For U.S.-Nigeria Go-Between, Ties Yield Profits
Michael Temchine for The New York Times
Femi Falana, a prominent Nigerian lawyer, and other activists say they believe that Andrew Young decided simply to profit in Nigeria.
By BARRY MEIER
Published: April 18, 2007
LAGOS, Nigeria — For years, Andrew Young, the civil rights leader, has been deeply involved in this country through the lobbying and consulting firm he heads, GoodWorks International. Its motto is: “We do well by doing good.”
But the question of what exactly GoodWorks is or is not doing here has turned Mr. Young and his firm into something of a lightning rod, as Nigerians prepare to elect a successor Saturday to this country’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo, whom Mr. Young has known for 30 years.
“We believe that the relationship between GoodWorks International and Nigeria is foisted on juicy financial benefits to the former,” said an editorial earlier this year in a newspaper here, This Day.
For his part, Mr. Young, the former congressman, United Nations ambassador and mayor of Atlanta, dismissed such comments as sniping by opponents of Mr. Obasanjo’s party, which is expected to win the weekend election.
But there is also little question that Nigeria has been very good for GoodWorks; thanks in part to Mr. Young’s long ties to Mr. Obasanjo, his firm in Atlanta has earned millions of dollars here over the years through a network of business dealings that extend far beyond lobbying.
As business has gone increasingly global, many consulting firms based in the United States, like GoodWorks, have increased their operations abroad, taking on assignments in developing nations like Nigeria where power and wealth are frequently concentrated in a few hands. And consulting experts say it is common for United States firms that lobby for foreign governments in Washington to also have business interests in those countries.
A look at GoodWorks’ activities in Nigeria, based on interviews and documents, provides a window into how embedded such lobbyists can become in developing economies.
Along with lobbying for Nigeria, for example, GoodWorks is paid to represent many major companies like Chevron, General Electric and Motorola that seek big contracts from the Nigerian government.
In addition, executives of GoodWorks have stakes in Nigeria’s oil industry, the country’s main source of wealth. And several years ago, the firm’s chief executive, Carlton A. Masters, started an American company with close relatives of President Obasanjo that bought an expensive Miami property with Mr. Masters’s money, Florida records show.
It is not illegal for lobbyists simultaneously to represent foreign countries and companies seeking business from them. And they are not barred from having business interests in countries they represent in Washington.
Mr. Young and Mr. Masters also said in recent interviews that they had been scrupulous in avoiding conflicts between their governmental and corporate clients. They added that their clients who have won contracts in Nigeria have done so fairly, by outbidding competitors.
“We don’t pay anyone under the table, and we don’t accept any kind of questionable payments or relationships,” Mr. Young said. “We don’t work with people where there are questions of integrity involved.”
For Mr. Young, the involvement of GoodWorks in Nigeria is also one of the lesser-known chapters in a long, celebrated and at times controversial career.
Last year, for example, Mr. Young, who first became known as a top aide to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., resigned as a consultant to Wal-Mart after he said that Jewish, Arab and Korean store owners had “ripped off” black communities by “selling us stale bread and bad meat.” He subsequently apologized for the remarks.
GoodWorks has also generated controversy here. Two years ago, for instance, one local activist filed a complaint that, among other things, criticized Mr. Masters for his role in fund-raising for a $50 million, American-style presidential library named after Mr. Obasanjo that is being built in his hometown north of this chaotic and desperately poor city.
Also in 2005, the Nigerian leader was the host for Mr. Masters’s wedding at the official presidential banquet hall, an event that drew outcries from Mr. Obasanjo’s critics.
Several activists in Nigeria said in recent interviews that they believed that Mr. Young had decided simply to profit here from his legacy rather than use it to help a country that remains beset by problems of political corruption, crumbling infrastructure and failed school systems.
“Andrew Young has never been interested in these issues,” said Femi Falana, a human rights lawyer who is also president of the West African Bar Association. “He is just here making money.”
Mr. Young said that while some people still viewed him as an “activist trapped in the ’60s,” he had decided long ago that he could effect more change by attracting private investment to places like Nigeria that needed it.
He also said that the Obasanjo library, which is being underwritten by donations from local politicians and companies, would benefit all Nigerians by serving as a conference center.
“For 40 years of my life, I was on the outside seeking change,” he said. “I realized that I could be more effective being on the inside implementing it.”
GoodWorks, which Mr. Young and Mr. Masters helped found in 1996, has also lobbied in the United States for Rwanda and Turks and Caicos Islands. Mr. Young declined to disclose the firm’s revenue but said that the vast bulk of it came from its operations here.
