In the ‘Reformers Circle’ in Abuja, a ‘bug’ is on the loose. It whizzes around their ‘secret’ phone lines causing them great discomfort. Of course, when you walk around with a huge cupboard hiding even bigger skeletons, the last thing you need is a pesky little bug asking uncomfortable questions over the phone. Such was the case with Jimi Lawal, the veritable ‘national treasure’, protected by the Reformers Circle when I called his number two weeks ago.
Yet, earlier last year when I called him, he seemed in too jolly a mood to even find out who was calling first. The mere fact that I introduced myself as calling from the US let loose his sugar tongue! It was a cool summer day and, from the way he was talking and the things he was saying, I imagined him sprawled like a lounge lizard n the FCT Minister’s quarters in Abuja (where he was staying) or the NICON-NOGA suite he’s said to be sometimes based, rubbing his belly, the phone hanging stylishly from his ear, a contented smile adorning his face as he rattled off his incredible achievements in turning his fortunes around. A few months before, he was a fugitive abroad.
Ironically, Mr Lawal’s earlier troubles started of his own making. After escaping the cold hands of the Failed Banks Tribunal which on March 19, 1996 sentenced him in absentia for the massive swindle he engineered at Alpha Merchant Bank, Jimi ensconced himself abroad and frittered away his loot in comfort. True to his nature, he continued engaging in countless underground swindlers schemes, breaking the law wherever he went, running from America to England to Netherlands to Canada with a view to escaping justice. But
with the coming to power of Olusegun Obasanjo, Shakiru Olajimi Adebisi Lawal sighed in relief.
Suave Jimi, who could charm the birds off their perch with his easy manners and pretentious airs, soon ingratiated himself to the new president. Even as a convict and a fugitive from Nigerian justice, he became a permanent fixture in Obasanjo’s supposed attempt to ‘organize’ the Nigerian Diaspora. Jimi was a founding member of the Obasanjo-created Nigerians in Diaspora Organization (NIDO) and a member of its boards in America and in Europe. Of course, the fact that supposedly intelligent men and women of our diplomatic missions abroad found nothing wrong in hobnobbing with a known crook like Lawal or leaving him in positions of trust was all part of the grand design for him to gain official pardon at home, something that was still quite impossible at the time because of the clear open and shut case against him. Though, the Abacha government attempted half-heartedly to get him extradited from the US where he first fled, the government’s abominable human rights record did not give the US authorities much confidence to accede to the request and thus slippery Jimi blended into decent society where he continued to unleash his criminal ingenuity on unsuspecting persons abroad. By 2001, he was already a wanted man in America and was only sneaking in and out of US even as submissions in court documents in cases against him claim he was being sighted in various parts of the United States.
Jimi’s NIDO activities were well designed to position him abroad as the administration’s Man Friday, a fox amongst the pigeons of NIDO. Two months before the Atlanta event that saw to NIDO’s official formation in September 2000 by Obasanjo, Lawal’s friends in the administration led by the then BPE chieftain, Nasir el-Rufai had perfected an audacious plan to pay millions of dollars of the Nigerian taxpayers’ money to Jimi Lawal as his supposed share from the sale of the controversial Afribank shares. Just how a criminal and a fugitive from national justice merited to be paid such huge sums in his hideaway abroad was a mystery, especially as the money used to acquire the shares belonged to the Alpha Merchant Bank depositors he’d swindled and who were/are still suffering from the effect of his criminal activities.
Nasir el-Rufai did not only pay him, he also ensured that he got all sorts of commissions from budding privatization deals at the time by imposing him as “Adviser” on prospective bidders. One of such impositions saw him promised $2 million by the ill-prepared Investors International (London) Limited led by Chief Bode Akindele in their bid to take over NITEL. He was also collecting commissions for government advertising in international newspapers such as the International Herald Tribune. In short, El-Rufai and his friends in Nigeria made sure he continued to live off the Nigerian state while on the run. So, in Atlanta, when he led the Muslim prayers at the NIDO formation session presided over by Obasanjo, those in the know knew the NIDO
experiment wasn’t actually about Nigerians abroad, but one of those convoluted schemes dreamt up by Lawal and his backers to work his way back to Nigeria. All they needed was for the right moment to strike.
