Mr. Michael Aondoakaa, Nigeria’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, is definitely a troubled man. Like a man who had murdered sleep, his alleged past misdeeds seem bent on catching up with him, sooner than expected. For a man who is seen by many Nigerians as an overzealous aide of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, the avalanche of allegations currently dogging the AGF’s every step, are no doubt damaging.
Since emerging as head of the justice ministry, the embattled AGF has not stopped surprising Nigerians with his approach to a number of issues of national importance. While some Nigerians were quick to accuse him of playing to the gallery, in his capacity as the chief law officer of the country, many more brazenly label him a pro-corruption crusader, after listening to him explain away some crucial impediments to the war against corruption.
Little wonder that, rather than pity the embattled minister, who sources say is on the verge of losing his juicy job, many Nigerians have been pouring invectives on the Benue-born lawyer for what they described as his hypocritical interpretation of President Yar’Adua’s much touted commitment to the rule of law. And to make matters worse for the Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), damning facts continue to emerge on what is now known as the ‘many scandals of Aondoakaa’.
Sources within the presidency and the judiciary informed National LIFE that Nigeria’s legal sphere had never been as polluted as it currently is under Aondoakaa. “I am not surprised to hear that the President is considering dumping him. He was, and would remain a bad news to the judiciary,” a Lagos-based attorney said during the week.
Checks by National LIFE revealed that scores of damaging reports had littered the AGF’s dossier for too long, prompting the presidency to place him under surveillance. The outcome of this, according to a source, led to talks of his imminent sack. “The AGF has been under close watch following myriads of complaints to Mr. President, of his activities. But his current problem has to do with an alleged undisclosed trip to London recently. I think his cup is now filled up. He may be on his way out,” a well-placed source in told National LIFE.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be incorrect to say the foundation for the scandals currently threatening Aondoakaa’s job was laid even before he was appointed the AGF. According to a close ally of the troubled minister, before his appointment, Aondoakka and some other lawyers had gone to court to challenge the legality of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
The case, according to the source, was instituted on behalf of the former governor of Benue State, George Akume, who was then being hounded by the commission over allegations of money laundering and financial impropriety.
The case was at the Supreme Court when Aondoakaa was appointed minister, thus making him both the plaintiff and defendant in the matter. The case was eventually thrown out by the apex court for lack of diligent prosecution.
On his appointment, according to insiders, the first thing Aondoakaa did was to hasten the President to issue a directive that made it compulsory for the EFCC, ICPC and other anti-corruption agencies to get clearance from his office before instituting a case against any suspect.
Critics of the AGF say he got the directive in preparation for his plan to cage, if not totally extinguish the EFCC. “Aondoakaa saw his appointment as AGF as a God-sent or was it man-made opportunity to finish, once and for all, his long-drawn battle with the EFCC. The presidential directive was the tool he needed. So, he went for it on assuming office,” said a source who had worked closely with the AGF.
The directive, however, was not to be helpful for long as it was soon rescinded following court judgement in a case challenging it instituted by fiery Lagos lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana.
Falana had gone to court to challenge the directive as unlawful, citing a Supreme Court pronouncement in the case of Osahon vs Federal Republic of Nigeria. He averred that any law enforcement agency can institute criminal proceedings in a court of law on its own, provided the Attorney General can take over at any point. His permission, he argued, is not needed to commence prosecution. The Court agreed with him and the directive was quashed.
It was the loss of this precious cover that probably exposed the alleged pro-corruption antics of the AGF. From that point, controversy seemed to mark every step taken by the minister, as every of his actions - official and political - attracted stiff criticism.
Today, he is enmeshed in a myriad of condemnations following EFCCs’ denial of an earlier statement from the AGF’s office that the anti-corruption agency has cleared some former governors being investigated by the police in Britain.
The commission had, in a statement, said it did at no time say that the concerned former governors were no longer under its searchlight. It then described the AGF’s statement as inappropriate.
“It is therefore inappropriate to input or infer that the former governors have been exonerated in matters that are still pending or yet to be determined by the law court which is the only competent organ of government that can pronounce guilt or innocence in matters like the ones under reference.
“The Commission has to make this clarification in view of the volume of enquiries from concerned Nigerians so as to lay to rest all doubts and insinuations as to the position of the Commission and its leadership in all these,” the statement said.
And in a move that further underscores the minister’s scandalous interference in the said trial, the Metropolitan Police in London, also accused Aondoakaa of trying to stall the process by not co-operating with it in the investigation and prosecution of former Delta State governor, James Ibori, for alleged corruption and money laundering.
A senior Met Police officer, DC McDonald, who is working on the case against Ibori and his associates, had said it appears the AGF is unhappy about the case, adding that his attitude had stalled the investigation.
“The authorities in Nigeria promised there wouldn’t be a breakdown of communication, but now there is a recorded lapse on their part. Since Ribadu was removed in 2007, many people have been removed or redeployed,” MacDonald said.
Curiously, it is the same Aondoakaa who is the main culprit in the on-going crisis in the aviation sector. He is pointedly being accused of conspiring with Mr. Wale Babalakin of Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited, to illegally acquire the General Aviation Terminal (GAT), of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos.
