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In 2012, a television station widely billed as “Nigeria’s answer to CNN” disappeared abruptly off the face of the earth. There was no explanation offered to anyone or any apology for disrupted services. There was especially no attempt by the station’s management to account for what led to the collapse of NN24 barely two years after taking off in a blaze of publicity. All that happened in fact, was a staff exodus after being owed their wages for several months, and a quiet Facebook note from Multichoice Africa informing subscribers that the channel was being terminated.
Eight years later, a similar scenario is underway at a similarly ambitious television station located approximately 26KM southeast of NN24’s erstwhile Oregun, Lagos location. The story is almost exactly the same, save for the swanky location on Adeola Odeku Street, Victoria Island. Once again, it is a TV station that beats the drum about putting genuine African stories on the 24-hour global news cycle. Once again, no expenses were spared in equipping the station and building staff capacity. Once again, staff at the television station suddenly found themselves being owed up to 6 months of unpaid wages, with no explanation or resolution forthcoming from management.
Once again, there is a quiet staff exodus underway. Incredibly, some of the staff in question are also veterans of the NN24 collapse, but that is not the real story. The real story is that the person behind the meteoric rise and fall of NN24 is the same person behind the ongoing saga. His name is Anthony Dara, but everyone in the industry knows him as Tony Dara.
8 years ago under his leadership as CEO, NN24 became perhaps the highest profile Nigerian TV collapse of the decade, rivalled only by that of HiTV. This time also under his leadership as CEO, it is News Central TV that is hearing the death knell barely two years after commencing operations.
This started as a simple story about poor corporate governance and a deadbeat CEO, but it very quickly widened into a rabbit hole that included everything from institutionalised embezzlement to fund ostentatious lifestyles, to a boardroom civil war and News Central’s documented business relationship with a convicted money launderer.
Tony Dara and Television: A Fractious Love Story
Prior to becoming a high profile TV executive, life was very different for Dara. In his previous life, he was a solid and unspectacular mid-level technical professional in the media space. He obtained his OND and HND in Electrical Engineering at Kaduna Polytechnic between 1992 and 1997. This was followed by a BSc in Broadcast Technology at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK at the turn of the millennium, and training at the BBC Training & Development Centre in Worcestershire, UK,
He cut his broadcasting teeth as a Technical Officer at the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) before moving to the UK where he worked in mid-level technical roles at ITV, Bloomberg TV and Snell & Wilcox. There was nothing on this boring and competent CV to suggest that he would someday become the Bernie Madoff of Nigeria’s media space, selling nonexistent dreams to investors and employees while living it up on other people’s money at his $1 million Eko Pearl Tower residence.
In 2008, everything changed when he founded Nigeria’s first 24-hour news channel – the West African answer to CNN as it was constantly branded. From the outset, Network News 24 (NN24) made no attempt to mask its huge ambitions, splashing out on recruitment and training of the very best new broadcasting talent in Nigeria. The company hired several eye wateringly expensive expatriate trainers and even signed an exclusive partnership with CNN in pursuit of a vision of dominating the Nigerian television news landscape.
The list of broadcasting and production talent to have passed through NN24’s industry-leading training processes reads like a Who’s Who of Nigerian broadcast royalty: Politics Today host, Seun Okinbaloye, TVC news anchor, Fadesola Sotinwa, Channels TV news presenter Milliscent Nnwoka, Channels TV producer Dare Idowu – the list goes on and on. It occurred to me while researching this story that nobody ever seemed to ask exactly where a TV startup obtained the money for such a huge investment from, so I pulled up NN24’s CAC registration records to make sense of it.
The first name on the list of directors should provide an insight into the calibre of people that Dara has access to in Nigeria. Boss Gidahyelda Mustapha is Nigeria’s current Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), and one of the most powerful people in Abuja. As far back as 2007 when NN24 was registered, Dara had access to Mustapha, who was then a member of Interim Management Committee of the defunct Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund (PTF), along with other recognisable names on the list of directors like Philips Tanimu Aduda, who was then a House of Representatives member and is currently a Senator representing the FCT.
It is important to keep this in mind because as this story progresses, it becomes clear that such access is central to the Tony Dara myth. Bear in mind that the average annual wage for a broadcast engineer in London is currently £41,002 according to Glassdoor. Adjusted for inflation, he was making roughly £31,200/year in 2005 money – hardly a king’s ransom and certainly not enough to set up an expensive 24-hour news channel affiliated with CNN. So what was his deal?
