President Bola Tinubu’s longtime ally, Gilbert Chagoury, played a critical role in a last-ditch effort to bolster the waning popularity and influence of President Goodluck Jonathan leading up to the 2015 general elections, an activity that was diametrically opposed to Mr Tinubu’s partisan interest, a document recently accessed by Peoples Gazette has revealed.
According to the filings, which were obtained following disclosures by agents of the United States Department of Justice, Mr Chagoury, between January and June 2015, engaged the services of lobbyists, NWG Advocacy LLC, to set up multiple meetings between top members of Mr Jonathan’s government with senior aides to members of U.S. Congress and top U.S. media outlets to earn increased validation for Mr Jonathan’s reelection bid.
Some of the highlights of the planned conversations include discussions on how the purported gains of Mr Jonathan’s administration in security, economy, education, and accountability could be internationally emphasised to boost his political credentials ahead of the election in Nigeria. Mr Jonathan’s widely applauded handling of the Ebola virus and the transparency strides of his administration were among key highlights of the publicity and congressional outreach strategy.
The target list of Mr Chagoury’s lobbying effort included professional staff and expert advisers who worked under various subcommittees of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee then chaired by Senator Bob Corker. Some of those contacted included Michael Phelan, professional staff of the Africa Subcommittee, and Heather Flynn, a senior foreign policy professional, filings under Foreign Agents Registration Act showed.
These officials were expected to be convinced of Mr Jonathan’s performance and to affirm them publicly in a way that could be politically lucrative for his second-term bid. The former president’s representatives in the arrangement included his then-chief of staff Hassan Tukur and senior economic adviser Mustafa Chike-Obi.
The lobbying group, NWG, working as a subcontractor for another agency, Corallo Media Strategies, Inc., affirmed that Mr Chagoury did enter into a written formal contract with them around activities “which sought to arrange meetings between Members of Congress and congressional staff and representatives of then-Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s Administration.”
Multiple email meeting requests were sent to senior aides of several U.S. lawmakers and some members of Congress directly but several of the meetings were cancelled. In filings made under oath, Mr Chagoury’s contractor admitted that the meetings were in connection with the 2015 Nigerian general elections.
“The meetings were to promote Mr. Jonathan’s platform and key accomplishments, particularly regarding Boko Haram, the economy, ebola, education, and transparency and accountability. While several meetings were arranged, all were cancelled due to inclement weather except for one on March 6, 2015, with Rep. Chris Smith, then-Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa. Registrant attended this meeting with Messrs. Tukur and Chike-Obi as well as Mark Corallo of CMSI,” the 2020 filings recently sighted by The Gazette added.
Journalists like James Rosen, then of Fox News, and Lara Logan, then of CBS News, were among those reached by the lobbying team, among over a dozen other reporters.
It was unclear how much Mr Chagoury paid in total for the influence operation, but two firms listed receiving a combined $40,000 from Mr Chagoury for only one aspect of the work, filings said.
The Lebanesse-Nigerian businessman, among other appellations, identified himself on the documents as an “industrialist” and “advisor.” He also stated that he was an ’’ambassador” and “philanthropist”, in what seemed a reference to his diplomatic role in the Caribbean island of St Lucia and charitable support to education in his home country of Lebanon. He used his address along Avenue D’lena in Paris on the documents.
The timing of Mr Chagoury’s financial support to Mr Jonathan’s campaign appeared particularly notable for clashing with his public demonstration of support to Mr Tinubu and the ruling All Progressive Congress, which was at the time Nigeria’s main opposition party seeking to gain power at the country’s political centre for the first time.
The former Lagos governor would go on to lead the opposition that ousted Mr Jonathan in the March 2015 presidential election. Two years earlier in 2013, Mr Tinubu had led a group of his tightly-controlled Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) to merge with the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), led at the time by Muhammadu Buhari and a cabal of northern political heavyweights.
It is unclear why Mr Chagoury actively financed positive publicity strategy campaigns for his ally’s political opponent, or whether even Mr Tinubu knew about the activities. In 2011, Mr Tinubu himself had backed Mr Jonathan for a full first term, later revealed to have happened under coercion to avoid criminal jeopardy for electoral law violations.
