The four journalists released by kidnappers in Aba yesterday are now the subject of deep controversy following their disclosure that their abductors robbed them of N3 million ($25,000). In their testimonies to their colleagues shortly after they arrived in Lagos yesterday, the group, led by Wahab Oba, the head of the Nigeria Union of Journalists in Lagos state and a staff of the federal ministry of information and communication, Adolphus Okonkwo of the Voice of Nigeria, Sylvester Okere of the Champion Newspapers, and Sola Oyeyipo, another Lagos-based freelance journalist, said the kidnappers took away the money from them as soon as they were carjacked and driven into the bush. In an account captured by the Lagos based Punch newspaper, Oba said, “When we went for the NEC meeting, the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Obong Godswill Akpabio, gave us N1m as fulfilment of his promise to bankroll a national seminar which we had in the state three months ago.
“He also gave each NEC official N100, 000 as transport fare. I also had some money on me because I had been travelling recently. Other people had some money on them too.
“The kidnappers collected all the money. If you value what they collected from us in terms of cash and other things, it is almost N5m. We had about N2.6m cash and the car which we bought not long ago valued at N2.4m was also stolen.”
These explanations constitute the first time that professional journalists are admitting in public to have collected bribes, in this case called “seminar bankroll” or “transport fare.” It is leading to a public gasp about the way journalists do their official business, and the legality of carrying such huge funds around in contravention of the Nigerian money laundering law. The men spent eight days in the den of the armed men in deep forests in the Southeast.
Saharareporters had reported that the journalists, in addition to participating in a National Executive Council meeting in Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom State two weeks ago, also visited Governor Godswill Akpabio and gave him a special award tagged ‘Responsive Governance Award’. It is unclear what Governor Akpabio, a notably corrupt governor, may have accomplished to win the “award,” or even whether the award was officially recognized by the NUJ bylaws.
Akwa Ibom state government house sources told our reporters that each of the journalists that met with Akpabio received bribes aimed at silencing the media. One source told our reporters that in this particular circumstance, each of the visitors individually received N1 million while the national executives of the National Union of Journalists, including the president, Mr. Mohammed Garba, collected a N20 million gratification from Mr. Akpabio. Our sources further said that the information leading to the kidnap of the journalists emanated from the state, specifically from persons who were aware that the governor had doled out the bribes to the journalists. That may explain why they were trailed as soon as they left Government House, one source said.
Recently, SaharaReporters trained its spotlight on the penchant of Governor Akpabio to use bribery as an instrument of official policy. In a high profile case meticulously covered by SaharaReporters, we demonstrated the “gift” of a bulletproof Mercedes Benz GL 450 SUV worth $500,000 to the chair of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mrs. Farida Waziri. After we concluded the exposé, Mr. Akpabio hired some journalists to visit the state to inspect the vehicle, which he claimed to be a “security vehicle” owned by the state.
Further investigation revealed that the license plate on the vehicle displayed by Akpabio was fake, as it belonged to a different car make which was licensed to one Chief C. Orizu, with an address of Adotolo Nnewi in Anambra State. A few days later the supplier of the vehicle, Charles Ahize, also issued a statement in The Sun newspaper in which he contradicted the governor’s claims, saying he had privately supplied the $500,000 bullet proof car to Mr. Akpabio. This confirmed the car was purchased privately, contrary to Akpabio’s alibi that it was owned by Akwa Ibom state.
The latest jamboree by the NUJ leadership to Akpabio and the granting of a dubious award to the governor was done quid pro quo to help him further evade scrutiny for his corrupt ways. It is instructive that the leaders of the NUJ in Lagos have studiously avoided investigating the source of the car Akpabio gave to the EFCC’s Waziri, even after the licence plate number found on the vehicle displayed by the governor bore a Lagos number. It is even more disturbing that the Lagos press has generally ignored the story even after the Lagos State government declared Governor Akpabio’s licence plate to have been forged.
It would be recalled that in one of our stories last April, following the invitation of selected journalists to Government House in an effort to discredit the Saharareporters story about Governor Akpabio’s bribe car, we wondered why none of the journalists asked any professional questions.
The possession of huge sums of cash by the journalists was already a source of rebuke by a police officer last week, who wondered aloud why the journalists had not traveled by air, given the long distance to their destination. But a Lagos-based journalist told SaharaReporters that his colleagues probably didn’t want others to notice when they returned to Lagos, as a quiet return from such trips enable them to hide the booty from politicians from such colleagues who may want a cut. Also, a Lagos based attorney said that by their admission the journalists have contravened Section 1 of the Money Laundering legislation of 2004, which prohibits individuals from carrying more than N500,000 on them while companies may carry up to two million Naira.
The kidnapped journalists arrived Lagos yesterday in private jet chartered and paid for by the the Governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi.
As expected the revelations by the freed journalists have gingered Nigerians on the Internet. Social networking sites, chatrooms and internet forums are buzzing with the story and people are pressing for answers.
As one commentator asked, “Is the Lagos press going to investigate the obvious issues in this case, or are they going to protect their colleagues? Where did the journalists and their driver get a whopping N3 million that they admitted the kidnappers took from them? Under what conditions does the NUJ go around the country to give “awards” to politicians, and what was Governor Akpabio’s award for?
Are members of the NUJ executive immune to the provisions of the Money Laundering Act of 2004?”
Another commentator asked, “Can journalists who collect transport fare and mobilization fees report a governor professionally? This is a big scandal,” he added.