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Atiku’s controversial visit to the US

Former vice president, Atiku Abukakar, set his foot on US soil a few days ago for the first time in about 12 years. His journey came under a heavy cloud of corruption allegation and threat of quizzing by the federal government. Deputy Editor, LEON USIGBE writes on the eye-popping adventure.

In a move that caught many observers unawares, the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, took off to the United States last week for interactions with government officials and business leaders. That itself should not have raised any eyebrows. After all, as a top political leader and an international business guru, such journeys could be seen as commonplace. But the situation was different. Atiku had been prevented from entering the US for about 12 years through the denial of entry visa by the US authorities. Even though he did not explicitly admit, the reason the visa was not issued to him may not have been unconnected with the corruption case involving former Congressman William Jefferson in whose refrigerator $100,000 cash was discovered by investigators whom he told was meant to bribe the then Nigerian Vice President. Atiku denied any link with the bribe money. But since that incident over a decade ago, he had not been able to set foot on US soil. It was a sort of triumphant entry for him therefore when he sneaked out of Nigeria and against the expectations of his political foes, had series of engagements in Washington without getting quizzed.

The All Progressive Congress (APC) had made it a campaign point that Atiku could not travel to the US over the perceived corruption case and the National Chairman of the ruling party, Adams Oshiomhole led the campaign to convince Nigerians not to vote for him because as president, he would not be able to parley with the US president. Other party chieftains dared the former vice president to go to the US and see if he would not be arrested. Some had derisively claimed that if Atiku could undertake the trip and without qualms, they would switch their loyalty from their presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, to the PDP candidate. An APC that did not believe that Atiku had pulled off the feat scorned him for “sneaking” into the US despite his diplomatic status as a former vice president.

What perhaps best demonstrates this surprise was the action of the federal government when it realized that Atiku had been able to enter US. The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, addressed a press conference to demand that the former vice president returned home to explain his role in the collapse of Bank PHB. The government’s spokesman alleged that Atiku benefited to the tune of N156 million from slush funds through Claremont Management Services Account on 13th January, 2009 that led to the collapse of the bank. He quickly stressed that the APC-led federal government was not perturbed by Atiku’s unexpected trip but only keen to hear his defence of the corruption that led to the demise of the bank, adding: “If he likes he can stay there and obtain the American Green Card.” Mohammed said that in 2009, a memo was raised for the issuance and payment of the N156 million to Claremont Management Services Account, saying that the onus was on Atiku to prove himself innocent. The press conference with State House correspondents in Abuja was a combative one as the minister deflected all questions from reporters determined to understand the timing of the accusation.

The PDP though, thought that “the trump-up allegation” made by the minister was laughable and dead on arrival. Kola Ologbondiyan, the spokesman of the party, observed in his reaction to the allegation that President Buhari’s “heinous plot to frame the PDP Presidential Candidate,” was out of fear that he, Atiku, is already coasting to victory in the February 16 Presidential election. He said during a press conference: “While we understand that President Buhari and his dysfunctional All Progressives Congress (APC) are jittery over Atiku Abubakar’s soaring popularity ahead of the elections, it is reprehensible that Mr President will descend abysmally low to fabricate outright lies and falsehood in a bid to discredit a more qualified and acceptable Presidential candidate.” The party megaphone went on declare that Atiku has nothing to do with the alleged issues leading to the collapse of Bank PHB, “but an honest and hardworking Nigerian who has no skeleton of any sort in his cupboard, unlike President Buhari, who is now entangled in series of corruption allegations.”  “The world already knows that this attempt to mudsling our Presidential candidate is coming out of President Buhari’s frustration over Atiku Abubakar’s successful outing in the United States, for which the Buhari Presidency has gone into full hallucination,” Ologbodiyan alleged.

Despite the controversy, Atiku rationalized his visit to the US at this time, saying that it was to enable him to meet with the country’s administration officials and business leaders. “I travelled to the United States of America because I had a mission and my mission is to create the right economic atmosphere for American investments to return to Nigeria at a rate and quantum that we had before the current Nigerian administration’s policies almost halted the flow of Foreign Direct Investments to Nigeria. I am in America because Atiku means jobs,” he explained in a dispatch from Washington. According to him, the current Nigerian administration has allowed the country’s relationship with its long-standing friends and partners to deteriorate and this has had unfortunate consequences for the nation’s economy.  “Foreign relations that had been meticulously and delicately built for decades were allowed to deteriorate because the incumbent administration mistook their personal interests as the interest of Nigeria and allowed short term goals to dominate their foreign policies. New friendships should not be made at the cost of old friendships. It is not an either-or situation,” Atiku further maintained.

He stressed his belief that giving the direction the world economies are moving, Nigeria needs a new deal with developed countries to have big ambitious free trade agreements especially as the country has perhaps the highest population of youths as a segment of the total population, in the world. “Already, we have the unfortunate distinction of being the world headquarters for extreme poverty. We cannot afford business as usual. My single-minded focus is to change this dubious record by transforming Nigeria from a consumer nation to a prosumer nation (a nation that consumes what it produces),” he observed, adding: “For this to happen, we need US firms who have divested from Nigeria, to return. We need Procter and Gamble to reopen their $300 million Nigerian plant which they shut down last year. We need General Electric to reverse their $2.7 billion pull out of Nigeria.”

The PDP presidential flag bearer concluded by saying that he was certain that if he is successful in selling Nigeria to the world, the world will come to Nigeria for business. “That is why I am in America. Because I believe in JOBS – Jobs, Opportunity, Being United and Security and it is time Nigeria and all Nigerians finally have the opportunity to realize their true potential,” Atiku declared.

As he returned to Nigeria a few days after to a warm welcome by his party faithful and supporters, observers were wondering if indeed the federal government would question him as had been threatened This is yet to happen. But the leading opposition presidential candidate’s camp say they remain focused on the business of unseating Buhari to provide room “to get Nigeria working again.”

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