WHY NIGERIANS IN THE DIASPORA SHOULD RETURN HOME —Emeka Ugwuonye •Also speaks on what life has taught him; his emergent global law firm; remarriage plans •Says “History’ll remember Amb. Adefuye as a crook”

Posted by News Express | 30 July 2013 | 5,791 times

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In this thrilling exclusive interview, international lawyer Emeka Ugwuonye speaks on his experience in Nigeria after many years of life in the United States and why Nigerians in the Diaspora should consider returning home. He also gives an update on his legal battles with the Nigerian Embassy in Washington and his recent Senate appearance in connection with the misappropriation of the Embassy’s $27 million, among other important issues. The second part of the interview to be published tomorrow deals with Ugwuonye’s pet project, the Due Process Advocates (DPA), a fast-rising Nigerian NGO. Please read on.  

News Express: You’ve been spending more time in Nigeria lately after many years of being based in the United States. What is happening?

Emeka Ugwuonye: Yes, I have been in Nigeria for the longest time on a single occasion apart from the time that I was detained in 2011. I have so many matters to attend to, including cases in Nigerian courts. But I expect to be back this week to prepare my children for school and attend to a host of other things. I will be due back in Nigeria fairly soon, though.

You were recently a guest of the Nigerian Senate. Could you, please, tell our readers what this is all about?

I had a fairly good meeting with the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. It had to do with the Senate Committee’s investigation of the allegations of millions of dollars missing at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington. These were the funds, part of which Ambassador Adefuye admitted he misappropriated with the help of some unknown persons in the government. I was the lawyer that represented Nigerian Government when it sold a number of real estate properties in the US. I received about 27 million dollars and handed it over the Embassy of Nigeria. That money disappeared – embezzled and misappropriated by Ambassador Adefuye and others. The Nigerian Senate is investigating allegations about the money.

As you know, the Committee invited a lot of people – all the Ministers of Foreign Affairs since 2005 and all the ambassadors to Washington – as part of the investigation.

How did the Senate outing go? What was your experience? Was it according to your expectations? Or you came out surprised or even disappointed? How has this affected your view of the Nigerian parliament?

The Senators were polite and courteous to me. There were definitely some tense moments. But that was based on the barrage of information, including misinformation, they had received about the dispute between me and the Embassy in Washington. Over all, I am confident that the Committee knows its job well and would discharge it accordingly.

It is very important to make one observation here: Upon request, I submitted myself voluntarily to the Nigerian Senate as regards questions concerning my representation of the Embassy in the US. Otherwise, my relationship with the Embassy of Nigeria as counsel would have been a matter governable only by the US laws. But as a citizen of this country, I felt it prudent to give the senate any information it requested that was at my disposal.

As to my final assessment of the work of the Senate on this matter, it is premature to express it because the investigation is ongoing. I am due to submit to them additional documents, as requested. Several of the members of the Committee seem to be seasoned leaders who are interested in getting to the core of the several matters that are involved. I would avoid preempting the Committee by making any value judgment on their unfinished work.

I am aware, however, that Omoyele Sowore, owner of Sahara Reporters (SR), had rendered the typical false account of what is going on. Specifically, SR reported, fictionally as usual, that the Committee had contracted me to write its report. That is just dumb. But I understand SR’s strategy cooked up with Ambassador Adefuye. That strategy is to antagonise the members of the Committee with me. He wants to blackmail them into adopting a hostile attitude toward me and my testimonies so that the Ambassador would be spared and the money stolen would be covered up. But I think that is a miscalculation on SR’s part. No matter how much the Ambassador has paid Sowore and SR, it is wrong for them to cover up the truth about the misappropriated millions.

What next after the Senate hearing with regard to the three issues at stake: The fees you are allegedly being wed by the Embassy, their allegation that you are seizing their money, and your campaign to help Nigeria recover the millions of dollars allegedly misappropriated and embezzled by Embassy officials in Washington?

You know there are multi-faceted dimensions to this controversy. The Senate hearing is only a part of it. And as far as the Senate hearing is concerned, I would avoid preempting the Committee. I think we should leave the Committee to do its work for now. For the same reason, I have not released my memo to the Senate.

On the other fronts, I would say that anyone who thinks that the fight is over is deluding himself. It is just wrong to expect that you could arrest me in Nigeria, charge me with criminal offenses, bog me down with those cases in Nigeria, and then go and get a default judgment against me in Washington. It will never happen that way.