The moment came with the appointment of Jimi Lawal’s friends into the top levels of government after the Obasanjo 419 reelection campaign. Under the guise of pursuing “reform” in his second term, Obasanjo brought all of Jimi Lawal’s friends into government – Nasir el-Rufai, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Oby Ezekwesili, Nuhu Ribadu, Abdul Mukhtar, etc. And they didn’t waste time to begin to put Jimi to use. First, it came in the form of the Rufai-conceived dollar salary payments to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Olu Adeniji. He it was who convinced the president to ditch the Constitution and the statutorily stipulated salary for ministers and not only pay Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala an amount that is grossly above those lawfully stipulated, but to also pay this in hard dollars. They then got the UNDP to give it a veil of credibility while pretending nothing had happened until the Sunday Guardian began to ask questions. In answer to those questions, the Secretary of the Government of the Federation, Chief Ufot Ekaette let the cat out of the bag. When the din
of protest became fever-pitch and it seemed the fiercest opposition was coming from Nigerians abroad, Nasir el-Rufai and his friends deployed Jimi Lawal to use the NIDO machinery to garner support for government action.
At the time, the international opposition to the dollar salary payments was being led by Kennedy Emetulu, a UK-based Nigerian who was leading a campaign to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), asking for a clarification of its role in the affair and exposing the whole thing as a charade, especially as the UNDP and the government spokespersons, including the president, kept contradicting each other over their various roles in the affair. Jimi rallied other NIDO executives to counter the Emetulu campaigns,
first by releasing a statement in the name of NIDO supporting the government’s anti-constitutional position. But their moves within NIDO was not supported by the then NIDO Chairman, Mr Emeka Ugwuonye, a Washington-based lawyer who felt it was absurd for anyone to support such clearly unconstitutional act by the government. He counseled caution and offered to find some face-saving way out of the whole thing for the government, but Lawal and his accomplices within the NIDO board would hear none of it. They released their unsigned Statement in the name of the Chairman and NIDO, but the Chairman, Mr Ugwuonye promptly denied it.
The whole NIDO dimension to the affair got the Emetulu group suspicious, so they went on and investigated the organization and in one scandalous exposé after another, NIDO was revealed as no more than a pro-Obasanjo appendage-organization, presided over by mediocrities seeking crumbs from Abuja. As Jimi and Ola Kassim, the then Vice Chairman led a war of attrition against Ugwuonye for not supporting them, Emetulu continued his exposé of Jimi Lawal. Far before Gbenga Obasanjo opened his mouth, Kennedy Emetulu had revealed the connection between Lawal and Nasir el-Rufai, including revealing how the former goes around presenting himself as the unofficial spokesperson of el-Rufai with the aim of swindling unsuspecting persons. There were also stories about a piece of land in Abuja promised NIDO by the minister which Lawal made into a huge racket.
On Saturday, July 10, 2004 Nasir el-Rufai surfaced in New York with his fugitive friend, Jimi Lawal by his side. By this time, there were no more pretences as to the fact that Jimi Lawal and the minister are very close. Ostensibly, el-Rufai was in New York to receive an award from the Nigerian Lawyers Association for his supposed anti-corruption work. However, in truth, it was a platform for him to take the battle to those opposed to the dollar salary. In one of the most tragicomic faux pas in the whole affair, Nasir el-Rufai mounted the rostrum in front of the whole world and accused Mr Emeka Ugwuonye, the former NIDO Chairman who refused to play their game of using the “fake name” of “Kennedy Emetulu” to attack the government and campaign against the dollar salary abroad. Of course, this raised eyebrows amongst those who knew Kennedy Emetulu and Emeka Ugwuonye independently. Ugwuonye, who himself was at the function couldn’t believe what he heard the minister say. Even the attempt by Laolu Akande, the North American Bureau Chief of The Guardian to let el-Rufai know that he got it wrong, since he himself knows Kennedy Emetulu and Emeka Ugwuonye independently was rebuffed.
