A National Blight     

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The Monday Discourse
  
A recent allegation by the US ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. James Entwistle, that three Nigerian lawmakers – Hon. Mohammed Garba Gololo (Bauchi APC), Hon. Samuel Ikom (Akwa Ibom PDP) and Hon. Mark Gbillah (Benue APC) – solicited for sex and even attempted to rape a housekeeper whilst on an assignment to the United States is grave and must be addressed with all the seriousness it deserves. THISDAY Politics Desk writes
It wasn’t any cheering news, to say the least, expected under any circumstance at this material time. The nation has too much on its plate to start dealing with the alleged misdemeanors of some spoilt brat lawmakers. But the news came, albeit without any authentication. Three of Nigeria’s lawmakers from the House of Representatives – Hon. Mohammed Garba Gololo (Bauchi APC), Hon. Samuel Ikom (Akwa Ibom PDP) and Hon. Mark Gbillah (Benue APC) – were accused by the US ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. James Entwistle of attempted rape as well as soliciting sex whilst in Cleveland, Ohio, for the International Visitors Leadership Programme.
Gololo, according to the US ambassador, allegedly grabbed a housekeeper cleaning his hotel room and solicited her for sex, while Gbillah and Ikom, on their parts, allegedly asked some hotel parking attendants to help find prostitutes in the neighbourhood to satisfy their sexual urge. Yet, none of these allegations has been further established with any accompanying proof. That it came from the ambassador is to many Nigerians a sufficient proof that it could not have been made up, which is incredibly naïve.
Soon after this condemnably despicable allegation was made known to the Nigerian public by the ambassador, through a letter dated June 9, 2016, to the Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, the United States Government further followed up on the matter by reportedly revoking the visas of the affected lawmakers without evidence of a thorough investigation known to members of the public or the accused let alone providing the grounds for fair hearing as demanded by the rule of law.
As condemnable and despicable as the allegations are, the somewhat tacky handling of it by the US government, which seems to already suggest that the accused lawmakers might have been condemned in their judgment is a cause for concern. Unfortunately, this is against the backdrop of assumption by an average Nigerian that the US cannot be wrong.
Call it a complex issue or perception factor, the average Nigerian is inclined to see the US and her people as some preternatural creature and is liable to assume that they can never go wrong. This assumption, naturally, compounds the plight of these lawmakers back home, but certainly not before the rest of the world. Importantly too, the onus or burden of proof is on the US, beyond reasonable doubts, to establish that the allegation actually took place. Thus, the facts must be established and cannot be taken on face value because the US ambassador said so.
To begin with, the incident was said to have happened sometime April and did not get to public knowing till June. Interestingly, a few Nigerians are already making excuses for the US that for it to have taken them that long to come out, especially putting the career of their ambassador on the line, they must have got their facts right. But in all of this, they have also left un-factored, some of the rudimentary expectations of the rule of law, which protects every accused person and presumed they are innocent until proven otherwise.
For the record, it is true that the United States might have carried out some investigations. But the question is: what kind of investigation would preclude the accused from fair hearing and goes ahead to arrive at a verdict? Naturally, given the way the US system functions, in a situation like this, the accused and the victims would have been taken in at different times for questioning as prelude to the main investigation into the allegations. All of these are absent in this very case or to be safer, have not been confirmed as established.
However, this is not to exonerate the lawmakers from the accusation or hold brief for them. Indeed, it is believed that soliciting for sex is a common thing amongst politicians, especially lawmakers whenever they travel out for occasions, especially that it is not known to any law here as a crime. Therefore, the likelihood of soliciting for sex is probable and many have alluded to it since the news broke.
But concerns have stemmed from the US’ rush to judgment and or condemnation of the lawmakers by revoking their visas. This is clearly an infringement on their rights. It is an infringement because the decision to revoke their visas suggests that investigation might have been concluded on that side and a decision arrived at. Perhaps, the letter to the speaker was just for the record. That is no less an injustice, even in the Hobbesian setting.  
