From the start, the visit was strange. When Atiku Abubakar, Nigeria’s main opposition candidate for the February 16 presidential election visited Washington D.C. on January 17 and 18, he avoided journalists.
He stayed at the Trump International Hotel, a luxury hotel owned by President Donald Trump, which is subject of several lawsuits that allege Trump is violating an anti-corruption clause in the U.S. Constitution that limits the president’s ability to accept gifts from foreign governments.
Mr Abubakar did not announce his visit until he was already airborne and his spokesman repeatedly lied to Nigerian journalists, denying that his boss was headed for Washington D.C.
He did not hold a press conference and spoke only to Voice of America in Hausa language.
And it turns out that Mr. Abubakar was only able to travel to the United States because of a temporary suspension of a travel ban, according to Reuters.
Several U.S. diplomats and others familiar with the visit told Reuters news agency that the former vice president of Nigeria has been banned from entering the United States for the past several years after he figured prominently in two corruption cases.
“Several U.S. government officials said the travel ban was waived temporarily by the U.S. State Department after lobbyists mounted a campaign among congressional lawmakers arguing that the administration should not snub the leading challenger to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in the Feb. 16 election,” Reuters said.
The report quoted one person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity, as saying that “Atiku was allowed to enter because the United States saw little benefit to creating bad blood with the man who might be the next leader of Africa’s most populous nation and the continent’s biggest oil producer”.
The news agency added: “Lobbyists hired by Atiku said they sought to overcome resistance at the State Department by securing support from members of Congress for the visit, as well as arguing that the top U.S. official for African affairs, Assistant Secretary Tibor Nagy, had an obligation to encourage democracy in the seventh most populous country in the world”.
“Assistant Secretary Nagy was pleased to meet with him and share the U.S. government’s expectations that Nigeria’s elections be free, fair, transparent, and peaceful, and reflect the will of the Nigerian people,” a State Department official told Reuters, stressing that the department had not requested the waiver.
The news agency recalled that Atiku’s visa troubles stem from when he served as Nigeria’s vice president, from 1999 to 2007, and “figured prominently in the corruption trial of former U.S. Representative William Jefferson, who was accused of trying to bribe Atiku in an effort to expand a technology business in Nigeria”.
Jefferson was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 13 years in prison, though his sentence was subsequently reduced.
“Separately U.S. Senate investigators in 2010 alleged that one of Atiku’s four wives helped him transfer more than $40 million in “suspect funds” into the United States from offshore shell companies. At least $1.7 million of that money was bribes paid by German technology company Siemens AG, according to Senate investigators. Siemens pleaded guilty to bribery charges in 2008 and agreed to pay a $1.6 billion fine,” Reuters added.
Atiku has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Neither he nor his wife face criminal charges in the United States.
According to the news agency, “Atiku’s whirlwind visit to Washington last month was put together with the help of two U.S. lobbying firms”.
“Holland & Knight was hired by Atiku personally in December to help him secure a visa, in part by enlisting members of Congress to request one on his behalf, according to a lobbyist for the firm. It has been paid $80,000 so far. Ballard Partners was hired by Atiku’s political party at a rate of $90,000 per month in September, before Atiku emerged as the party’s candidate, according to U.S. disclosure filings”.
“The firm’s lobbyists worked to set up a meeting with Nagy, arguing it would show that the United States wanted to encourage free and fair elections in a country where graft is endemic.
“We are not asking the administration or anyone to take sides, but to merely demand the same level of freeness and fairness,” Ballard lobbyist Jamie Rubin told Reuters.
Aside from Nagy, Atiku met with business leaders at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and at least two Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives who specialize in foreign affairs, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas and Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey.
Simon is a renowned international journalist, founder and publisher of TODAY NEWS AFRICA in Washington D.C.