For the sake of a dear, seemingly inevitable friend, Nasir el-Rufai, Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, is once again attracting flaks. El-Rufai is well-known to be a close pal of Jimi Adebisi Lawal, former managing director of the defunct Alpha Merchant Bank and businessman with the scruples of an alley cat. On behalf of Lawal, el-Rufai is currently entangled with Gbenga Ikuomola, consultant to a firm based in Venezuela.
Ikuomola is claiming that el-Rufai, on 16 July 2006, threatened to use the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, “to deal with me,” because he, Ikuomola, is insisting that Lawal refund a sum of 45,000 pounds sterling, balance of 160,000 pounds sterling that the former banker swindled the consultant. The story is that Lawal sold two plots of land in Lekki to Ikuomola after using the same property as collateral to secure a loan from a bank. The matter became so messy that, according to Ikuomola, the bank began suspecting him of conniving with Lawal to commit the fraud. The bank eventually took ownership of the property and Ikuomola ended up the loser.
But Ikuomola, who told TheNEWS he had known el-Rufai and Lawal to be some special kind of friends since 1991, would not give up. Last year, he reported Lawal to the EFCC after which the latter was picked up by agents of the Commission. But, the creditor stated, el-Rufai used his influence as an incumbent minister in the present dispensation to get the debtor off the hook. “It is on record that the EFCC investigated the above and found it to be true and correct. Jimi could have been facing prosecution by now from the EFCC, but you made his abscondment possible as a result of your relationship and influence,” Ikuomola told el-Rufai in an open letter dated 17 August 2006 addressed to the minister.
El-Rufai and Lawal seem to be more than ordinary friends. Ikuomola actually described Lawal as “your boyfriend” in the letter to el-Rufai. When asked to elaborate what “boyfriend” connotes, Ikuomola only chuckled, but promised to unearth a stinking can of worms on the manner of the relationship between the two men at the appropriate time. The consultant reminded the Minister of how he had assisted him and Lawal in their businesses when el-Rufai was, as he put it, “a nobody and junior business partner to Lawal.” He specifically mentioned a proposal on the establishment of Omega Cement Company, “when Jimi used to send you to my house at Probyn Road to see, talk and brainstorm with me.” El-Rufai was said to have actually written the proposal on the cement project. But the project allegedly failed when the two partners could not put together the required credible documentation to back up a government policy demand that such a project must have a certain degree of local content.
Ikuomola also mentioned Lawal’s importation of Uncle Ben’s rice for which he (Ikuomola) arranged the foreign exchange sourcing, but “which Naira value he (Lawal) never completed.” Ikuomola threw light on the controversial Banco Bilbao shares which Lawal sought to use to buy over Afribank when he was managing director of Alpha Merchant Bank, but failed because he could not provide genuine documents as demanded by the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN. He told el-Rufai in the letter that “at BPE (Bureau of Public Enterprises), you sold to Jimi shares which he and Lord Chief bought from Banco Bilbao (40 per cent shares in IBWA) and this you know made Jimi a lot of money without references to shareholders of Alpha Merchant Bank and its depositors. You are fully aware that Jimi Lawal was sentenced in absentia to eight years imprisonment for converting depositors’ money, public funds and shareholders’ investment and went to hide in London, Toronto and Atlanta with your knowledge and connivance.”
When Lawal first attempted to buy the BIAO shares in 1992, TheNEWS’ investigation revealed, he was rejected because he could not provide proof of ownership of the fund and proper documentation as demanded. Desperate to have the shares, Lawal was said to have dropped the name of the then Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida (retd.) before the erstwhile CBN governor, Abdulkadir Ahmed (now deceased), as having approved the transaction. Ahmed was, however, shrewd enough to seek confirmation from Babangida rather than just take Lawal for his word. Babangida, it was gathered, was angry at the effrontery of the banker to attempt to use his name to perpetrate an illegal transaction. He was quoted to have directed Ahmed to ‘‘bring me that boy.’’ In Babanigda’s presence, Lawal was said to be speechless. That was how the BIAO share purchase effort flopped.
But Lawal and el-Rufai allegedly cooked up the deal once again when the latter became the BPE director-general under President Olusegun Obasanjo.
