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Sonala Olumhense: Cash For Arms, And Other Tales

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There was something akin to disbelief in Nigeria last week about the effort by the government to smuggle aboard a private into South Africa the sum of $9.3 million in cash.

As the world now knows, the jet belongs to Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, the leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), which represents much of the prosperity-posturing wing of Nigerian Christendom.

The objective: (allegedly) to buy arms, (allegedly) to combat the insurgency in Northeast Nigeria.

The disbelief seemed to be on the part of the same people who were so disenchanted by a particular political party nearly four years ago they voted loudly and angrily “for Goodluck Jonathan, not for the PDP.”

The PDP, of course, is Mr. Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party. Some Nigerians disingenuously claimed they were eating the beef but not the soup in which it was cooked.

Well, in the same week in which Nigerian law was violated by her government towards violating South African law, the PDP also announced it would return Mr. Jonathan unopposed as its candidate for next year’s presidential contest. Mr. Jonathan ‘accepted,’ pledging to work three times as hard.

And it was the same week—no surprise—that the President of the Senate, Mr. David Mark, announced there really will be no election next year.

“There is no question of [organizing an] election; it is not even on the table now,” he said during a suspicious debate in the House about the insurgency. “We are in a state of war.”

Mr. Mark’s Idoma people, by the way, have declared they want him out of the Senate, where he has spent 16 indolent years, and into which he narrowly “won” re-election in 2011. Not a bad time to seek to void scheduled elections.

It also seemed a convenient time to ignore the embarrassment of South Africa.

One would have expected the Senate, if it had an iota of responsibility and decency, to have embarked on an immediate and substantive quest for answers. That took days of international outrage.

Still, after the grisly story had broken, it was clear that even for a government that lives on a diet of scandals, this one was particularly massive. And so, up stepped Pastor Oritsejafor, who admitted ownership of the Bombardier Challenger 600 jet.

Said ‘The Word of Life Bible Church,’ on his behalf: “We can confirm that although he holds an interest in Eagle Air, the aircraft in question is not operated by Pastor Oritsejafor.” Delicate language.

Eagle Air nodded vigorously in assent. Yes, they did have the aircraft, the company said, but then they did not have it anymore because they leased it to Green Coast Produce Limited.

Green Coat Produce rose to its feet, and produced a similar explanation. Yes, they did receive it on lease, they said, and they had been using it for charter services, for which it was currently with one John Ishyaku.

That left us with an Israeli identified as Eyal Mesika and two unidentified Nigerians on an infamous private jet flying discreetly into Lanseria, a private airport north of Johannesburg rather than the pomp and circumstance of Oliver Tambo International.

The Nigerian government knew there was nowhere to run. So it owned up…a little bit. Yes, it owns the money, it said, and it had deployed it to South Africa for the purpose of buying arms.

Speaking through the faceless PRNigeria, Nigeria was suddenly loquacious. It claimed that both countries were close to a “diplomatic resolution of the matter,” and blamed “procedural error” and “an oversight” by its emissaries at Lanseria.

I am sure the Nigerian government knew that its explanation sounded ridiculous, but it had to put up some kind of face, particularly with the United Nations 69th General Assembly due to open in New York on September 16, and President Jonathan scheduled to speak there days thereafter.

Nigerian law does not matter to Nigerian authorities, but South African law matters a little more to the South Africans. They promptly obtained a court order to impound the money, much like Nuhu Ribadu’s EFCC did in September 2006 when it impounded $13.5 million from Mrs. Patience Jonathan.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) said it did find the Nigerians on board Pastor Oritsejafor’s jet with with invoices from two companies, Tier One and the ESD International Group Ltd (ESD) of Cyprus, for armaments and a helicopter.

Those documents must have been rigged out of a printer on board the luxury jet because Tier One is unknown to South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee and was not authorized to enter into any agreements regarding the sale and/or rental of the kinds of equipment Nigeria claimed to seek.

Anyone looking for further proof those documents were manufactured should consider that, according to the NPA, “The agreement between Tier One and ESD was concluded only on September 8, three days after the money was seized at Lanseria.”

Said the South African authorities, who may have placed the arms-buyers from Nigeria in separate rooms and grilled them individually, “Their explanations were flawed and riddled with discrepancies.”

One of those discrepancies and queries has to be this: Why would Nigeria have been seeking to buy from Tier One in South Africa, which was going to buy from ESD in Cyprus; doesn’t Oritsejafor’s jet fly to Cyprus?

Towards the end of last week, there were far more questions than answers. One report said that the office of the Nigeria’s National Security Adviser was responsible for the bungled deal. In this column last week, I indicated how that office has emerged as a key player in the Nigerian equation, with massive and unexplained annual budgets.

Also towards the end of last week, the Senate had sashayed into the drama. But the Senate has a revolting stench where it should have a record of credibility, and no Senator challenged Mr. Mark last week when he had the effrontery to declare there would be no election in 2015.

In other words, this embarrassment will not go away quickly, and the efforts of the Nigerian government to downplay it through bluster and diplomatic double-talk will collapse. Personally, I grant Oritsejafor the benefit of the doubt that he did not know his jet was going into this particular infamy. But for a jet he allegedly received for pastoral work, how many pieces of silver does he receive for his commercial sub-leasing business?

For Mr. Jonathan’s government, even if the South African misadventure was not meant to have been money-laundering, it is clear that the template and temptations are established. It is wonderful the story broke elsewhere; had the situation been reversed, $9.3 would have emerged as $3.9 or less, the seizure undertaken without court orders.

The South African situation is a reminder of our farce, and that Jonathan’s government is the closest thing to 911: the hijacking of Nigerian democracy for the purpose of flying it into its hope.

But he can commence a turnaround by going on television and telling the truth to his people before boarding a jet for New York to tell the world a convoluted tale written by Dipreye Alamieyesigha or Levick.

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sonala.olumhense@gmail.com

Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense

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