The case of the Osborne Towers Haul has got to be one of the most bizarre in Nigeria’s history.
At its heart was the largest fortune any person or institution ever chanced upon in a single location in Nigeria, and it transformed one of the most exclusive addresses in one of the nation’s most opulent neighbourhoods into a sensational crime scene brimming with money and mystery.
Footage of the unearthing of the haul, some $43.3 million stacked in packs of mint-fresh $10, 000 bills, in a fire-proof steel cabinet in Flat 7B at the Osborne Towers, in Lagos, not forgetting small change in hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling, made the headlines and front pages of the news media across the world.
Early reports claimed that the haul was part of the “security” money formerPresident Goodluck Jonathan had squirreled away for fighting the 2015 presidential election that he should have known he could not win. He had been so crushed by his defeat, they said, that he forgot the money.
Even if Dr Jonathan remembered, others said, how could he have come forward to claim the money, especially when his wife, the formerly excellent Dame Patience, was fighting desperately to re-possess some N54 million in bank deposits that the courts had ordered forfeited on the suspicion that it was the fruit of crime?
EFCC operatives who had swooped on Apartment 7B following, a tip-off from a whistle-blower were still toting up the haul when former Governor Nyesom Wike declared that it belonged unquestionably to the Rivers State Government, being proceeds of assets his predecessor and serving Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi had “fraudulently” sold.
“We will follow due process of the law to get back the money found at the Ikoyi residence,” he told Channels Television. “This money belongs to the Rivers State people. We have conducted our checks.
“We will stun Nigeria with this matter. We will come out with our evidence at the appropriate time.”
So much for Barrister Wike’s plan, which was at full throttle when the Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Ambassador Ayodele Oke, a highly-regarded spook whom few outside the community of spooks had ever heard of, stepped forward to claim that the money belonged to the NIA.
The funds, he said, were duly appropriated by the Federal Government at the time of Dr Jonathan for projects that could not be named, and that Oke had periodically reported on those projects, to the complete satisfaction of the authorities, among them National Security Adviser Babagana Monguno, and by extension President Muhammadu Buhari.
Premium Times (May 5, 2016) confirmed that much in a painstakingly documented piece that has not been rebutted as far as I know. The editors assured me on the record that they stood “perfectly” by their reporting.
In 2013-2014, the paper reported, Ambassador Oke’s immediate predecessor, Olaniyi Oladeji, had proposed to the Jonathan Administration an upgrade of NIA’s intelligence gathering facilities and techniques. On taking over from Oladeji, Ambassador Oke had fleshed out the proposal in a memo he submitted to Dr Jonathan on Feb: 14, 2015.
Premium Times quoted from Oke’s memo the following salient paragraphs regard the project:
Goal: to “upgrade and professionalise agency operations” in order to “engender an effective clandestine communication system central to the working of an intelligence service.”
Schedule: 2015 – 2018:
Price tag: $289, 202, 282 to be expended on 12 high-level projects.
According to the report, Dr Jonathan approved the request on February 16, 2015 and directed the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Allison-Madueke, to release the funds. Several weeks later, the NIA received the full amount in cash from the Central Bank. The paper trail was minimal, given the nature of the project.
Eleven months later, in January 2016, the report continued, the NIA filed progress reports on the projects and a detailed breakdown of its expenses in a letter to NSA Monguno.
Thereafter, Premium Times continued, a three-man panel from the National Security Adviser went to inspect the projects. In its February 29, 2016 report, the team expressed its satisfaction with the way the $289 million operation was being implemented.
Some ten weeks later, on May 5, 2016. Monguno visited NIA’s Headquarters for the first time since he assumed office in July 2015 and, according to Premium Times, wrote in the Visitors’ Book:
“On the occasion of my maiden visit to the NIA since assumption of official duties as NSA, I am extremely delighted by the warm reception and hospitality shown to me by H.E. Ambassador Ayo Oke, DG, NIA, the quality of works in progress is notably breathtaking but very inspiring also.
“All the facilities being constructed have demonstrated that the NIA is far ahead of its sister agencies in terms of foresight and dealing with 21st Century intelligence issues.
“It is my fervent prayer that the NIA achieve all the goals it has set for itself so that all other institutions of government, particularly the intelligence community, will bring about the desired change for this great country,” Mr. Monguno wrote in the NIA visitors’ book on May 5, 2016.
Two weeks later, on May 17, 2016, the NSA informed the NIA that President Buhari had been briefed about the ongoing projects and that the president had expressed his gratitude to the NIA personnel, the paper reported.
Roughly a year later, the EFCC in a sensational operation recovered $43,449,947, £27,800 and N23,218,000 from Flat 7B at Osborne Towers, the project’s “safe house.” Oke was suspended from office and dismissed subsequently by President Buhari, following the unpublished report of a panel headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) and comprising Monguno and the Federal Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN).
Its remit: “To establish the circumstances in which the NIA came into possession of the funds, how and by whose or which authority the funds were made available to the NIA, and to establish whether or not there has been a breach of the law or security procedure in obtaining custody and use of the funds.
The Osborne Towers haul was forfeited to the Federal Government, on the orders of the Federal High Court, Lagos.
Based on the panel’s recommendation, Ambassador Oke was in October 2017 dismissed from service and was scheduled to face criminal trial sometime in 2019, according to a statement from the Vice President, most likely in secret court, because of the sensitive nature of the matter.
In January 2019, however, Oke and his wife jetted out of Lagos to a European destination, in circumstances that carried not the slightest indication that they were fleeing from justice; to the contrary, more like senior officials in good standing embarking on a foreign trip and being accorded all the courtesies their exalted station warranted.
In his final days in power, Buhari commissioned the National Centre for Terrorism and Counter-terrorism, the nucleus of which Oke had built to high acclaim with the funds he obtained from the Central Bank. Shortly after he took office, President Bola Tinubu also visited and commended the facility.
The matter rested there until last week when the Lagos High Court struck out, at the instance of the EFCC, the case the agency had filed against Oke. The EFCC said the case could not be prosecuted for reasons of national security.
When did they come to that realization?
But how, at any rate, did matter cross over into the realm of criminal investigation and putative prosecution? How did a project that had reportedly earned high praise from the National Security Adviser turn into a national security scandal with no redeeming grace less than a year later?
Was the NIA dissembling all along? Was the Office of the National Security Adviser also dissembling? Was the National Security Adviser merely being collegial in its effusive report?
Was Oke a victim of intra-agency rivalry? Other agencies in the security establishment reportedly received funds for special projects to advance their missions as well, but could not report the kind of progress Oke had made.
Was Oke a victim of inter-agency rivalry? Was he being made a fall guy?
Was a crime even committed in the first place?
For now, the matter has been brought to a closure of sorts. But the dark insinuations that have caused Ambassador Oke and his family such a huge loss of esteem among his peers and in the larger society have not been formally withdrawn. Until that is done, last week’s official retreat is but cold comfort to him and his family.