Yet, the same question keeps coming back: what manner of justice discountenances the rudimentary expectations or requisite of the rule of law, more so in the United States that could pass for the poster parent of democracy? The story sounds creepy and the decisions unbelievable if the US must be contextually placed in its democratic hierarchy.
At this juncture, therefore, especially given the involvement of the US embassy, the matter is now beyond the three lawmakers and one between the Nigerian and the US governments. It is for this reason that the government of Nigeria must take more than a passing interest in a matter capable of further blighting its image, globally. It must, amongst other things, seek justice whilst not trying to cover up the wrongdoing of its own. Insisting that justice must not only be done but seen to have been done is the least the Nigerian government can request for from the US government in laying the matter to rest.
 
Entwistle’s Letter
The strongly worded letter to Dogara by the US ambassador read in part: “The US Mission took pains to confirm these allegations and the identities of the individuals with the employees of the hotel in Cleveland. The conduct described above left a very negative impression of Nigeria, casting a shadow on Nigeria’s National Assembly, the International Visitor Leadership Programme, and to the American hosts’ impression of Nigeria as a whole.
“Such conduct could affect some participants’ ability to travel to the United States in the future. While the majority of Nigerian visitors to the United States do behave appropriately, even a few Nigerians demonstrating poor judgment leads to a poor impression of the Nigerian people generally, though it is far from accurate.
“Such incidents jeopardise the ability of future programming and make host institutions and organisations less likely to welcome similar visits in the future.
“In addition, most of the members of this group reacted very negatively to my deputy, when she brought this matter to their attention, further calling into question their judgment and commitment to the goals of the International Visitor Leadership Programme. This leads us to question whether to include National Assembly members for other similar programmes in the future.
“I request, in the strongest possible terms, you share this message with members of the National Assembly so they understand the seriousness of these issues, and the potential consequences of their actions, not only for themselves as individuals, but also for the future of such programmes designed to benefit Nigeria.”
 
The House Responds
Apparently not disposed to playing the card of President Muhammadu Buhari, who admitted before the world that his people are “fantastically corrupt” except of course himself, the leadership of the House appears to understand the weight and implications of the allegations as well as its abiding import in international diplomacy, hence, would have this investigated and the truth, unraveled. Although this is a very bad one for the image of the lower chamber of the legislature, confronting the monster of image battering is also imperative and of course, in collective interest.
At a news conference, spokesperson of the House, Hon. Abdulrazak Namdas, acknowledged receipt of the letter from the ambassador to the speaker and told THISDAY that, “As a responsible parliament” the House has commenced investigations into the allegations. We are doing our investigations… they remain allegations until proven otherwise. We have our laws and when investigations are conducted, we will brief you further.”
He, however, did not give details of the kind of investigations the House plans to launch and if the US Embassy is carried along. But he claimed “None of them is before any court of law; it is a letter that alleged the development.”
THISDAY would later gather that the development thoroughly embarrassed the House leadership, which nominated the participants for the US government-sponsored programme. “This is not a good development even if nothing comes out of the allegations. It may deprive the House members of crucial exposure,” a lawmaker lamented.
 
As the Lawmakers Fight Back
GbillahBut the lawmakers too are taking the allegations with kids’ gloves. Gbillah, for example, has indicated his intention to institute legal action to clear his name and save his political career. A copy of his response to the US Ambassador, which he made available to THISDAY, stated that he would institute legal action in the United States against the Marriot Hotel brand, the Cleveland Council of World Affairs and the US State Department requesting damages, a comprehensive investigation of the allegations to “exonerate myself, and a formal globally publicised apology.”
In the letter dated June 16, 2016, he stated: “It has come to my attention that via correspondence from your good self to His Excellency, Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (a copy of which I also received), you made very serious allegations against me and other members of the House of Representatives group that visited the United States in April 2016 as part of the International Visitors Leadership Programme (IVLP).
