What you are about to read is probably the most anticipated story of the year birthed in the long awaited authoritative investigative newspaper of the future. This pregnant saga fell into labour last week in the pre-natal wing of Pendulum ward of Thisday clinic and it has now given birth to a big bouncing baby christened The Boss.
This is an apt metaphor for the melodramatic scoop which is the cover of the first edition of what I believe will be a catalyst for unbiased investigative reporting in Nigeria. The Boss had long been conceptualised as a Leadership newspaper to occupy the void created by lack of true and credible investigative journalism in some traditional and online media. The original plan was to launch in December or early January. But the Diezani-Alison Madueke story changed all that. It was too compelling to restrict to the Pendulum column alone. And here we are with what promises to be an exciting addition to the media landscape in Nigeria and beyond featuring an enthralling cover story that will run and run.
After that effervescent introduction in Thisday, in which Nigeria’s most influential newspaper published the meeting between this reporter and the embattled former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, everyone requested for details of the encounter. Some unbelieving Thomases even suggested the story was pure fiction, or at the very best “faction” to borrow Kole Omotoso’s word. They wondered why a more comprehensive interview could not be published, garnished with clear crispy pictures of Madame Diezani.
It was obvious many had read the story in a hurry and did not assimilate the carefully worded tale of a woman in deep pain and anguish for variety of reasons. Of course there were insinuations that it was a public relations stunt but mercifully most readers thought it was a well-balanced story. It even went viral.
At any rate, those who took their time would have noticed that I had to settle for such a gripping monologue because it was virtually impossible to extract more information from a cancer patient who had spent her day with her medical team in a private London hospital. Our protagonist had also probably taken the risk of meeting this reporter in order to check if he was going to play the quintessential antagonist or do his job professionally and dispassionately.
That meeting obviously impacted on her decision to open up eventually, two days after Episode One. A call came through on Friday, November 6, 2015, from a female aide of Mrs. Alison-Madueke to request for a meeting the following day at 2.30pm at a location yet to be determined.
The appointment was immediately approved. Later in the evening, this ubiquitous aide made yet another call shifting the appointment forward by a few hours to 11am the same Saturday. My response again was yes. The pot that would eat pepper must endure some heat, says a Yoruba proverb. The Diezani story was worth all the sacrifice in the world. In other climes, journalists would have shown more than cursory interest in chasing that super exclusive chat. Her copyrighted picture would have fetched a few million dollars, probably. Anyway…
A text message flew into my phone very early Saturday morning. It contained the address and full postcode of a new venue different from the one of two days earlier. Not to worry. My wife offered to chauffeur me again but without her sister this time around. While on our way, the female aide called to ask if we were going to make the 11 o’clock time pronto or arrive late. I replied we would arrive earlier rather than later. I would soon understand the import of her question. Madame Diezani was apparently on her way and I was expected to be comfortably seated prior to her arrival. Presumably, so I would not know how and from what direction she had come. There was no sign this time of any overbearing or anxious security man. Mrs. Alison-Madueke had laughingly dismissed as funny my James Bond imagination of Thursday, in any event. Since the meeting was supposed to be strictly one-on-one, my wife had to wait in the car while I was away. The venue turned out to be a popular restaurant near Regent’s Park, famous for its breakfast.
I was a bit surprised and disappointed at the choice of location. I was hoping she was going to give me access to her now famous apartment which was said to have been bought at a most staggering amount, or the new multi-billion dollar home that was rumoured to have triggered the alarm leading to her arrest, claims she would dismiss as tales by moonlight.
I called the mobile number I had been given as I approached the doorway of the restaurant and her female aide emerged from the bowel of the restaurant to lead me to a somewhat secluded corner where a table had been reserved. I was seated facing the entrance and hoping I could catch her glimpse whenever she arrives.
After waiting for about 20 minutes or so, I heard some footsteps and the once most powerful woman in Nigeria surfaced. She looked slightly better than at our last meeting for which I was glad. I sprang to my feet as we exchanged pleasantries. I mentioned to her that she looks better and she said she’s been resting and gaining strength in preparation for the radiotherapy sessions expected to last five agonising weeks.