The Tony Dara Formula
I spoke to six different whistleblowers who are current and ex staff of News Central TV, and from their different accounts, three common denominators came through. First that Dara is a malignant narcissist who sees everyone else as a supporting character in his own personal lifetime videogame – hence his ability to owe people indefinitely without a shred of remorse; second that he lives a wildly ostentatious lifestyle that his actual legitimate income cannot possibly support; and third that he is a consummate liar who habitually feeds porkies to everyone including employees and investors.
A former News Central staff member described him to me as “someone who tries to live a lifestyle to give the impression that he is some sort of media mogul.” Staff at News Central are typically given the impression that he owns at least a stake in the company, and they are constantly reassured that “money is not a problem” due to the presence of a mystery investor with very deep pockets. That notwithstanding, everyone I spoke to complained that since January this year, payment of salaries has happened only once, something that is confirmed by company internal communication embedded below.
In response to all of the questions and suggestions above, the staff at News Central received no response from Dara whatsoever. According to the whistleblowers, this is classic Tony Dara – create a problem, usually financial, leave it for employees to clean up, usually by being owed indefinitely, then activate radio silence from his Pearl Tower residence, sometimes traveling abroad and going silent for weeks at a time.
My main source informed me that whereas the initial agreement with the mystery investor was that $2.5 million would cover all takeoff expenses, News Central actually spent more than $4 million and kept asking for more cash injections from the investor. Apparently tired of the rigmarole and having become distrustful of Dara, the investor then carried out an audit in November, after which he immediately switched off the cash supply going into the new year. This apparently, is the genesis of the 6-month salary backlog.
Incredibly, even amidst a salary backlog and the COVID-19 outbreak, a source who asked to remain anonymous informed me that Dara’s brain was still working overtime trying to find an exploitable loophole to raid the station of its expensive equipment and thus effectively bilk the investor one last time.
This picture of Tony Dara was corroborated by every single current and past News Central employee who agreed to speak to me. Here is an interesting quote from one of them.
“What we have here is a classic case of some form of corporate mismanagement in connection with the company’s operations. This has resulted in adverse effects causing serious reputation damage to the fledging brand. I would like to appeal to the Board and Management of News Central to make payment or payment arrangement on salaries and other statutory payments the company owes its current and ex-employees as soon as possible. Months of delay and lack of effective communication in the face of a pandemic has brought untold suffering and hardship to staff. If Mr. Dara fails to do this, it is only expected the aggrieved party will look for available means to enforce their rights including taking legal action.
Most worrisome is the glaring similarities between what happened at his defunct NN24 and what is going on at News Central – Months of unpaid salaries, failure to remit Pensions and PAYE, frivolous spending of investment funds, termination of employment contracts without the means to settle the obligations etc. In the circle of life, Tony Dara has clearly demonstrated he is unable and unwilling to tame his private demons. They devoured NN24 and are circling and waiting to descend on New Central TV. He should face the fact that he has snuffed life out of the company and must realize vultures are already in the air waiting to pile in and squabble over the spoils. Unlike NN24, I am concerned for him and the company because this time around their descent will be rapid.”
– Michael Smith (former Head Risk and Compliance, News Central)
The next quote came from a current staffer who asked to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardise the slim chance of receiving his owed entitlements.
“I have not been paid since around the start of the year. My biggest problem with Tony is that he takes no responsibility. Tony’s first reaction to problems is to run away. There seems to have been a falling out between the investor and Tony. I hear the investor believes that he converted over N200 million to personal use, which was why an audit was carried out in November. Following the audit, the money taps were turned off.
“Tony is into lavish living, but has not made the money to sustain this lifestyle. The other thing with Tony is that polite communication doesn’t work with him. You have to drag him down 3rd mainland bridge by his ears. He’s a narcissist like you have never seen before. He is entitled beyond the point of belief. Tony doesn’t feel like he is responsible or should be questioned at all. At the moment, none of us has any work to do, we’re basically just sitting around doing nothing.”
– Anonymous current staffer
So Who Owns News Central? Answer: Not Tony Dara
So far, we have established that Dara’s basic formula at NN24 and at News Central was to sell a dream to rich investors, and pretend to build a world class TV station with their money, only to end up deliberately running it into the ground and filling his pockets at the expense of unpaid staff. Without arriving at any specifics, the composition of the NN24 board of directors gives a rough idea about whose money Dara made away with at NN24. That leaves the question, whose money is being siphoned into Dara’s pockets via News Central? Who exactly is this mystery ‘investor’ that my whistleblowers kept referencing?