“In your letter, you claimed that I was identified as one of the members of the aforementioned group, who asked for the assistance of a hotel parking attendant to solicit for prostitutes at the Residence Inn Downtown Cleveland, Ohio. I am extremely shocked, upset, irked and embarrassed by your letter and want to categorically state that these allegations are completely false, unfounded, malicious and a calculated attempt to malign and cast aspersion on my reputation and character as a Nigerian citizen and Honourable Member of the House of Representatives and to bring disrepute to the hallowed institution of the National Assembly and the entire nation of Nigeria.
“Considering the enormity of these allegations, it is instructive to note the following: 1)   The US State Department and the US Embassy in Nigeria appear to have concluded on the accuracy of these allegations based on the testimony of the employees of the hotel without recourse to a response from the accused individuals or a proper forensic investigation. Paragraph 5 of your letter clearly states that ‘The US Mission took the pains to confirm these allegations and the identities of the individuals with the employees of the hotel in Cleveland’.
The Embassy claims the accused individuals were identified by the hotel employees from a photograph of the group. Is this the manner in which such allegations against any US citizen (not to mention Members of the US Congress) are investigated and prosecuted in the United States or does the US State Department and Embassy have so much disdain towards Nigeria and her citizens that they did not bother to carry out a proper investigation? For a country that prides itself as the bastion of Democracy, justice, the rule of law, fair hearing and human rights it is quite alarming that allegations of this magnitude can be made and confirmed without allowing the accused individuals to respond.
2)   Without conclusive evidence of any sort or contact with any of the accused individuals, the US State Department and US Embassy in Nigeria have less than six days after your letter to the Speaker gone ahead to revoke the US visas of accused individuals based on hearsay from the employees of the hotel in Cleveland. Affected individuals received correspondence from the US Embassy on Wednesday 15th June 2016 indicating the denial of their US visas and requesting that they bring their international passports with current US visas to the Embassy.
3)   The accused individuals were not accosted with these allegations while in the US so they could immediately defend themselves, the hotel employees conveniently refrained from making these allegations while the members of the group were in the United States and curiously decided to do so after our departure. What is the reason behind their not reporting these incidents immediately they occurred and why are we only being informed about these allegations two months after our return from the US?
4)   None of the members of the group was driving a vehicle while at the hotel and would therefore have had no cause to interact with the car park attendants as the Residence Inn car park is not in front of the hotel but somewhere behind and some distance away from the hotel. You will have to go out of your way to go to the car park so video footage should clearly indicate whether or not any member of the group interacted with a hotel car park attendant.
5)   Other groups comprising African Americans and other ‘people of colour’ were also occupying the Residence Inn while this group of House of Representatives members was visiting Cleveland because of the scheduled basketball game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks at the Quicken Loans Arena, which is just across the road from the hotel. What is the certainty of the ability of the probably caucasian hotel car park attendants to accurately identify the specific members of any of the groups at the hotel as being responsible for the purported infractions?
6)   The US border agency has it on record that I came into the US with my wife and baby on this trip and although the organisers did not allow them to stay with me in the hotel I was always communicating with my wife on Facetime whenever I returned to the hotel. I stayed indoors on the days we had a break from our usually hectic schedule and only had cause to go to the grocery store to pick up items for my room. I wonder when it was I found the time to solicit for prostitutes from a hotel parking attendant and how I intended to bring a prostitute to my room when I had a regular Facetime schedule with my wife, which we never concluded until I was ready to turn in. This can very easily be verified from my log in activity on the hotels Wi-Fi service.