She ordered for full English breakfast while I settled only for a cup of cappuccino. But when the meal arrived, she didn’t eat it because she has lost appetite for food generally and was more on fluids but had hoped this would return if she saw the food.
She then asked for American coffee, water and fresh lime instead. She also ordered for tea at some point. Most of the time we spent talking, she coughed intermittently into a napkin and dabbed her mouth with it but she was clearly determined to pour out her obviously heavy heart despite the discomfort I could notice she was struggling to endure.
Let me reiterate for the sake of those who missed the first part of this story that our two meetings took place on Thursday, November 5 and Saturday, November 7, 2015 at different locations. The first was in a private apartment while the second was in this restaurant. Unlike the first which lasted less than half an hour, we were able to spend more time together this time. Indeed, we were at it for a total of just over four hours, and I believe she spoke from the heart, I believe, but the reader is always the judge.
There were several off-the-record interludes. More than anything, we were both careful not to discuss in detail matters which might impact on the cases and legal problems now bedevilling her.
I did not expect otherwise. Mrs Alison-Madueke is a smart and intelligent woman and had recently benefited from being advised by lawyers both in the UK and Nigeria in connection with her arrest in the UK and the search of her Abuja home.
Getting and persuading her to talk in detail about a lot of issues was therefore very difficult. There were other reasons. First, was her obvious paranoia of the Nigerian press. She’s been bruised, battered and blistered, especially in print and on social media. She’s been scandalised, summarily tried and precipitously convicted by the media, according to her. She did not expect anyone to lend her an ear or listen to her now muffled voice.
On top of her problems, she’s having a running battle with the most dreaded form of cancer of the breast and she’s had to undergo surgeries to remove the lumps and later some chunky tissue. The treatments have not been that successful and it’s been a ding-dong affair for this once ebullient and elegant lady.
We had to give assurances of not sensationalising her story if granted access. Of course it has never been our practice to do so and thus, this was not a problem. We promised not to embellish her stories in any way or reveal off-the-record discussions which were truly personal and confidential and had nothing to do with her travails. There was a strict proviso that no form of recording would be allowed and we had to adopt the novelistic style. The result of that covenant is what you’re reading today.
We must note that we were highly restricted and encumbered by strings of events as well as existing litigation and other possible future developments. We could not get as much revelations as we expected but the little we managed to get provided enough insight into a woman who had achieved so much and enjoyed substantial accolades before the sad turn of events. Had she remained in Shell, where she became the first and only female Director, and shunned the murky water of Nigerian politics, maybe she would have savoured the klieg-lights forever.
We knew it was going to be very difficult getting pictures in her present not too genial or glamorous condition. That was practically tough on our first meeting as she was just returning from her hospital rounds and looked totally exhausted. We however succeeded in getting a few pictures this time some of which we are revealing for the first time today.
The Diezani Alison-Madueke story is a classic study in the intrigues of power-play. Barely months ago, she was at the pinnacle of the temple as Minister of one of the biggest oil-producing nations on earth. She was elected the President of the powerful Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). And the world was at her feet. The cancer issue had crept in, like a thief in the night, but was being treated and managed by the best doctors available in England. There was that optimism that all shall be well at the end of the day until everything that could go wrong started going wrong, like in Murphy’s Law.
Madame Diezani confirmed that she and the government she served loyally and passionately never thought for one second that the Nigerian general elections could turn out the way it did or that they would suffer the crushing and devastating defeat that they did. The first and major casualty would be the woman who controlled the destiny of Nigerians as Petroleum Resources Minister. Under her care, a whopping $20 billion was alleged to have literally vamoosed into thin air. Till this day, no one has come forward to authenticate the veracity or otherwise of such mind-boggling claims. Instead we’ve received conflicting figures on the supposed infractions.
