Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Anatomy of a smear-- Africa-style

By Don Goldberg

Solid reputations take years to be won, but they can be lost virtually overnight. The political landscape is littered with the (figurative) bodies of those who have been implicated but later exonerated in scandal. The same is true in Africa as it is here in the States. And this is precisely what happened to former Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who is seeking his nation's presidency (full disclosure: Atiku's Washington-based attorney is a client, and I have provided counsel on his issues. Two of my colleagues have met directly with the Vice President). Mr. Abubakar was implicated in the bribery scandal that led to the indictment of Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA), but on close examination of the evidence it turns out, well, there is no evidence that he was involved at all.

I write about Atiku because he is what should be the model for the United States in choosing allies in difficult parts of the globe. Nigeria is economically vital to this country given its oil resources; yet it is struggling to balance a sizeable Islamic population with the need to be on good terms with the West. Atiku, a Muslim himself, is a friend to the United States, and wants our countries to be friends, too.

A successful businessman-turned-politician, Atiku fought recent corruption in his government, standing against attempts by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to alter Nigeria's constitutionally-mandated term-limits. Although this was an act of political self-sacrifice, putting himself in the crosshairs of President Obasanjo and his supporters, Mr. Abubakar felt it was his duty. His reputation, however, suffered. He ended up a scapegoat for allegations originally aimed at President Obasanjo and others.

According to news reports, United States Congressman William Jefferson allegedly accepted at least $100,000 in bribes to build a relationship between a company employing his former chief of staff and a firm called iGate, which supposedly had the opportunity to provide IT support to Nigeria's government-owned phone company. When the scheme began to fail and money was being lost, Rep. Jefferson and his associates started dropping Atiku's name in an attempt to draw attention away from their actions.

While Rep. Jefferson's trial is forthcoming, Atiku's name has been smeared in the international press; yet, at no time has he been the subject of an investigation by any U.S. law enforcement agency. The reason is because Mr. Abubakar never solicited nor accepted bribes from Rep. Jefferson or his associates. And this is clearly demonstrated by a review of the publicly-available affidavits in the case, which reveal that Rep. Jefferson's statements about him were simply part of an attempt to illicit more bribes from his former chief of staff's employer:

Atiku had no connection to those involved in the bribery scandal, according to affidavits related to the case.

• During a December 2004 conversation with the woman who employed Brett Pfeffer, Rep. Jefferson's chief of staff, Rep. Jefferson told her that President Obasanjo, not Vice President Abubakar, was his point of contact with the Nigerian government.

• In August 2004, Rep. Jefferson introduced Pfeffer's employer, Lori Mody, to the president of the Nigerian company that would serve as iGate's local partner. At no time during the meeting did anyone mention a link between the local partner and Atiku.

• In a March 2005 conversation arranged at the direction of the FBI, Pfeffer met with Mody to attempt to restore the deteriorating iGate deal. In a detailed conversation about how the deal would unfold, Atiku's name was never mentioned, nor were there any veiled references to him. Rep. Jefferson and his associates only used Atiku's name to gain influence, even though they'd never met and had no connection to him.

• In April 2005, Rep. Jefferson mentioned Atiku's name to Mody as a means of creating the notion of his own influence with the Nigerians. Rep. Jefferson knew the deal was falling apart fast and needed a bump to get Mody to act. Rep. Jefferson told Mody that Atiku would arrive in Washington on May 1, 2005. Prolbem, was, that never happened. He had no plans to go to Washington in May and did not.

• In June 2005, Rep. Jefferson had written a formal letter addressed to the Vice President through the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC. If Rep. Jefferson had a personal relationship with Vice President Abubakar, going to far as to discuss an illegal business deal involving millions of dollars with him, why the need for formal correspondence through the Embassy of all places?

Atiku was never mentioned in conversations about who should be bribed.

• On May 4, 2005, after not hearing a response from Atiku to the formal letter he solicited or otherwise, Rep. Jefferson told Mody that there was no need to involve the Vice President in the deal.

• On May 12, 2005, Rep. Jefferson met Mody and discussed the need to motivate the president of iGate's Nigerian partner because "he's got a lot of folks to pay off." Atiku's name was not mentioned during the detailed conversation.

When the iGate deal at last crumbled, Rep. Jefferson attempted to extract some final money from Mody and used Atiku as the excuse.

• After long negotiations between Rep. Jefferson and Mody, Rep. Jefferson convinced Mody that he needed $100,000 to bribe the Vice President. The FBI, working with Mody to build a case, gave Mody $100,000 and recorded the serial numbers of the bills as part of basic procedure.

• During an FBI raid of Rep. Jefferson's home, $90,000 of the bills given to him by Mody as the supposed "bribe" for Atiku were found in his freezer. An investigation revealed another $4,800 had been given to a female legislative aide. Eventually, all but a single $100 bill was accounted for.

Ultimately, misperception and falsehoods have marred Atiku's reputation around the world, with very few examining the obvious facts of the case to see that there is no merit to any suggestion of his involvement. Where does someone like Atiku go to get his reputation back?

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