Aviation experts have flayed the recent directive from the Attorney General to Aviation Minister, Mr. Babatunde Omotoba, that Bi-Courtney should take over the said terminal, describing it as fraudulent.
Describing Aondoakaa’s directive as a shocking volte-face by the Federal Government, which had earlier brushed aside pressure to concede the terminal to Bi-Courtney, the President of National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Comrade William Ukah, said the action, if not checked, is capable of affecting the aviation industry adversely.
“The AGF’s directive is a shocking one. The federal government had all along refused to be cajoled or tricked into handing over the terminal to these people. We believe that something is wrong and the instruction is not official,” the union leader said in response to growing allegations that Aondoaka might have been gratified into giving the directive. As at the week end, no word had come from the AGF over the matter.
The controversy over President Yar’Adua revisiting the issue of Lagos State’s 37 additional councils also featured Aondoakaa as a star actor.
When the Federal Government reignited the controversy with a directive to the state to disband the Local Council Development Areas (LCDAs) and revert to the constitutionally recognised 20 Local Government Areas (LGAs), Aondoakaa was the man who canvassed government’s position on the matter while fielding questions from State House correspondents at the end of a Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting in Abuja.
He had boasted that “Government would do everything within the law to avert the constitutional breach which the action of the Lagos State Government was out to achieve.”
Asked whether he had studied the response of the Lagos government on the matter as directed by the President, the minister betrayed his interest in the matter when he said: “I have nothing to study; the law is there; the President directed me and I have replied him. What do you mean by studying the matter? The judgment is there, the judgment of the Supreme Court is thorough. What do I have to study? There is no going back on the matter.”
Though Aondoakaa said he was out to protect the integrity of the Constitution and ensure that nobody violated it, it was not difficult for critical observers to see beyond the veil of his argument and behold a man acting out a script. So battered was the public rating of the AGF by this issue that he was forced to stop commenting on the matter.
Embattled Aondoakaa was also given a prominent mention when a scandal broke over alleged underhand dealings in the out-of-court settlement of a Federal Government case against American pharmaceutical giant – Pfizer - over the 1996 clinical trial of Trovan, a meningitis drug, in Kano State.
The AGF was accused of bringing on board the Federal Government’s legal team, Dr. Paul Botwev Orhii, the man who facilitated the out-of-court resolution of the 13-year old legal tussle. Orhii’s first known contact with the government reportedly occurred when he wrote a letter to Michael Aondoakaa, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, in December 2007, requesting to be engaged as an expert witness for Nigeria in the case.
The Federal Government had asked Pfizer to pay $700 billion as compensation to alleged victims of the drug trials. A number of US-based lawyers served as consultants to the Federal and Kano State governments, as the matter was heard in five courts across the country.
On 20 December, 2007, barely seven months after he was admitted into the Bar of the state of Texas, Orhii wrote President Umar Yar’Adua through the office of the AGF, asking to be engaged as an expert witness against the American drug manufacturers. The request was granted within a month, or as some observers put it, with an “alacrity not normally associated with government business in Nigeria”.
The speed with which Orhii was engaged has been described by a foreign news agency as “Nigeria’s quickest hiring in 48 years”. The fact that he had no record in the type of class action instituted against Pfizer also fuelled criticism by Nigerians in and outside the country.
Aondoakaa and Orhii are from Benue State and it was alleged that the AGF brought Orhii into the legal team prosecuting the case against Pfizer to enable him (AGF) corner a portion of the deal, which Pfizer might pay as settlement in the suit.
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) merely added to the growing opposition to Aondoakaa’s style of rule of law, when last Thursday, it took a critical review of the AGF’s role in the trial of former corrupt public officers, saying it was an embarrassment to the legal profession.
The NBA president, Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN) who spoke at a public function, said Aondoakaa’s gestures and pronouncements “stand at variance with the much vaunted campaign by the government for probity and the rule of law. The NBA views the current controversy and cycles of conflicting statements and denials between the office of AGF and EFCC as embarrassing.”
The NBA, which has Aondoakaa as a member, added that as a leader, the AGF should always be conscious of the effects of all he says or does.
“It is unfortunate that governance in Nigeria has been reduced to such a level that leaders who should know better do not seem to realise that conflicting statements between one department of government and the other do not present Nigeria in good image before the international community. They diminish the country and embarrass our friends. More specifically, the cycle of media reports and denials creates crisis of confidence not only in the justice delivery sector but in the often-stated commitment of government to fight corruption.
“Nothing has exemplified further the suspicion that government has lost the fight against corruption as the conflicting statements between the AGF and the EFCC,” the NBA said.
Short of calling for Aondoakaa’s sack, the NBA said the minister’s “activities and pronouncements can only serve the purpose of those through whose sordid deeds the country lies prostate. We cannot on one hand be seen to be protecting the kleptocratic elite for whom corruption is a way of life and on the other hand claim we are unequivocal in the fight against corruption. The NBA feels it is time to re-think the war against corruption and combat the scourge.
There is also an allegation of under-hand dealing, in which the office of the AGF was said to have collected over $2.5million from the Cross River State government to facilitate the gazetting of Tinapa Resort.