The fact that is no longer in dispute today is that Nigerian Ambassador misappropriated millions of dollars that belong to Nigerian people. And without provocation, he engaged in diversionary war against me to avoid attention going to the millions misappropriated. Clearly, Ambassador Adefuye has demonstrated the worst form of naiveté possible. He has squandered the opportunity of robust diplomatic representation of Nigeria and excellent consular services just because he was obsessed with covering up what he did with the millions. How would history look at him? History would always view him as a crook and his tenor as a waste of opportunities. It is an irony because that was what he wanted for me.

And I hope Nigeria will learn a lesson from what the Adefuye experience. You just have to be careful the person you send to such an important country as an Ambassador.

We have heard a lot of rumours about the cases instituted against you by the Embassy. How would you react to such rumours?

You are right; there has been a lot of rumours, peddled by one caricature of a news outlet, Sahara Reporters. It is so pathetic indeed that anyone would file so many false reports about my case. Indeed, with so much money at the disposal of Ambassador Adefuye to buy the various pseudo journalists that managed to set up websites, it was possible for them to join in the cash-for-play drama. They all claim that I stole money, which was never even considered an issue in the case. Even before the judgment was to come out they reported variously but falsely on the judgment.

One thing that is clear in all this is simple. It tells a sad story about the manner the average Nigerian person has been misinformed and miseducated over the years. It is a combination of multiple factors here. The same level of corruption we see in politics and the economy also exists in the journalistic community. I know Sahara Reporters to engage in blackmails and shakedowns. Apparently, SR is not alone in the business. They have no ethics. They have no regard for the truth. They just write whatever you pay them to write. When no one pays, they just write crap anyway, hoping that Nigerians would remain gullible enough to believe them. It is an extraordinary abuse of the opportunity of modern instruments for mass communication.

But it is clear to me that on this particular campaign of smear against me, SR has reached the end of the road. Many Nigerians are beginning to question the kind of crap that SR has been feeding them over the past few years. I hear people laugh these days when they read something on SR. Unfortunately, a few people, particularly the least informed or those axes to grind still rely on such nonsense.

How many cases have there been between you and the Embassy and what also is their status as well as your expectations?

The Embassy of Nigeria filed a bar complaint against me in 2008 and lost it in March of 2009. That was done under Ambassador Oluwole Rotimi. In 2010, Ambassador Adefuye came to Washington. In November of 2010, the Embassy filed a civil case against me, against my two companies and against two American lawyers that worked with me. I prepared to defend the case. The Ambassador became afraid that I would expose the truth about what they did with the millions if I were to be allowed to defend the case in Washington. So, the Ambassador afraid of what would happen, engaged Mrs. Farida Waziri to arrest and detain me in Nigeria to prevent me from coming to defend the case they filed against me.

I had not really planned to initiate any lawsuit against the Embassy of Nigeria. However, when they sued me for the 1.5 million dollars they claimed is their money, I counterclaimed for the over 3 million dollars they owed me in fees. Because I have been stuck in Nigeria all this while, my claim was dismissed in the same breath as the default judgment that was entered against me.

I did sue the Ambassador under the Alien Torts Statute. But I had to voluntarily dismiss that suit in order to focus on the cases I have in Nigeria. I will refile that suit very soon, indeed.

As for the default judgment, I would be filing an appeal fairly soon. I am confident that strong grounds exist for the appellate court to set aside that judgment. We should have a trial of this case on the merits. And if that happens, there is no way the Embassy would win. In fact, the Ambassador foresaw that when, in an email in December of 2010, he asked Mr. Farida Waziri to arrest me in Nigeria so that their case against me in the US would not be weak.

There is so much negative publicity out there about Nigeria. Having been back home for a while and dealing with different segments of the society in the course of your business and social interactions, would you say Nigeria is as bad as it is being painted internationally?

Over the years, the rest of the world has come to view Nigeria and Nigerians, in particular, rather negatively. They associate Nigerians with a group most likely to lie, to forge documents, and engage in all manner of crimes – financial fraud, internet fraud, money laundering, human trafficking, arms trafficking, drugs trafficking, immigration fraud, etc. Such negative perception of Nigerians has led to foreign governments and their agencies treating Nigerians with a heightened degree of suspicion and subjecting them to adverse measures, sometimes very degrading and inhuman measures.

The question has always been how well do these perceptions reflect a fair assessment of Nigerians by the world. At individual levels, we see many instances where Nigerians are unfairly targeted, and one screams at the injustices involved. Yet, overall, Nigeria remains a troubled country at home and quite a bit of that trouble is exported outside Nigeria by Nigerians.

