Two weeks ago when the People’s Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, made the touchdown into the United States, many supporters hailed the arrival as a major milestone.
To his supporters, it ended any talk or allegation of a travel ban due to corruption charges.
However, sources have confirmed to Reuters exclusively that the former vice president was able to visit the US for the first time in 12 years because of a temporary suspension of the travel ban linked to decade-old bribery scandals.
Several U.S. government officials said the travel ban was waived temporarily by the U.S. State Department after lobbyists mounted a campaign among congressional lawmakers. The lobbyists argued that the administration should not snub the leading challenger to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in the February 16 election.
Several U.S. diplomats confirmed to Reuters that Atiku has been banned from entering the United States for the past several years after he figured prominently in two corruption cases.
Prior to his emergence as the presidential candidate for PDP, the party had hired Ballard Partners, a lobbyist firm with links to US President Donald Trump. The party was to pay the firm $90,000 per month in a contract signed in September 2018.
When Atiku emerged the presidential candidate of the PDP, the ruling All Progressives Congress used the corruption charge and the inability to step into the US as a major tool for discrediting the former vice president in the run-up to the 2019 elections.
According to Reuters, Atiku hired Holland & Knight personally in December to help him secure a visa, in part by enlisting members of Congress to request one on his behalf, according to a lobbyist for the firm. The lobbyist firm has been paid $80,000 so far.
Lobbyists hired by Atiku said they sought to overcome resistance at the State Department by securing support from members of Congress for the visit, as well as arguing that the top U.S. official for African affairs, Assistant Secretary Tibor Nagy, had an obligation to encourage democracy in the seventh most populous country in the world.
“Assistant Secretary Nagy was pleased to meet with him and share the U.S. 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 the department had not requested the waiver.
An anonymous source told Reuters that Atiku was allowed to enter because the United States saw little benefit to creating bad blood with the man who might be the next leader of Africa’s most populous nation and the continent’s biggest oil producer.
Atiku was allegedly involved in a bribery scandal involving a former US congressman William Jefferson, who is currently serving a 13-year sentence in jail. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, $90,000 in cash found in Jefferson’s freezer was intended for Atiku.
Mr Jefferson had told colleagues of his plans to bribe Atiku with as much as $500,000 in cash, in exchange for business favours in Nigeria.
He and his fourth wife Jennifer Douglas, an American citizen, were indicted in a 2010 US Senate committee report titled “KEEPING FOREIGN CORRUPTION OUT OF THE UNITED STATES.” They were accused of transferring over $40 million “suspect funds” to America from offshore accounts between 2002 and 2008.
At least $1.7 million of that money was bribes paid by German technology company Siemens AG, according to Senate investigators. Siemens pleaded guilty to bribery charges in 2008 and agreed to pay a $1.6 billion fine.
Atiku has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Neither he nor his wife face criminal charges in the United States.
“These issues have been addressed several times in the past and we do not wish to comment further on them,” a spokesman for Atiku said when asked about the corruption allegations.