For Lawal, the opportunity was a timely rehabilitation because, by 1999, he was known to be so financially unhealthy. With el-Rufai in the saddle at BPE which prioritised the sale of the BIAO shares, Lawal made $3.7 million. Details of the scam were reported in the 5 February edition of TheNEWS. The windfall marked the beginning of huge monetary gains for Lawal, as el-Rufai grew more influential in the Obasanjo administration. In 2001, Lawal was recommended as technical adviser to the Investors International (London) Limited’s bid to buy the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited, NITEL, even though he has no pedigree whatsoever in telecommunications. When the IILL bid failed, Lawal and his cohorts would not give up. [i]TheNEWS[/i] has it on very reliable authority how Lawal, fronting for some other partner(s), went to Holland to make efforts at registering a telecommunications company, mainly with a view to buying over NITEL or bagging a management contract. He, however, ran into problems on registration because he had no resident permit, a vital requirement.
That would not stop Lawal and his gang. From Holland, in 2003, suddenly came Pentascope as the preferred bidder, by the BPE, for NITEL. As also extensively reported by TheNEWS in its edition of 13 March 2006, the Pentascope deal was clearly a fraud to fleece Nigeria of billions of naira. By April 2004, within only one year, when Pentascope was stripped of the contract, it had ruined NITEL completely to the tune of about N100 billion loss. As the House of Representatives committee on commications which investigaed the case found out, the huge money went into the pockets of the Nigerian traitors who collaborated with the Dutch company to destroy NITEL.
Lawal’s hand might not be absent in the Pentascope set-up. After the IILL failure and his hurried trip to Holland to try and register a telecommunications company in 2001, Pentascope suddenly came up. It was curiously registered on 1 January 2002, a public holiday, and only three months before the BPE advertised for Expressions of Interest from qualified firms to manage NITEL. As required by the Companies and Allied Matters Act, it was not even registered in Nigeria to do business. The firm did not even meet any of the criteria listed in the BPE advertisement. The pre-qualification criteria demanded that “interested managers MUST be international telecommunications operators and MUST demonstrate, one, evidence of having installed and managed at least a million telephones; two, a successful track record of expanding a telecommunications network in a developing country; and three, sufficient management resources to grow NITEL and enhance shareholder value. Pentascope was grossly deficient in all those.
When a team of NITEL directors travelled to Holland to verify the claims put forward by the BPE and PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm of auditors that was supposed to have done the due diligence on the Dutch firm, they were stunned by their discoveries. Pentascope had only eight staff, including its janitor, and operated from an abandoned old church building. The Pentascope rip-off of about N100 billion at NITEL was clearly a premeditated steal and why those behind it have not been prosecuted only President Olusegun Obasanjo can explain. Although Lawal ran away from Nigeria, to escape trial after he ran Alpha Merchant Bank aground, el-Rufai assisted him well to pave way for his return. And after making hay from the BIAO shares and telecommunication deals, the minister further enriched him with a consultancy on land deals in the Federal Capital Territory.
Even here, Lawal’s activities were tainted with numerous allegations of shady deals. Ikuomola frowned at el-Rufai’s “unwholesome relationship with Jimi Lawal who you continued to offer succour, to the extent of appointing him a consultant in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja to superintend over the allocation and distribution of landed property.” After he escaped from Nigeria, Lawal, TheNEWS scooped, is now in Canada to where he ferreted the stupendous financial gains he made in Nigeria, courtesy el-Rufai. In Canada, the conman now runs J & I Investment, which deals in real property, on behalf of his business partners. Ikuomola was patently furious at el-Rufai’s threat, although Amina Salihu, media aide to the FCT minister, told TheNEWS he (the minister) “does not threaten people; it is either he acts or he doesn’t.” Effort by the magazine to make Salihu comment on the allegation raised by Ikuomola in his letter to el-Rufai were fruitless as she would not respond to calls.
In concluding his letter, Ikuomola said: “I reported your boyfriend Jimi Lawal to the EFCC on good grounds, leading to investigation and it was found that he truly defrauded me. He promised to pay all the money at conclusion of the said investigation, but instead, he ran away again as usual. You want EFCC to arrest me? May I ask you when has the EFCC become an agent of repression and suppression? I, Gbenga Ikuomola, therefore, dare you to take the unenviable path of instigating my arrest. You cannot use the name of EFCC to intimidate or harass me. Don’t ever try. I hereby challenge you to carry out your threats.”