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EFCC's CHENEY FANTASY

PHOTO: US VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY.
PHOTO: US VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY.
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There was an interesting encounter last Friday between a group of Nigerians and Mr. Emmanuel Akomaye, the Secretary of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. The venue was the Marriott Hotel in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, where this year’s (Chinua) Achebe Colloquium on Africa took place on Friday and Saturday.

On Friday night, Adebowale Adefuye, Nigeria’s ambassador to the US, hosted a reception for Nigerians participating in the colloquium. We were having robust exchanges with the ambassador on a number of issues when the EFCC’s Akomaye walked into the room. Instantaneously, the attention shifted to him.

Earlier that day, the Nigerian as well as foreign media had extensively reported that the EFCC was interested in procuring the person of Mr. Dick Cheney, the immediate past vice president of the United States, and his transmission to Nigeria to face prosecution over the Halliburton bribe scandal. Prior to playing side kick to former President George W. Bush, Mr. Cheney had headed Halliburton, a multinational company that has admitted in US courts that it dispensed $180 million in bribes to several Nigerian officials to help secure contracts in Nigeria’s oil and gas sector.

It is not in question that KBR, an engineering firm based in Houston, Texas – and which was until recently an affiliate of Halliburton – paid $180 million in bribes to Nigerian officials between 1994 and 2004. KBR used the bribes as the quid for the quo of some $6 billion in contracts for the Bonny Island liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in the Niger Delta. The company has admitted to these facts in a US court. In consequence, KBR agreed to pay American authorities a whooping fine of $579 million for its corporate crimes.

The severity of the penalty meted out to KBR/Halliburton and some of its top officials by American authorities is in marked contrast to the cavalier attitude of Nigeria’s law enforcement agents and prosecutors.

Last year, as the Halliburton scandal dominated the headlines, Umaru Yar’Adua – who was then Nigeria’s ruler – set up a panel headed by former Inspector General of Police Mike Okiro to, among other things, determine the identity of the Nigerian officials who received the corporate bribes.

To much fanfare, Mr. Yar’Adua’s administration pledged that no Nigerian recipient of the inducement would be spared. Yet, once the Okiro panel submitted its report, Yar’Adua and his attorney general, Michael Aondoakaa, dug their faces in the sand and went to sleep.

In the face of official silence, it fell to enterprising reporters to excavate the names of those reportedly indicted by the Okiro panel. Several newspapers and websites revealed that the names of former military and civilian heads of state, ministers and governors were on the list. From the government, which had the file with the Okiro facts, mum was the word.

A lot has happened since, much of it along absurd lines. In September, the Goodluck Jonathan administration decided it was time to appear to be engaged with the issue. It arraigned a few low-level, even faceless former aides to Nigeria’s past rulers, some Halliburton staffers as well as a few Nigerian companies. Conspicuously missing from the line-up of the accused were the top Nigerian officials who wielded the real authority when it came to the award of contracts, especially when we’re talking about billions of dollars.

Those who were dismayed by the government’s unserious approach to the Halliburton scandal had another jolt coming. In October, the Goodluck administration gutted its own case. It simply withdrew its case against all but one of the accused. The lone accused, Mr. Adeyanju Bodunde, was an aide to former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The abracadabra underscored an absolute determination to turn the so-called trial into a pathetic hoax. Since Halliburton had entered a guilty plea in an American court, its Nigerian officials would have felt compelled – if put to trial in Nigeria – to name the Nigerian officials who accepted the company’s bribes. So the company was left off the hook.

Here, then, is the absurdity we’re left with: the Nigerian government has put forward Mr. Bodunde as the man who caused successive Nigerian governments, military and civilian, to funnel $6 billion of contracts to Halliburton!

One doesn’t have to be a legal expert to know that this is a case programmed by prosecutors to collapse.

As if to compound the prosecutorial perfidy, the EFCC now seeks to arrest and try Mr. Cheney for bribing Nigerian officials the Nigerian government adamantly won’t name.

The Nigerians gathered at the Achebe Colloquium asked the EFCC’s Akomaye to explain his agency’s Cheney fantasy. Why pursue a Cheney you’re almost certain never to net whilst ignoring the former Nigerian officials within arm’s length?

I was really curious to hear out Mr. Akomaye’s explanation. He began to speak about “strategy,” but a din of interjections and interruptions drowned him out. Then, before anybody knew it, the EFCC man sneaked out of the room.

There’s little question that Nigeria’s request for Cheney is a strategic move. Though popular among a small circle of conservative ideologues in the US, Mr. Cheney is widely despised in America and around the world. The dour, unsmiling former vice president is plagued by heart trouble, but many of his American critics would tell you he is simply heartless. In announcing that they want him to stand trial in Nigeria, Nigerian officials have handed the American liberal media another cudgel with which to hound and pound Cheney.

But there may well be another strategy at play here, a far more insidious one, as far as the interests of Nigerians are concerned. That strategy, one suspects, is that of evasion. If the Nigerian government wants to evade the burden of prosecuting those who really sold the country to Halliburton, then what better strategy to adopt than the fantasy of pursuing Mr. Cheney’s extradition to Nigeria.

The Barack Obama administration is extremely unlikely to entertain any requests to hand over Dick Cheney to Abuja. The EFCC and Nigerian officials, I fear, are likely to exploit America’s refusal to give them Cheney as proof that America also – like Nigeria – shields its top public officials from prosecutorial disgrace.

That would be both a misleading impression as well as a cynical move. But a culture of deception and cynicism has defined, and continues to define, Nigeria’s vaunted crusade against corruption.

The EFCC hit a jackpot of international publicity by announcing its search for Cheney. It should now sketch out for the world the where, how and when of Dick Cheney’s meetings with Bodunde, and how the latter gave all those contracts to Halliburton.

Okey Ndibe is at [email protected]

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