In fact, Jimi Lawal upbraided him for not believing the minister, promising to send Mr Akande “evidence” to show that Mr Ugwuonye is the one masquerading as Kennedy Emetulu. Jimi Lawal then left with the minister to their hotel. The next day, el-Rufai sent one Victor Uzoh who claims to be a Consul at the Nigerian Consulate in New York after Emetulu. The chap called Emetulu on phone and claimed to be speaking for the Nigerian government. He was so inarticulate that Emetulu concluded that his only reason for calling was just to ascertain that there indeed exists an Emetulu separate from Ugwuonye – and this after the minister had goofed already!
In the midst of all this, when the heat got too much for Lawal, he had attempted to sue Mr Emetulu. But after a flurry of exchange between Emetulu and Jimi’s lawyers, they knew their best bet was to take a hike. Emetulu constantly peppered Lawal with his status as a convict and a fugitive from justice, urging him to go to Nigeria and clear his name, if, as he continued to insist, he was innocent of all charges brought against him at the Failed Banks Tribunal. With his friends in government and the coast seemingly being
cleared with taxpayers money used to limitedly settle Alpha depositors that he’d duped, Lawal and his friends began to put together his plan to return to Nigeria.
The first indication that Lawal was now in Nigeria came via email to his old nemesis, Mr Emetulu on 25th of September 2005. Writing from Abuja, he curiously attempted to present himself as a stranger to the whole issue by making out he was a different Jimi Lawal to the Jimi Lawal Emetulu had been writing about. The email address he used was email@example.com
Your attached article was forwarded to me by some of my good friends (including the then Ambassador) who worked very hard with me to set up NIDO in The Netherlands (i.e. during my assignment with Shell)
My friend who worked very hard with me then feel so maligned by your article to the extent that they are considering taking legal actions against you.
I, on my part will consider it a waste of my valuable time to take that course of action because in my view you wrote your article out of sheer ignorance. It should have occurred to you that in this day and age that more than one person can have the same name and the sins of one don’t necessary extend to others.
When next you decide to put to paper any of your thoughts in the future, suggest you do better homework so that you don’t end up spoiling the names of very good people who are working hard to help move our country forward.
Technical Consultant to the
Director-General/Presidential Adviser on Budget
BUDGET OFFICE OF THE FEDERATION
FEDERAL MINISTRY OF FINANCE
Almost at the same time, Mr Lawal got his lawyers to send Emetulu a paper purportedly indicating that the Federal High Court Lagos had set aside his conviction by the Failed Banks Tribunal for “lack of jurisdiction”. While the whole court affair was highly irregular and indeed questionable, it was clear that everything was being engineered by Lawal’s friends to rehabilitate him at the heart of government. His email to Emetulu flaunting his new status was a subliminal message to indicate that he was back in Nigeria and under the protection of the powers-that-be. Lawal has been living it large in Abuja, having his hands in every pie, while living in the El Rufai quarters until the Gbenga Obasanjo outburst.
So, when I called last summer, the euphoria of his newfound fortune still enveloped him and he came across as all nice and friendly, like a politician asking for my vote. As I said, immediately I introduced myself as calling from America, he didn’t even bother asking who I was – he just went on and on in a narcissist discussion about his triumphal return to Nigeria. He said though he wasn’t interested in politics, he only returned because he shares “the ideals of the reform programmes” of the Obasanjo regime and couldn’t sit back without contributing his quota in moving Nigeria forward. He said he owes a lot to his friends, Nasir El-Rufai, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Dr Abdul Mukhtar, Oby Ezekwesili amongst others. He said it was awful that he had been denied the “opportunity to uplift Nigeria to greater heights as a patriotic citizen” all this while he was away. He said he holds many advisory positions within the government and that nowadays he is a very busy man indeed.
