the US, which turned out to be a farce. Like the controversial issues necessitating the protest, the rally was equally a big flop, as it was attended by only three persons. To give the so-called mega protest some measure of public acceptance, the name of Femi Falana, human rights activist and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, was widely advertised as one of the popular faces to grace the rally in the US. This also turned out to be false. Speaking to the magazine recently on the matter, Falana said Ugwuonye and his cronies “used my name dubiously to paint the rally with a brush of credibility.” After dissociating himself from the amorphous group and its planned protest, the famous lawyer described Ugwuonye as a “crook,” threatening to institute a legal action against him and his faceless group. “As a matter of principle, I have never in my life participated in any protest or rally outside the shores of Nigeria, even during the worst forms of military regimes. This (referring to Nigeria) is my terrain,” Falana told the magazine while denouncing the group last week.

 

As if that was not enough, Ugwuonye also went ahead to co-opt one Carol Olubufunmi in his campaign against the Nigerian embassy in the US. Curiously, Olubufunmi accused Adefuye of defrauding her to the tune of $528,000, which she claimed was the cost of organising a seminar in Washington that was attended by Amina Namadi Sambo, wife of Nigeria’s vice president, alongside 30 other Nigerian women. As the magazine can authoritatively report, in September 2010, about six months before Adefuye assumed duty, Olubufunmi tried to swindle Sambo by using a non-registered company to organise a conference. This was deftly done without any reference to the embassy, in spite of the calibre of personalities invited. But when the Nigerian delegation, made up of past and present women ministers, arrived the venue of the phantom conference in the US, only three people were said to be present. The three people were Olubufunmi, her daughter and a friend.

 

To save the visiting Nigerian entourage from the embarrassment, the embassy hurriedly put together a reception for the visiting Nigerians a day after, which was attended by the wives of African ambassadors in the US. Yet, Olubufunmi unabashedly went ahead to claim that she was entitled to a refund for the losses she allegedly suffered from “hijacking” her event, claiming that each participant was to pay $3,000 as conference fee. Curiously, Ugwuonye is Olubufunmi’s solicitor in that matter.

 

In the same vein, in 2012 Ugwuonye alleged that Nigerian embassy’s account had to be moved from M&T Bank to Citibank due to issues bordering on money laundering. However, it later turned out that the reason for moving the embassy’s account from M&T Bank to Citibank was because of the provisions of the US Patriotic Act, which a statement from the State Department said affected no fewer than 30 embassies, mostly from Africa and Asia. The American legislation, enacted in 2001 in the wake of the upsurge in terrorism in the US, was aimed at ensuring stricter regulation of financial transactions involving foreign individuals and entities, among other purposes. The magazine also learnt that the Nigerian embassy does not bank with either Wells Fargo or Bank of America where Ugwuonye equally alleged that money laundering took place.

 

False as his claims were, Ugwuonye made so much noise in 2012 that the Nnenna Elendu-led House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs waded into the matter. While honouring the committee’s invitation to appear before it, Adefuye disclosed that the allegation that the embassy’s account was frozen was false, adding that the account with M&T Bank was closed in deference to the new regulations of the host country. “We had to change our bank from M&T to City Bank because of what is called Patriot Act,” he disclosed.

 

However, about one year after, Ugwuonye appears to have once again succeeded in embarrassing the Nigerian government by manipulating the National Assembly into embarking on another wild goose chase. For how long he would be able to continue to employ diversionary tactics to avoid paying the money he converted however remains a question only time can answer.

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