Lobbyists hired by Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), played a huge role in making him get a temporary waiver to visit the US after a ban which lasted over a decade.
In a report, Reuters quoted unnamed US government officials as saying the travel ban was waived temporarily by the US state department after lobbyists mounted a campaign among congressional lawmakers arguing that the administration should not snub the leading challenger to President Muhammadu Buhari in the February 16 election.
“One person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 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,” Reuters said in the report.
The agency said during his visit, Atiku met with top US diplomats and lawmakers to thank them for the temporary suspension of a travel ban linked to bribery scandals.
Atiku’s critics had said he went to the US as an aide of Senate President Bukola Saraki, who was among those with the presidential candidate during the trip, but the Reuters report has laid that aside.
The visit was seen by his supporters as a major landmark, especially as the All Progressives Congress (APC) had argued he would be arrested if he tried entering the country.
Atiku’s row with the US authorities began after the FBI investigated a bribery scandal involving William Jefferson, former US congressman, in 2004. He was accused of demanding a bribe of $500,000 to facilitate the award of contracts to two American telecommunication firms in Nigeria.
The FBI had searched his residence in the posh neighbourhood of Potomac, Maryland, but no money was found. The investigators had videotaped Jefferson, who was the congressman representing Louisiana, receiving $100,000 worth of $100 bills which he claimed was meant for Atiku, but the former vice-president has consistently denied the allegation.
In another case, US senate investigators had alleged in 2010 that one of Atiku’s wives allegedly helped him transfer more than $40 million in “suspect funds” into the United States from offshore shell companies. At least $1.7 million of that money was bribes paid by German technology company Siemens AG, according to the US senate investigators.
The company pleaded guilty to bribery charges in 2008 and agreed to pay a $1.6 billion fine. Neither Atiku nor his wife is however, facing criminal charges in the US.
After leaving office in 2007, Atiku was unable to enter the US after his request for visa was refused.
Commenting on this in December 2017, he had said: “It is the sole prerogative of America to determine who they want in their country or not. I’m not running away from America. I applied, but wasn’t issued a visa.”
The PDP had signed a deal with Brian Ballard, a top US lobbyist, to enhance US-Nigeria relations, with a focus to “maintaining political and security conditions free of intimidation and interference”.
According to Reuters, Atiku engaged Holland & Knight, a lobbyist for the firm, “to help him secure a visa, in part by enlisting members of Congress to request one on his behalf.”
“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,” it reported.
A source at the US state department was also quoted as saying: “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.”