•Accused lawmakers threaten legal action •Drama as co-chairmen of panel disagree
MINISTER of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, on Thursday, said the allegation of sexual misconduct brought against three members of the House of Representatives by the immediate past United States (US) Ambassador to Nigeria, James Entwistle, was weak, defamatory and lacked merit in nature and could be pursued at the law court if the accused lawmakers so desired.
The minister, speaking before the House of Representatives Committee on Ethics and Privileges, headed by Honourable Nicholas Osai and the Committee on Foreign Affairs Relations, headed by Honourable Nnenna Elendu Ukejeh, stated that there was no single evidence against the accused lawmakers.
He pointed out from his interaction with the former ambassador, the letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Honourable Yakubu Dogara, was purely private and diplomatic, which was just to inform him about the allegations and the need to guide against future occurrence that could tarnish their images and that of Nigeria.
The minister condemned what he termed the “undiplomatic” channel of communication used by the former ambassador for the invitation of the lawmakers to the International Leadership Exchange Programme, as well his letter to the Speaker conveying the said allegations to the panel, adding that neither himself nor his ministry was aware of the trip, despite the fact it was a government-government programme.
Onyeama said in a meeting he held with the ambassador in his office, he clearly expressed his dissatisfaction, because of his failure to communicate the participation of Nigerian lawmakers in a “supposed government-to-government” leadership exchange programme facilitated by the US government and coordinated by the ministry.
According to him, “I called the ambassador to my office and told him that I was surprised he could not brief the Foreign Ministry on this matter before it came to the public. He apologised and said he wrote the letter as a private diplomatic discussion between himself and the Speaker and that it was not meant to be a public show.”
He further said “when I asked him as to what evidence he has to warrant the allegations because if they are found to be defamatory, legal actions could be taken, he said he wrote the letter without making any judgment.”
According to him, “I asked further that on what basis were the allegations made, he said the US government did not make any judgment because the lady who complained of being sexually harassed said she wasn’t going to testify anywhere – which made it difficult for the Home Office to go further with the investigation.
“I also asked him how they identified the accused lawmakers as the culprits, he told me they got their identities from a group photograph. This clearly presents a possibility of proceeding for defamation because I thought that there would have been a stronger evidence of wrongdoing before this kind of judgment is reached.”
When asked if the said programme was brought to his attention, being a “government-to-government arrangement as claimed, the minister said “no,” stressing that ‘‘the known diplomatic procedure would have been to channel whatever communication through him.”
On whether there were sanctions for this kind of behaviour, the minister again said “no,” explaining that “the ministry will just make sure this kind of thing does not happen again to any Nigerian.”
The minister, while explaining the justiceability of the allegation, following the lack of critical evidence aside the mere verbal allegations, said “the US ambassador did not present any corroborative evidence, neither did he say there was any.”
The ambassador, according to the minister, only said his letter was just to bring to the notice of the Speaker that some allegations were levelled against the lawmakers and that he confirmed they were made, though, there were no evidence to substantiate them.
The minister stressed that “the leakage of the letter brings to question the integrity of the communication channel used between the ambassador and the Speaker,” adding that “his ministry does not know the internal processes and working of the US government which may have informed the ambassador to do what he did.
“The ambassador is an envoy here, the US government may have instructed him to do the things he did, the US Embassy has total discretion over their visas, they don’t have to give reasons for denying visa to anybody or withdrawal of same.”
He, however, observed that the acrimonious manner in which the meeting between the lawmakers and the embassy officials held might have given rise to the extreme measures taken by the embassy, as the three lawmakers were said to have walked out of the meeting, following a shouting match between them and the Deputy Chief of Mission, Maria Brewer.
The panel also took testimonies from some lawmakers who were on the trip with the accused lawmakers and they all denied witnessing any misconduct act from them throughout the duration of the exercise.
The accused lawmakers, in the final words, expressed gratitude to the joint committees for holding a public hearing that had eventually changed the narrative of the matter regarding their innocence as evident in the submission by the minister and the ambassador, despite his absence all along.
There was, however, mild drama at the sitting as the two co-chairmen, Honourable Osai and Honourable Ukejeh, openly disagreed on whether or not an oath should be administered on the minister before making his submission before the panel.
Trouble started when Osai directed the minister, who had started giving his submission, to stop, so that the clerk of the Foreign Affairs Relations should administer the oath on him, but Ukejeh kicked and directed the clerk not to do it.
Honourable Osai, however, insisted that the oath must be administered since the minister would be giving an evidence before the panel. Honourable Ukejeh, however, stood her ground before other members of the panel persuaded her to allow the oath, in line with the House rules.
The same scenario also played out when the committee wanted to know whether the minister was in possession of the copy of the ambassador’s letter to the speaker to enable the members to ask questions on it, which he said no and the chairman said the clerk should give him a copy, but Honourable Ukejeh again interfered, saying the minister should not be given a copy, since he was not the author of the letter.
At this point, Honourable Osai advised her to stop it and directed that a copy should be given to the minister.
“Stop interfering please my co-chairman, I am the one presiding over this panel and you are the co-chairman,we have to follow the rules,” he said.