7)   I have visited the US and several countries in the world countless times over the last several years and have stayed at countless hotels all over the world and want to dare the US government to find any instance where I have previously solicited for prostitutes from a hotel employee even when I was not a married man. I am a Hilton HHonors Diamond Member with over 1,500,000 reward points, an Intercontinental Ambassador Platinum Elite Member, a Ritz Carlton Rewards Silver member, a Marriott Rewards Member, a Starwood Preferred Guest Member and a Fairmont Presidents Club Member.
I am a member of two of the rewards programmes of the parent hotel brand of the Residence Inn (Marriott Rewards and Ritz Carlton Rewards) and the record of my previous lodgings at all the hotel brands can be obtained to ascertain whether or not I have ever solicited for prostitutes from any hotel employee. Although it is very easy to obtain the previous travel history and track record of accused members, it is obvious the US State Department and the US Embassy have presumed our guilt without proper investigation because of the disdain and disrespect they have towards the average Nigerian citizen even when such citizens are Members of the Nigerian House of Representatives, a treatment they will never mete out to an ordinary American citizen, who is not even a member of the US Congress.
8)   It is noteworthy that a member of our group made a formal complaint to the organisers of the programme about his being defrauded to the tune of about $100 at the Renaissance Hotel Dupont Circle Washington DC but neither the US State Department nor the US Embassy in Nigeria has deemed it fit to take any action or initiate any investigation in this regard. Members of the group also expressed their dissatisfaction, displeasure and disappointment with the organisers of the programme over their inability to organise a single meeting with any member of the US congress and constraining members to meet with only one State Representative and several County Representatives and officials contrary to the initial objectives of the programme. Perhaps there are other underlying reasons behind the lacklustre attitude of the US State Department and the US Embassy towards ensuring proper investigation of these allegations.
“Your Excellency, this unfortunate and malicious situation has further been exacerbated by the fact that your Embassy by omission or commission has allowed your correspondence to the Speaker to fall into the hands of the print media in Lagos without fair hearing or upholding the rights of the concerned individuals; an employee of one of the national dailies intimated me about this and their desire to publish the story. This story was indeed published in the New Telegraph of Thursday, 16th June, 2016 alleging that related Members of the House of Representatives were involved in a sex scandal.
“You can imagine the incalculable damage to my reputation and image with the publication of these spurious allegations especially when I unequivocally know that I am completely innocent. It is also unfortunate that at a meeting with your Deputy Chief of Mission in Abuja the attempt by members of the group to express their exception to and displeasure with these allegations, the lack of proper investigation and the tainting of the image of the entire group was considered to be a very negative reaction by your Chief of Mission and your good self.
“I suppose the US Embassy expected renowned personalities in Nigeria like Members of the House of Representatives to accept complicity in such malicious and spurious allegations without proper investigation or evidence or any opportunity to defend themselves.
“Considering the psychological trauma, irredeemable defamation of my character and reputation before my spouse, children, family, colleagues, leadership, constituents and the general Nigerian and global public and the incalculable damage to my political career, I intend to take the following actions: 1)   Institute legal action in the United States against the Marriot Hotel Brand, the Cleveland Council of World Affairs and the US State Department requesting for damages, comprehensive investigation of these allegations to exonerate myself and a formal globally publicised apology.
2) Institute legal action in Nigeria against the US Embassy in Nigeria also requesting for damages, comprehensive investigation of these allegations and a formal globally publicised apology.
3) Demand that the US Embassy and the US State Department (regardless of your revocation of my US visa) allow me to travel to Cleveland even at my own expense to confront my accuser and confirm my innocence. I otherwise have no desire to travel to a country that appears to pay only lip service to the ideals they claim to uphold.
4)   Demand for the full video/cctv footage covering the period of our entire stay at the hotel. This should clearly show the movements and activities of every member of the group throughout the hotel.
“It is unfortunate that I have to write to your good self under these circumstances but I believe you will use your good office to redress this very grave injustice and redeem the image of your country.”
Another House member, who was accused of asking the hotel parking attendant to find him a prostitute, Ikom, also refuted the allegation, adding that he would take steps to clear his name.
