The controversy surrounding the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar’s travel to the United States may not be over, as international news agency, Reuters, reported that the travel was a temporary reprieve.
The agency, in a report on Monday, said Abubakar’s visit to Washington two weeks ago to meet top US diplomats and lawmakers was due to a temporary suspension of a travel ban allegedly placed on him for alleged link to decade-old bribery scandals.
Although the US had yet to comment on the issue, some diplomats and others familiar with the visit, told Reuters that the former Vice-President had been barred from entering the US after he allegedly featured in two corruption cases.
Abubakar had on January 17 posted photos of his visit to the US on Twitter, as his supporters mocked the Federal Government, which had warned the US Government against giving him a visa.
The visit was said to be a proof that he had no corruption case in the US as claimed by the All Progressives Congress, the reason for which he was alleged to have not visited the US in more than a decade.
However, some US Government officials told Reuters that the travel ban was waived temporarily by the US State Department after lobbyists mounted a campaign on the Congress, arguing that the Trump administration should not snub the leading challenger to President Muhammadu Buhari.
One person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the agency that Abubakar was allowed to enter the US because the Americans saw little benefit to creating bad blood with the man who might be the next leader of Nigeria.
Lobbyists hired by Atiku reportedly said they sought to overcome resistance at the State Department by securing support from the Congress members for the visit, as well as arguing that the top US official for African Affairs, Assistant Secretary Tibor Nagy, had an obligation to encourage democracy in Nigeria.
“Assistant Secretary Nagy was pleased to meet with him and share the US Government’s expectations that Nigeria’s elections be free, fair, transparent, and peaceful, and reflect the will of the Nigerian people,” a State Department official said, stressing that the department had not requested the waiver.
Atiku’s visa troubles started when he served as the Vice-President from 1999 to 2007.
He was reportedly indicted in the corruption trial of a former US representative, William Jefferson, who was accused of trying to bribe Atiku in an effort to expand a technology business in Nigeria.
Jefferson was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 13 years in prison. His sentence was subsequently reduced.
Also, the US Senate investigators in 2010 alleged that one of Atiku’s four wives helped him to transfer more than $40m in “suspect funds” into the United States from offshore shell companies.
At least $1.7m of that money was a bribe paid by a German technology company Siemens AG, according to Senate investigators. Siemens pleaded guilty to the bribery charges in 2008 and agreed to pay a $1.6bn fine.
Atiku has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying neither he nor his wife has faced criminal charges in the United States.
Reuters said Atiku’s visit to Washington was put together with the help of two US lobbying firms.
Holland & Knight was reportedly hired by Atiku in December to help him secure a visa by enlisting members of the Congress to request one on his behalf, according to a lobbyist for the firm. It has been paid $80,000 so far.
Ballard Partners was hired by Atiku’s political party, the PDP, at a rate of $90,000 per month in September 2018, before Atiku emerged as the party’s candidate, according to the US disclosure filings.
The firm’s lobbyists worked to set up a meeting with Nagy, arguing that it would show that the US wanted to encourage free and fair elections in Nigeria.
“We are not asking the administration or anyone to take sides, but to merely demand the same level of freeness and fairness,” Ballard lobbyist, Jamie Rubin told Reuters.
Efforts to get the reaction of the spokesman for the PDP Presidential Campaign Organisation, Mr Kola Ologbondiyan, on the issue failed.
Calls made to his telephone line indicated that it was switched off.
However, a source close to the campaign organisation told one of our correspondents that those behind the news had changed the narrative.
He said, “What they were initially saying then was that Atiku could not go to the US. They said if he travelled there, he would be arrested and jailed.
“Now, he had gone there and had returned. They are now talking about temporary relieve. Soon, they would say another thing.”