His role in the lobbying shows that he continued to be in close communication with the Mr Jonathan’s team, working against his friend’s APC and its presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, while maintaining public appearances of solidarity with the Tinubu camp.
Still, analysts said Mr Chagoury’s expansive lobbying for Mr Jonathan while bearing his longstanding allyship with Mr Tinubu underscored Nigeria’s entrenched plutocracy, where self-preservation has for decades supplanted overarching dividend for the nation’s longsuffering masses.
“Business gladiators and political gladiators have always been in bed together,” said public affairs analyst Sola Omowale in Lagos. “Anyone surprised to hear this development [that Chagoury supported Mr Jonathan in 2015] might not have been paying attention.”
“Business gladiators fund people into political offices across the major political parties to make sure that their interests are fully protected, notwithstanding which political party is in power,” the analyst added.
Mr Chagoury did not return calls and messages seeking comments from The Gazette. But the businessman strongly denied all allegations of corruption, saying he was only caught in the crossfire of some of his business allies. He also denied involvement in terrorism or its financing and regularly alluded to his recognition by the Catholic Church as a measure of his faith and humanity.
As a naturalised Nigerian, Mr Chagoury did not appear to have violated any campaign financing regulations in seeking to maximise Mr Jonathan’s chances in 2015, even if he had also actively supported Mr Tinubu’s APC in the same election.
This marked a sharp contrast from a similar election intervention that landed him in trouble in the United States. In 2021, The Gazette reported how Mr Chagoury was prevented from entering the U.S. on suspicion of terrorism financing and violation of campaign finance regulations.
He paid $1.8 million in fines to the U.S. government after he was indicted for violating the country’s electoral laws by making illegal donations to at least four political candidates between June 2012 and March 2016, according to the Justice Department and court documents seen by The Gazette. He admitted to making the payments and cooperated with the authorities’ investigation which led to him settling the fine in 2019.
At 77, he continues to lead the Chagoury Group, a conglomerate that runs Eko Hotel, Eko Atlantic and other priced real estate assets in Lagos and other parts of the country. In 2000, he was convicted in Switzerland for his role in helping former dictator Sani Abacha loot billions of dollars from Nigeria’s coffers.
Nuhu Ribadu, the national security adviser who once led the anti-corruption office EFCC, described Mr Chagoury as a “kingpin” of corruption who defined the Abacha era in a 2010 interview with PBS.
Reached for comments Tuesday, Mr Ribadu was silent about whether he still held his 2010 views on Mr Chagoury, who now holds a critical role as the main confidant of Mr Tinubu. Both Messrs Tinubu and Chagoury had been sighted at least twice together since the Nigerian presidential election in February.
Mr Chagoury advises Mr Tinubu in several unspecified capacities even as the first term of the latter unfolds. He is seen as the president’s top fixer due to his extensive network and command of capital. Shortly before the president was sworn in, the businessman joined Mr Tinubu and his close aides in a meeting in Paris where he was said to have weighed in on several critical matters that revolved around the presidency, cabinet, and Mr Tinubu’s personal issues.
He was also seen with Mr Tinubu in Dubai at the United Nations global climate change conference earlier in the month after he was listed as the president’s “confidante” on the list of Nigeria’s delegation to the conference. He represented the State House on the trip and was listed as being in a paid relationship/contract with the nominating entity.
He is a major financier of public/private partnership projects of the Lagos State government across different administrations. As far back as 2006, Mr Chagoury through a subsidiary of his conglomerate, South Energyx Nigeria Limited, was involved in the conceptualisation and financing of the Eko Atlantic City, a multibillion-dollar smart city project whose visionary credit continues to go to Mr Tinubu.
After returning $66 million and settling $600,000 fines, Mr Chagoury’s money laundering conviction was expunged in 2002, two years after it was handed down.
He returned over $300 million to Nigeria under former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration to secure a deal that protected him from prosecution.
Spokespersons for Messrs Jonathan and Chike-Obi, who now leads Fidelity Bank as chairman, declined comments to The Gazette, saying their principals can’t recall the lobbying efforts by Mr Chagoury.