In a statement yesterday, he said: “I wish to state unequivocally that this is false and definitely not me. This to me is a case of mistaken identity and I have already instituted measures both legally and diplomatically to clear my name and the institution I represent. I call for patience and God’s abiding wisdom at this time.”
The third accused member, Gololo, also told the BBC that the accusations were “false” and “unfounded” and that he demanded a retraction. “I was shocked. I was embarrassed. There is nothing as such that has happened,” he said.
‎The lawmaker stressed that “You can imagine if one attempted to rape someone or grabbed someone, what stopped the person from screaming? What stopped the person from shouting? Remember we were there in April. Now we are in June. What stopped them from alleging or stopped them from reporting from April until now? What stopped them from bringing footage or some video clips of how it happened and where it happened? It’s false, it’s unfounded, and it’s really embarrassing.”
He also demanded an apology from the US government, failure which he threatened to take legal action, adding that he was considering paying for himself to return to Cleveland to clear his name.
The Debate Continues…
Nigerians of different ages and social standing have since the news of the allegations reacted differently based on their perceptions. A top notch member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who does not want his name mentioned because a member of his party was purportedly involved, is of the opinion that the US government would rarely make such allegation without being in possession on concrete evidence and video footage of the incident.
“Though they have denied, I can assure you that America would have evidence. It is not likely that they didn’t do it. Virtually every hotel room has video in the US. They may not be clear – whether or not they would have audio but the guy, who they said patted someone on the buttocks would likely be captured on camera,” he opined.
Lawyer and All Progressives Congress (APC) senatorial candidate for Abia North senatorial district in the last election, Nnenna Mma Lancaster Okoro, also feels that despite the negative impacts of the allegation, it is scarce that the accuser, the US is making frivolous accusation against the lawmakers. But she emphasised the need to hear from the accused before crucifying them.
According to her, “It is a very unfortunate incident if the accusations were true. I do not see the United States government making such allegations if they have not taken time to verify the facts. However, caution should be taken as it is mandatory to hear from the other party –audientes ex alterations parte. The US government should produce their evidence. Obviously where guilt is established, adequate punishment should be meted out.”
Former Special Adviser to former President Olusegun Obasanjo and a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Chief Tunde Olusunle said: “‎I want to believe that such a weighty allegation would not have been made by the government, which made it if they didn’t have their facts, full and correct. We are talking about the government of the United States of America here. These things can be tracked and traced to authenticate the veracity and authenticity of the allegations.
“A lady gospel singer, Yvonne Omoarebokhae, died in suspicious circumstances in the hotel room of a certain Apostle Psalms Okpe in Benin City the other day and CCTV cameras were most useful in the investigation process.”
For a stalwart of the APC and former House of Representatives member for Kabba/Bunu/Ijumu federal constituency in Kogi State, Hon. Duro Meseko, the issue should be viewed from two perspectives. One, if it is found to be true. The second is if it is untrue.
He said: “If the allegation is found to be true because it is still at allegation level, we can’t say because the US says it, it is true. But if it is true, it would be most unfortunate. The lawmakers involved should be made to face the music. If they did it, by their action, they have not only brought a very unfortunate blight on the image of the National Assembly and the nation at large, especially at a time when the current administration is working to return our image.
“You will recall that President Muhammadu Buhari has done a lot of diplomatic shuttles to return confidence to the nation’s image. The effort of the president would be terribly undermined where the allegation is found to be true.
“But if it is not true, they should take legal action against the US government and demand public apology from the US government to be aired on major international media like CNN. Not only to the lawmakers but to Nigeria, for the unfortunate information and the embarrassment it brought to the people and the National Assembly.
Renowned journalist and legal practitioner, Mr. Richard Akinola, however feels contrary. To him, irrespective of whether it is true or otherwise, the procedure of the allegation was unacceptable. He said the US government should have indicted them properly before going public about the development.