This is a story like no other and it cannot be told like any other. It is a tale from the super highway of power and the fast lane of confusion. Nothing is sweeter than power and money, in no particular order, as long as you have both you are in the rarefied company of national decision-makers. And nothing is sadder than having both and falling from grace to grass or from fame to infamy. Mrs Alison-Madueke had the world not just at her feet but firmly in her palm. She could apparently turn a certified pauper into a certificated billionaire within the twinkle of an eye. In short, she could make and unmake. Diezani was the subject of many fables. And this is the crux of the matter. Her closeness to President Goodluck Jonathan and the influence she wielded on him was never a hidden matter. This lent credence to the mystical power over the Nigerian economy that it was claimed she possessed. I fired my first shot from that direction and it was as if she expected it.
“Is it true that a sister of yours has a kid or kids for President Jonathan?” I asked. “That is totally untrue as I don’t have any such sister or relative!” she said. She wondered how people could fabricate such blatant lies.
I soon followed with what I regarded as an upper-cut: “It was said that you and the former First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan were in permanent conflict; why was it so?” She responded that their relationship was cordial enough and she gave the former First Lady the respect she should give the wife of her boss. She went further to say that “What people don’t know is that we’ve been family friends for long. My mum, Mrs Beatrice Agama, has always played the role of a godmother in the Niger Delta and all the militants love and respect her. I come from a royal privileged background and lacked nothing.” She said she was not unaware of certain insinuations about an intimate relationship with the former President but she never bothered her head about them because some people had made up their minds to spread those ugly tales about her. “If you are in the corridor of power, you must expect anything, including mud and even bricks being thrown at you.”
Now wait for the next shot! “You’ve been linked to so many young guys who made so much money from you and later absconded or turned against you… What was between you and Chris Aire, Kola Aluko, Jide Omokore, Tonye Cole, Dapo Abiodun, Wale Tinubu, Igho Sanomi and others?” I queried her.
Madame Diezani’s response was calm and unruffled: “I vehemently deny any intimacy or liaison with any of these gentlemen.” She noted that she is happily married like most of them are happily married and asserted that she is not the Scarlet Lady that people paint her to be. She sees those rumours as insults on accomplished women who cannot be seen in sensitive positions without running riotous with some men. She said it was important to put in context how she met most of them:
“I was the Chairman of the Nigerian Content Development & Monitoring Board and I did my job to the best of my ability and intentions. My boss and I were determined to empower Nigerians, especially the young ones, who had the brains and guts to dare.” She pointed out that her firm belief and desire to empower Nigeriains stemmed from the manner that she and her parents and siblings were unceremoniously dumped out of Shell Camp where her father worked and lived while she was young.
The memory was apparently traumatic as I could notice her wiping her eyes with another napkin. She said “I remember that day vividly. It was definitely one of the worst days of my life. We were not even allowed to finish eating before they hurriedly packed our belongings, threw them into trucks and drove us into an uncertain, unknown future.” She continued “I was determined that what my father fought for, which was to ensure that Nigerians had a greater say in the scheme of things in Shell and thus in the petroleum industry would be championed and achieved by me in Government”
She noted that in every government, some people must land the big jobs which every human being would love to have. She said “I chose to empower mostly Nigerians and took the power away from foreigners who used to dominate the sector. That was why we pushed for the Nigerian Content Bill, which mercifully we got through. So you cannot expect some forces not to hate me but I was shocked that Nigerians themselves were ready to crucify me mostly on rumours and not verifiable facts. Most leaders before me have suffered a similar fate so I take some comfort from that experience.”
She added that people seem to forget that she is happily married to Rear Admiral Alison Madueke and would not do anything to jeopardise her marriage or smear herself in the eyes of her husband, children and family. She also said that some of these men were unknown to her until she became a Minister and that although, in some cases, they later enjoyed a cordial relationship with her, it was no more than the kind of relationship she enjoyed with other successful Nigerian businessmen who respected and admired her for the way she was bringing Nigerians to the forefront of the industry:
“It is unfortunate that things didn’t work perfectly all the time as expected and as a leader I take the blame for those imperfections, but I’m certainly not a demon as being portrayed. I have no doubt that I served my nation well, the reason my colleagues at OPEC supported me despite the opposition from my own people. I still maintain that level of relationship with my former colleagues despite not being in government.“
I then asked, why is she so controversial? “Controversy has nothing to do with your qualifications or performance. As a matter of fact, people often hate you for knowing so much and for being efficient and confident which they mistake for arrogance. We had to confront so many challenges, including oil theft and general insecurity but we did very well even if we did not succeed 100 percent. I must say that some of our own people delivered responsibly while a few of them breached the faith and wasted the opportunities handed to them by my boss, President Jonathan. Unfortunately, no one ever remembers the things that went right but everyone remembers and tends to emphasise the things that went wrong…”
We soon moved the discussion to the many allegations of financial impropriety under her tenure, especially the alleged disappearance of $20billion and other wasteful spending authorised by her. She observed that she could not go into any real details because of the criminal investigations in Nigeria and England as well as the civil case here. However she told me she would try and provide general details about these matters because it was important to shed some light on her own involvement from the vantage point of someone actually in Government who believes these things simply cannot happen.