If one looks closely, it is clear that much of the problems with Nigeria is traceable to the failure of politics in the country. There is so much corruption in public governance. It has reached a point where it can no longer be solved by traditional methods, i.e., making corrupt activities crimes and setting penalties for anyone engaging in such practices. We must reevaluate the character of the Nigerian state and we must reevaluate our politics, mobilise the people better and carry out series of programs of empowerment that enables true democracy and equips the common man with the ability to fight back against corruption.

It is only if we get it right at the political level would we have any chance of effecting the sort of reforms and reorientation that could lead to significant changes in the behavior of Nigerians and the perception of the world. For instance, outside Nigeria, no body trusts a document from Nigeria. Everybody believes that Nigerians could come up with documents signed by God. This is an indication that there are no credible or trustworthy agencies of the government that could be expected to police the accuracy of official documents coming from Nigeria. Even things with the signature of the President could be forged by the closest staff of the President, thus making it difficult for even the most careful person to tell what is genuine and what is not genuine once it is coming from Nigeria.

I recall a case where President Obasanjo had sent a letter to President Sam Nujoma of Namibia. The Namibian President sent an official to Abuja to confirm that the letter actually came from the Nigerian President. Can you imagine the sheer cost involved in such transaction as confirming that authenticity of a letter from our President to his counterpart in Africa? These costs slow down progress for this country, both at international and local levels. Who can you trust? Who can you expect to do his or her work without cheating? The consequences are profoundly negative and the set back the country and keep the people of this country many years behind. We don’t trust signatures. We don’t trust documents, even those allegedly coming from the courts. We don’t trust faxes, we don’t trust the telephone. We don’t trust anything. And with such trust deficits, it drags the country, its economy, its people all behind.

In the circumstances, what is your advice to Nigerians in the Diaspora, most of whom appear scared of coming home onaccount of the scary stories they hear about the country?

I strongly encourage Nigerians in the Diaspora to return, but with a strategic approach. And what do I mean by this? Let us assume that living overseas for a period resulted in some advantages for you. You either have received education that you would not have received in Nigeria. You have either saved money that you would not have saved in Nigeria. You have made valuable contacts overseas. Or you have gained some know-how in important areas of technology and systems. At the same time, you must be aware that you have also lost certain knowledge as to how things work in Nigeria. So each Diaspora Nigerian has a package of strengths and weaknesses that come from the fact that he or she has been living overseas for some time.

You must assess these carefully and thoughtfully in order for your return or relocation to Nigeria to be successful. That is what I mean by a strategic approach. Without a careful calculation, one is bound to make costly mistakes. You have to know that there is no electricity most of the time. You have to know that if you get suddenly sick, the hospitals don’t work. You have to know that the roads are terribly bad and that your luxury cars would not be maintained. You have to know that you could be mugged in the street anytime, particularly at night. You have to know that there are no emergency workers. You have to know that every other Nigerian around you might misunderstand your mission and believe you have money to share. You have to understand all that and prepare for a life style that would carry you through and turn these factors into advantage for you.

Above all, you must maintain the right, tolerant and optimistic attitude. This is very important. Otherwise, you would be complaining about everything, and that will wear you down and turn your relocation experience into a nightmare.

Having said that, returning to Nigeria could open up tremendous opportunities for Nigerians overseas. This is an emerging economy. Despite its limitations and horrible politics, there are opportunities. Just assess carefully your tolerance for risks and uncertainties. Assess whether you have an acceptable premium for the risk levels. If so, do not delay one minute in coming back.

Looking at your story since the past 20 years, you have been in many places. You have been at Harvard both as a student and staff. You have been at the World Bank as counsel. You have been at African Development Bank as consultant. You have been a lawyer in private international law practice and ran a law firm. You have represented high profile clients such as General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Atiku Abubakar’s family, Chinua Achebe, etc. all in the US. And recently you have been involved in controversies stemming from your professional relationship with the Embassy of Nigeria. Many people are wondering, what is Emeka Ugwuonye’s next move? What should people expect to see from you in the near future?

There are always new challenges ahead and many new opportunities to explore and exploit. A lot of the time, you flow with these opportunities. Looking in the past, I could see twists and unplanned developments. For instance, as a student at Harvard, I had planned on becoming a venture capitalist. Creation of wealth and enterprise development from a non-specific professional approach fascinated me greatly. I focused a chunk of my studies on entrepreneurial transactions. And I had started off as advisor on policy and reform of institutions and organisations, and negotiation of international financial transactions. From there, I ended up in law practice and litigation, and what have you.