“They can’t just indict people without proving the indictment. They didn’t indict them over there only to begin to talk after they returned to Nigeria. We can’t just assume that they are right. It could be a case of mistaken identity. There has to be parade of the accused persons but no such thing happened until they got to Nigeria. The entire process is tardy”, he said.
 
According to the Ekiti State Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, who is also a lawyer, Mr. Kola Kolade, morally, what the men have done can be said to be wrong. But this, he contended cannot take the place of the law. 
Kolade said what the men were being accused of is soliciting sex and not rape. “Soliciting sex is not a crime under Nigerian law. According to our law, sex is a carnal knowledge that takes place between two consenting adults. It only becomes rape if one refuses the advances. On this occasion, no carnal knowledge took place. And what our laws says is that nobody can be punished for what is not an offence. That the House of Representatives had set up a committee to look into the allegation is not wrong. They are only trying to confirm the allegation.”
For Mr. Anthony Ekpete, another legal practitioner, what the men have done “may be an offence in other clime, but it is not an offence in Nigeria.”
To him, the only offence is that their action portrays the nation in bad light. “The allegation is that of solicitation and not of rape. Although the one that was said to have grabbed a housekeeper in the hand could be said to be an attempted rape, the action was committed outside the shores of Nigeria, hence, he should have been prosecuted in that country and not in Nigeria, where their action does not constitute an offence.”
He contended that the only way the men could be disciplined by the National Assembly is if their action has contravened the Code of Conduct of the assembly. He stressed that the action of the men has to do with the image of the National Assembly as it has brought the House in bad light.
This position was also supported by another lawyer, Mr. Duoyei Federikumo, who expressed the worry that the House of Representatives may have embarked on an exercise in futility by trying to conduct an investigation into the alleged crime.
Fiderikumo insisted that what the House needed to have done was refer the case to the police and the executive arm of government to do their job and not do what it has no authority to perform. He posited that the powers of the House to conduct investigation are limited to making laws and that this has been confirmed by a judgment of the Supreme Court.
“What Speaker Dogana is doing by setting up an investigation panel is illegal. All they can do is investigate if the laws of the country have been breached and if such actions are punishable in Nigeria. But as long as the allegation against the men borders on criminality, it is the function of the executive to prosecute. Sanctioning is the prerogative of the judiciary.”
Fiderikumo, however, asked rhetorically: “What do the Americans want to prove? Has a law been breached by their action? If so, which law and of which country?” He stressed that it is in the event of this that the police could then be invited to investigate.
“Dogara should hands off and allow the appropriate arm of government to investigate and do their work; and where it is proved that they have done something wrong, then, the appropriate organ would prosecute. Section 88 and 89 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended does not vest the National Assembly the powers to conduct criminal investigation. The powers of the National Assembly are tied to their primary function of lawmaking. This matter should be referred to the executive arm of government or it might become a permanent sigma on the people concerned in the National Assembly.”
But a member of the House of Representatives, Hon. Douye Diri expressed shock at the allegation. According to him, the members involved are well known to him. But he said he was not aware that a committee has been set up by the Speaker to investigate the allegation, saying there is already a standing committee on ethics and privileges that would have looked into the matter.
“My take is that anybody alleged would be presumed innocent until proven guilty. I want to assume that they are innocent until proven guilty.”
He prayed that the Speaker’s committee is made up of men of integrity, who would look into the case without bias as the issue has a lot of implications for the integrity of the members of the National Assembly.
But a former Bayelsa State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Chief Nathan Egba believes that the controversy has a lot to do with cultural differences.
Egba said the plight of the lawmaker should serve as lessons to other Nigerians, who assume that situation is the same both at home and abroad.  He stressed that while at home such behaviours may be seen as normal, in places such as Europe, United States and Canada, it would be seen as a major offence. He prayed that since the action did not involve molestation, it should be looked into and resolved quickly.