By Odo Precious
The Igbo have a saying that a new wrapper has a tendency to make the wearer to urinate frequently. That is another way of saying that a new acquisition has a way of going into the head of the owner.
Nowhere has the truism in this wise saying been demonstrated than in the emergent Nigerian online publishing industry. The mushrooming online newspapers, most of which are published by Nigerians abroad but devoted to reporting events about Nigeria, are often owned and run by non-professional journalists who either do not know anything about the ethics of journalism or do not care a hoot about them. To worsen matters, the publishing companies of these online papers are registered abroad and do not usually have Nigerian branch offices. This invariably gives the publishers and editors a licence to churn out libelous stories and articles since they know that the chances of their being successfully sued for such publications are rather slim.
In the circumstances, top government officials who do not meet the expectations of these online publishers and editors have become hapless victims of fabricated outlandish publications solely aimed at damaging their hard-earned reputation. Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, is the latest victim of these hack writers. In the first half of this month, Adoke had the misfortune of being targeted by two of these online newspapers which fed the unsuspecting public with a cocktail of lies about the person of the AGF within the period of January 12-14.
The unwarranted harassment was spearheaded by Ireports-ng, which published a series of ridiculous stories accusing Adoke of stupendous wealth which, according to the portal, he does not deserve to have. It named First City Monument Bank, Diamond Bank and Zenith Bank as the banks where Adoke allegedly stashed billions of dollars, pound sterling and naira. In a follow-up report, Ireports-ng alleged that the minister possessed “stupendous wealth hidden in over 25 blue chip companies, some of which have been sharing in the contentious oil subsidy funds.” It went ahead to name the companies as Oando Oil, Eterna Oil, Japaul Oil & Maritime, Novasys Ltd, MTN, UAC Properties, Oceanic Bank, Guaranty Trust Bank, Access Bank, Bank PHB, First Bank, FCMB and Unity Bank. Though no allegation of wrongdoing was pointedly made against Adoke, the motive of the publications could not be mistaken.
Ireports-ng claimed that it dug up the “facts” after “weeks of underground investigations.” But despite that claim, the portal did not quote even one person, publish supporting documents or give the accused an opportunity to defend himself.
A careful reading of the stories would reveal that they were intended to embarrass Adoke because of the role which he played in the subsidy withdrawal saga and the attendant week of strikes and protests. “He has in the last 48 hours issued two statements to threaten protesting Nigerian workers to sack them and charge civil society activists involved in the protests with treason,” Ireports-ng wrote in the first story. This was to be the paper’s refrain in subsequent articles, thus leaving no doubt about the remote cause of its campaign of calumny against the AGF.
However, despite the obvious flaws in the stories, Sahara Reporters, a controversial portal famous for sensational publications, gleefully reproduced the fabricated lies of Ireports-ng, thus giving them wider publicity.
After initially ignoring the publications, Adoke was forced to respond when some journalists approached him with a request for him to defend himself of the allegations. In one of the interviews which he granted an online newspaper which sought clarifications from him, Adoke admitted having accounts with FCMB, Diamond and Intercontinental banks, but said the figures published were far what he had in those accounts and were aimed at embarrassing him, his family and the Federal Government. “I have accounts with FCMB and Diamond banks (but not in Zenith Bank). I have a salary account with Intercontinental bank and this are the only accounts I have been operating since I was appointed Attorney-General,” he told Pointblanknews.com, adding, “but the accounts in the said banks are far, far lower that the figures they are peddling.”
“I don’t have that kind of money,” Adoke further said. “Even if I did, it would be foolish to keep such sums in accounts considering inflationary trends and other factors. Besides, how come the banks did not notify the appropriate authorities of the existence of such sums in line with the laws guiding financial transactions by banks?”
The minister noted that prior to his appointment, he was a successful lawyer who rose to the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). “I was an investment lawyer and arbitrated at a very high level. To the glory of God I could not by any standard be considered an upstart prior to my appointment,” he said, adding: “Is it a crime to be a minister? I live in the same house, use my personal cars as a minister and put in my best. I challenge any Nigerian or expatriate businessman or lawyer who has given me a dime to influence the course of my job to speak up. I am a man who is fully aware of the importance of the office I occupy and would not be stupid to do anything to bring my name and the office to disrepute.”
Also speaking with another online newspaper which interviewed him on the matter, Adoke said he was ready to spend the rest of his life in jail if he is found to operate the secret domiciliary accounts that were attributed to him. “I have no such resources,” he said. “All they said in that report are tissues of lies. I am challenging the anti-corruption agencies in our country to investigate the allegations. If I am found guilty, the money should be confiscated. I should be tried and sent to jail.”
The AGF also urged Nigerians to take more than a passing interest in the investigations to ensure that the anti-corruption agencies make a good job of it and make the outcome of their investigations public. He accused the authors of the publication of trying to intimidate him from doing his job as the chief law officer of Nigeria. “My offence is that I issued a statement asking Nigerians to protest with decorum, to respect the law,” he stated, noting, however, that in the statement he “recognised the right of the people to protest.” As Adoke rightly asked: “What did they want a responsible Attorney General of the Federation to do?”
As the attacks continued, the AGF had to issue an official statement refuting the allegations. The statement which was issued on his behalf by his spokesman, Ambrose Momoh, recalled that the minister had declared his assets including all his accounts on assumption office as Attorney General of the Federation. “Mr. Adoke further directed that no money should be paid into all his accounts except the salary account he maintains with Intercontinental Bank Plc. Consequently, the authentic balances in the accounts maintained by Mr. Adoke only reflect his earnings as a legal practitioner/investor before he took public office,” the statement explained.
Adoke did not stop at that but went ahead to lodge a formal complaint with the Inspector General of Police, requesting him to launch an investigation into the allegations against him and to make the report made public.
“This,” according to the statement, “is necessary to prove to Nigerians that the Attorney General has nothing to hide and can account for his earnings and wealth. Mr. Adoke has maintained a consistent lifestyle in the last 15 years and will by the grace of God continue to maintain his cherished values of honesty, probity and accountability in public office.”
As someone who often sprang to the defence of Nigerian journalists when critics accused them of deliberately feeding the public with lies, I am ashamed that people associated with a profession to which I have given all the 26 years of my working life could so brazenly launch mind-boggling lies against a person of Adoke’s standing, thereby causing him needless pain.
This is an unfortunate development which ought to be condemned by all men of good will. Today it is Adoke’s turn, tomorrow it could be another; after all, Ireports-ng has promised “to make this the beginning of series of reports on the sleaze by top officials of Jonathan’s administration.”
*Odo Precious is a Lagos-based journalist.