A spokesman for Mr. Obasanjo, Uba Sani, said that the Nigerian government was pleased with GoodWorks’ performance, describing the firm as “good friends of Nigeria.” And Mr. Masters said much of the recent criticism of GoodWorks was coming from those who did not want to see the firm’s lobbying contract, which expired in April, renewed by Nigeria’s next president. After eight consecutive years as president, Mr. Obasanjo is barred from running again.
GoodWorks’ dealings in Nigeria reflect Mr. Young’s relationship over three decades with Mr. Obasanjo. And like much else in Mr. Young’s life, it is a relationship filled with a mix of drama, ideals and opportunism.
The two men met in the late 1970s, when Mr. Obasanjo, then a general, first served as this country’s president, one in a long line of military figures who ruled Nigeria.
“Obasanjo and I kind of hit it off immediately,” said Mr. Young, who was the United States ambassador to the United Nations at the time. “We were mainly concerned with democracy.”
Two decades later, the names of Mr. Young and Mr. Obasanjo, who was no longer in public office, appeared together in a United States Senate report about the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, the rogue financial institution.
The report criticized Mr. Young for, among other things, trying to obtain a bank loan to help Mr. Obasanjo start a farm equipment company for which he would have worked as a consultant.
That deal never went forward. But in the mid-1990s, Mr. Young found himself urging Gen. Sani Abacha, then Nigeria’s president, to release a number of political opponents he had jailed, including Mr. Obasanjo. In 1999, the year after his release, Mr. Obasanjo was voted president in democratic elections.
Mr. Young said he believed that his old ally had since reshaped the country for the better by eliminating entrenched corruption and raising the quality of life.
“There isn’t anything that’s happened in Africa worthwhile, almost since 1960, that he hasn’t been involved in,” Mr. Young said.
Some activists credit Mr. Obasanjo for certain improvements, like taking some steps to increase the transparency of how this country’s oil wealth is distributed. But they added that he has allowed Nigeria’s infrastructure to disintegrate further while a small group of insiders has grown richer; electrical blackouts are routine and highways are so bad that short journeys can take hours.
Mr. Masters said that GoodWorks, which became Nigeria’s lobbyist in 2001, had worked with officials there to reduce the country’s international debts. But unlike some lobbyists for foreign governments, the firm appears to have done little to influence American policy toward its client. For instance, GoodWorks said that it had “no recollection” of a single instance in which it represented Nigeria in talks with any federal overseas development agencies.
Instead, the firm, apparently in keeping with Mr. Young’s philosophy, has focused its energies on business development in Nigeria and representing companies before Mr. Obasanjo’s government.
Mr. Masters said that GoodWorks typically received a “success fee” equal to 1 ½ percent of a contract’s value, a fee that can lead to big payouts. In 2005, for example, G.E. Energy, a GoodWorks client, won a $400 million contract to supply generating turbines in Nigeria.
The company, a subsidiary of General Electric, said in a statement that it had a “standard sales representative agreement” with GoodWorks, but declined to elaborate.
Mr. Young said that GoodWorks has started small companies here that employ Nigerians. But the company also has other local business interests. For example, the head of the company’s Nigerian office is the major shareholder in a local energy company, Suntrust Oil, which won a lease during a 2002 government auction of offshore fields that did not interest major energy companies.
While Mr. Young, 75, still serves as the firm’s public face, it is Mr. Masters, in his late 50s, who spends much of his time traveling through Africa and the Caribbean. Along the way he has made his own connections.
In 2001, for instance, Mr. Masters formed a Florida company, Sunscope Investments, with Mr. Obasanjo’s brother-in-law and his wife, that purchased a Miami condominium for about $750,000, Florida public records indicate.
Asked about the issue, Mr. Masters said in a written statement that he had put up the money that Sunscope used to buy the property. He added, however, that Mr. Obasanjo’s relatives had quickly lost interest in the venture and had not profited from it in any way.
Florida records indicate that Mr. Obasanjo’s sister-in-law, Yamisi Abebe, remained an officer of Sunscope until last year, when the company was dissolved and transferred its interest in the condominium to Mr. Masters for a nominal sum.
One lobbying expert, Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan group in Washington that monitors lobbying, said that given Mr. Masters’s multiple lobbying roles in Nigeria, his decision to involve President Obasanjo’s relatives in his business dealings was troubling.
“It looks like hell,” Mr. Lewis said.
Mr. Masters stated he had done nothing wrong.
This weekend’s election will decide whether Umaru Yar’Adua, the candidate of Mr. Obasanjo’s party, will succeed him. If he does, it is far more likely that GoodWorks will remain Nigeria’s lobbyist than if one of the opposing parties is elected.
“We’ve never gotten involved in politics,” Mr. Young said earlier this year. “We’ve tried to stay friendly with everyone.”