Not even the whistleblowers knew the answer to that question, so I went digging again, expecting to find a stone wall or a never-ending maze of holding companies and shell corporations registered in the British Virgin Islands. Short of a collaborative effort on the scale of the Panama Papers, not even I would be able to unravel such a web. Instead, what I found shocked me because a.) it was not particularly hard to find and b.) the names in question potentially create a conflict of interest that would negate the entire premise for News Central’s existence.
Amazingly for the type of people involved, these investors actually put their own names on News Central’s CAC registration documents, so that when I pulled up the records, this was what I saw:
Yes, that is the James Onanefe Ibori, ex-governor of Delta State and de-facto godfather of Delta State politics. The one who was convicted in the UK for stealing at least £50 million (N24 billion) from Delta State, and spent four years in a British prison for the offence. The one whom Scotland Yard estimates stole up to £157 million (N76 billion) of public funds. Presumably, after being publicly jailed for stealing and laundering money.
The other director mentioned, Romeo Omuvwie Oghene is an interesting case study into how fronting works in the monied political circles. Apart from a nealy blank LinkedIn profile simply describing him as a “public servant,”, he has no significant web presence.
A bit of digging however, turns up obscure reference naming him as an Executive Assistant to the Governor, Special Duties, Delta State. A bit more digging shows that in 2011, he contested as a PDP candidate in the Delta State House of Assembly election for Ethiope West.
Here it gets more interesting. In 2015, Ibori’s daughter, Erhiatake Ibori also contested as a PDP candidate for the Ethiope West state assembly seat – an election that she won and openly dedicated to her “political father” Ifeanyi Okowa, who is the current governor of Delta State. Okowa by the way, is a publicly acknowledged and self-declared political godson of James Ibori. He even makes sure to publicly celebrate Ibori’s birthday every year, criminal conviction or not.
Putting this puzzle together, we then have a News Central board member James Ibori, sitting alongside the other News Central board member Romeo Oghene, who just so happens to be a close associate and employee of Ibori’s godson, and is also from Ibori’s political constituency in Delta State. If you were a serving public official – say, a governor for example – and you do not want your name coming up on public CAC records, then what better way to mask your investment than by using a close and loyal ally as a bag carrier?
Of course without documented evidence to say so, this does not suggest that News Central is in fact partly owned by a proxy working for the current Delta State governor, but it does raise a few key issues surrounding how the CAC and NBC treats Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) in Nigeria. If an ex-convict openly accused by a credible foreign government of stealing up to N76bn can walk into these organisations and walk out with a certificate saying that he owns a multimillion dollar TV station with no questions asked, then there is clearly a process problem. If the NBC can also look on as a TV station owes its staff even through the difficult circumstances of a lockdown without imposing sanctions, then there is also a process problem there.
Finally, if dirty money is allowed to commingle freely with legitimate investment on CAC record books, then there is no disincentive for the political class to steal public funds and use them to artificially dominate the economy.
Genuine Nigerian television startups should not be at a competitive disadvantage because they do not have $4 million to burn through before even going on air, never mind making any money. If this keeps on happening, the best Nigeria can aspire to is an economic state similar to that of post-Soviet Russia.
The takeaways from this investigation can be summed up as follows:
- Tony Dara is a broadcast engineer with a taste for the finer things in life who has somehow managed to convince two different sets of HNI investors that he is qualified to a 24-hour news TV station, in the process wasting millions of dollars that go into funding his lifestyle while he runs down the station and owes staff indefinitely.
- Convicted fraudster and money launderer James Onanefe Ibori, in partnership with at least one of his political proxies is the owner of News Central TV.
- There appears to be no process in place to prevent a situation where a PEP such as Ibori can become the sole proprietor of an entity rendering a public interest service such as news.
- The NBC, which is quick to hand out fines and hoard broadcast licenses for mundane reasons seems to have no problem with employees of broadcast organisations being owed their entitlements habitually.
- Using the unfair advantage of illegally acquired funds, politicians like Ibori and the politically connected have every intention of using investment and acquisition to create a captive economy that makes fair competition impossible.
I reached out to Tony Dara for his comments on the story before going to press, but as expected there has been no reply.
In the meantime, more whistleblowers at News Central have also indicated their willingness to go on record. NewswireNGR will bring you further updates as the story develops.
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