She was visibly angry at the mention of the $20billion: “If there is one issue I must pursue in this world it is the biggest lie of this money. How can $20billion disappear just like that? Where did it disappear to? Is it possible that such an amount would not be traceable? This is more painful coming from someone I considered a good friend who should appreciate the gravity of such allegation. I challenge anyone to come forward with facts showing that I stole government or public money. I’ve never stolen Nigeria’s money…”
“Rather, I worked hard to halt the rampant business of round-tripping. When I brought in Reginald Stanley to clean up the place, I requested for a list of the defaulters. There were about 92 of them and I made sure we sanctioned them. You can imagine the threat to my life but I was ready to defend the economic interests of my country. In fact, we were able to reduce the oil subsidy by about half. No one has applauded our effort.
“There were those who said the then Governor of Central Bank must have been angry at me because of the way the Presidency treated him. In all honesty, he was being blocked from seeing the President by some of Oga’s people (presidential aides) but it had nothing to do with me. I was the one who even told Oga about the development and Oga said he would meet him in London on one of his trips. Unfortunately my boss fell ill and was rushed to King Edward Hospital and the meeting was aborted.”
“Sanusi and I had been friends. There was no way I would have done anything bad to him. He even came to my house to inform me about his interest in heading the African Development Bank and we discussed for about two hours. I promised to support him and I spoke to Oga about it. We were together on the Reconciliation Committee that looked into the accounts of NNPC. Yes there were gaps but not on the alarming scale being circulated. Markafi (former Governor of Kaduna State) did a thorough job. You know he is a very sound accountant.”
What about the allegations that she owns choice properties everywhere? “It is so sad that anyone could say such about me. Let me say something to you, I live with my husband in the same house we’ve lived since we married in 1999. Ask anyone who knows us. Our house in Abuja was bought in 2007 by my husband and as an architect and lover of interior décor I did it up to our own taste. It is not over the top because I have good taste and appreciate bargains. I shop in regular shops like B & Q to do up all the places where I live. Anyone who tells you I have houses anywhere should feel free to publish them. That was how they said I bought an expensive property in Vienna. I went to court and I won the case. I never saw the house before except in picture. The house I stay in London is rented. As a woman I love to look good. Some of my dresses and jewelleries are often dumped on me by those I buy from and I pay them when I can”
She went on to explain that virtually all the transactions in respect of which allegations of corruption are being levelled against her went through due process and that the Group Managing Director of NNPC was actively involved in ensuring that the best international practices were maintained. She added that her involvement in the conclusion of these transactions was limited and that some of the contracts had been executed before she became Minister of Petroleum Resources. In some other cases she only got details after the contracts had been concluded when approached by some businessmen who complained about the terms. She usually admonished them to forego the contracts if they felt they were not profitable and seek other ventures within the industry.
She reiterated that she could not speak in detail since she is currently facing charges and criminal investigations in England. But she emphasised that her boss neither discriminated against nor favoured anyone. She claimed some of those who benefited the most were even in opposition and mentioned how a renowned opposition leader and vocal critic of the Government at the time met her on about three occasions to discuss his interests in the business of oil. “My boss didn’t want Nigerians to suffer because of politics so we agreed to offer certain support to a company we knew was owned by the opposition once we were satisfied they controlled the market substantially and have what it takes to deliver the goods nationwide. We were that tolerant…” (To be continued)