As the discussion veered into the circumstances surrounding his controversial departure from the country, he became more defensive and slightly antagonistic. He said he was a victim of Abacha’s persecution and was hounded because he wouldn’t give up his shares in Afribank. He mentioned a retired army colonel, whom he claimed had first partnered with him, but who later betrayed him and joined in his persecution. Jimi lawal claimed he was the smart and lucky one amongst those whose banks failed during the Abacha era. When I asked him why he thought or said so, he reminded me that the Bureau of Public Enterprises (then headed by his friend Nasir El-Rufai) paid him back all the money he lost in the banking fiasco with interests. I asked how this was possible and he “revealed” it was possible because he indeed was never convicted. When I pointed out that he was indeed convicted in absentia, he said he’d been pardoned and the conviction had been overturned with the help of some of his friends. He said he wouldn’t want to give more information on that beyond what he’d just said.
At that point, the line went dead. When I called back later, he was now talking about his investments in China, Atlanta, Canada and so on. He claims to be worth over $10 million and is in fact not a poor man by any standard. He said his services at the Federal Capital Territory are only rendered as a form of volunteering. He said he was only providing them advice on investments and land sales, but didn’t say if he was being paid for these services. While he was going on and on, I was hoping to get him to talk about his relationship with el-Rufai in more detail. I didn’t want to jump on him with questions in this regard. I was hoping he would get into that as our discussion progressed. But he hadn’t by the time we parted, by which time I’d made up my mind to call him sometime later on that issue since I didn’t want to appear too eager and then have him clam up.
However, by the time I got around to calling him again earlier this year, so much water had passed under the bridge. The Gbenga interview was already out and the news I was getting was that he’d just reneged on an interview with a national magazine as a result of that. I decided to call him and try to convince him to tell his own side of the story. As soon as I introduced myself to him he went alarmist and defensive:
Below was how the exchange went:
Sowore: Hello Mr. Jimi Lawal. This is Sowore; how are you today?
Jimi: Ha! Yes, I know your name! Everyone knows that name around here! You have just created some serious problems on the ground in Nigeria.
Sowore: Sir, what do you mean I’ve created some problems?
Jimi :Ehn-ehn, let me tell you – there is serious problem from that interview you did with Gbenga.
Sowore: Mr. Lawal I didn’t know it was such a problem. I thought he was just being candid, why should that be a problem anyway? He talked about you and all the deals going on with the land sales in Abuja. There is also a petition against you in particular. Can I speak with you on these issues? At least tell me your side of the story.
Jimi: (a pause) I think you are pushing your luck too far by looking for another interview. I have contacted my lawyers and they are going to sue you, The News, magazine and Gbenga for all the things you said about me.
Sowore: But Mr Lawal, that is the job of the lawyers to sue on your behalf. I am going to keep doing my own job. Even if your lawyers sue everybody, we will still write and publish the truth and such things that are of public interest. I just don’t like the way you are quick to resort to threat when people try to talk to you about very important national issues. Many people said you are quick to threaten others, why so?
Jimi: I am not threatening you. I promise to sue you and Gbenga and, ehn, anywhere you might have published your stories. And now, I am going to hang up on you. You are trying to put me in trouble.
The phone went dead. A few days later he made good his ‘promise’ to sue me and The News and some other news organizations. But, in truth, his troubles are just beginning. People like him have no business in the sanctum of government simply because he has friends who give no scruples. Nigeria must be reclaimed from this cartel of crooks!
NB: Saharareporters and The News magazine have collaborated on a Jimi Lawal story to be published on Sunday, February 05, 2006. Read it all on our