Within the period under review, there have been vast changes in the world on how we do things. We now have the Internet and it has changed everything from foundation up.  New opportunities and new arrears have opened up. Even in law practice so much has changed and I am the kind of person that keeps his eyes on the future trends. I am interested now in the next general of law practice and techniques. I am working on creating a very strong virtual or internet-based law practice that will operate worldwide. I am interested in that. I am interested in legal education, in fact education in general. I see tremendous opportunities in Nigeria and Africa for education. I am interested in the Nigeria’s movie industry and would be making investment commitments in that area in the near future. I am interested in mobilising the people and working with others in pursuit of good governance, justice and promotion of due process. I am quite interested in the new media and mass communication.

One may wonder how possible it is to pursue all these. And my answer goes back to the venture capitalist mindset. We develop an idea, put life into it, get it going and you take it from there. Also, that is why I admire George Soros above all other leaders in his category; he has combined these things very well and very successfully.

In the immediate time, however, I shall be focusing largely on clearing my name and resolving this mess between me and some elements of the Nigerian Government.

Also, very important, which is why I reserved it for the last: I would like to spend more time with my children. What I mean by this is to watch my children’s development very closely. They have borne the blunt of my travails in the past three years. It is unbelievable what the kids have endured. And this is the last opportunity for me to avoid permanent damage to their development. That’s constantly on my mind. Also, I would really reconsider the family angle. For sometime now, I haven’t known what it means to be a husband or to have a wife, to plan with a wife and to have a woman in your life that is more important than your mum. That is definitely something to expect to see in the coming years, i.e., a new family life or something like that.

If there’s any other thing you consider important which we have left out, please fell free to highlight it.

I think you have touched on everything I could remember. But this might be a good time for me to say or few things that I have learned from my travails and troubles. I have learned the meaning of friendship and I have learned a lot more about human nature. When you are the star and things are going well for you, you have a lot of friends. But when it seems that you are drowning, some of these friends vanish and you then know who is a real friend. I have been lucky. Even during my difficult periods, I have met and maintained some great friends from all works of life. I think it is good to go through difficult times to really know how people treat you and who loves you and who doesn’t. You will learn the true meaning of friendship.

Another lesson I have learned from my experience is how gullible and manipulable the average Nigerian is. I have heard incredible rumors about me that are so mind burgling. For instance, can you imagine that some people were saying that I would not return to the US. Someone was saying that I have run away from the US. And of course, there has been the rumor and propaganda spread by Sahara Reporters that I stole money, and stuff. Sometimes, I read these things and laugh. That helps me understand how it has been so easy for the Nigerian leaders to so thoroughly manipulate and exploit the Nigerian people and trample upon their rights. A lot of people cannot think for themselves. They can’t figure out their left from the right. The more ridiculous and superstitious the story, the more they hang onto it.

When I was a kid, I had this elder cousin who would tell me what he learned from others about various aspects of the Nigerian history. For instance, he told me how the River Nigeria Bridge at Onitsha was built. According to him, it was Zik that tricked a mermaid into becoming a fly and getting into a bottle which was then corked before she could fly out. So, he told me nothing, and nobody ever told him anything, about the engineering and construction processes involved in the building of the bridge. All he knew was Zik and some mermaid. Similarly, I was told how General Ironsi’s magical powers failed him the moment he was assassinated. I was told of the exchange of magical and juju powers between Major Nzeogwu and Ahmadu Bello just before the latter was killed by troops commanded by Nzeogwu. So, when I hear some of the stories Sahara Reporters has told about my cases, my mind goes back to these stories and I realise to my shock that this sort of crap still exists among Nigerians.

Also, I have learned not to bear grudge. Whatever happens to you in life happens for a purpose and creates a new opportunity for you to learn and become better, a better person. In every misfortune lies many opportunities and prospects. One must go through the crucible in order to get better and more refined and more able to see life as it really is. Otherwise, one could be living in an illusion and fantasy. In the course of my travails, I have discovered new strengths and new energies that I did not know were there. So some of the people who played various roles in your travails may just be foil characters through whom my true role in life would manifest. So, there is no room in my heart for grudges or bitterness or a desire for vengeance. It might have taken me a while to get to that point. But that is where I am now.

Source: News Express

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