- Category: SPECIAL REPORTS
- Thursday, 15 March 2012
- By Ibekwe Obiora
INTERVIEW WITH EMEKA UGWUONYE By Ibekwe Obiora; March 13, 2012
This day, Tuesday, March 13, 2012, has been an interesting one. I didn’t do any work, but I am happy how I spent the day. I heard that Emeka Ugwuonye was coming to Nigeria to stand trial today. So, I went to the Igbosere High Court, in Lagos Island to witness the trial first hand. That was my first time in that
court. I nearly missed it because I first went to the wrong court. I finally got to Court No. 51, Justice Balogun’s Court. I noticed a well-dressed man in dark blue suit with a hat, surrounded by people, outside the courtroom. I came closer. That was Emeka Ugwuonye. It was as if he was holding a court outside the court. He was making jokes and everybody was laughing. He did not recognize me, even though I had met Emeka in Dallas in 2001 or 2002 during the Enugu Convention, and again in Orange, California, in 2004. I waited to introduce myself.
The door to the courtroom was opened and we all went in. The judge came in around 9 o’clock. The court was filled up. Emeka’s case was the second case called up. He took the stand. In less than 5 minutes, the case was adjourned. Emeka’s lawyer had filed a motion to quash the charges on the ground of jurisdiction. The next date will be April 17, 2012. From every indication, the judge seemed to be expecting this motion. When the lawyers were trying to chose a date for adjournment, the judge cautioned them to bear in mind that Ugwuonye had to travel a long distance and must allow him time to go and come back. Once Emeka stepped out of the courtroom, the court was nearly emptied out. That was when I realized that most of the people in the courtroom were there to witness this trial, just like me.
When the crowd appeared to have thinned out around him, I approached and introduced myself to Emeka. I reminded him how we met in California. I have been a friend of his brother-in-law, Obi Iloputaife and I met him in California in 2004 when he came to visit his sister and Obi. I doubted that he remembered, but like any man in his position and circumstance, he pretended he knew me well. I told him how I had been following his cases. But at this time, he suddenly seemed to be in a rush. His security men were eager to end my conversation. He asked me how I came to the court. I told him I came with my driver. He said I could join him in his vehicle, a Land Cruiser and that my driver could drive behind us. I jumped in. One of his staff gave my driver the address where he would meet us in case he couldn’t follow. I had no idea where we where heading to in particular. But we ended up at a location in Victoria Island. We entered into an office. I couldn’t tell if it was his lawyer’s offices. We were led into a conference room. He took his seat at conference room and waved me into one of the empty seats. A colleague of mine who was also at the court joined us.
I was surprised by what happened next. For the next 30 minutes Emeka ignored us. Someone came in, greeted him and handed over a big file to him. Emeka suddenly got engrossed in the file, furiously reading and flipping through the file and making notes. He took a few calls in-between. Coffee was brought to him. We were asked what we wanted and I opted for tea. Emeka sipped his coffee as he went through the file. He folded the file and then sat back on his chair and said: “Yes, gentlemen, thank you for coming to attend my court. How did you know today was the court date?”, he asked smiling and staring at me intently. I told him I have been following Elombah.com and that I am subscribed to some of the diaspora list-serves. His eyes lit up questioningly. “What’s going on there?”, he asked, smiling. “What new mischief is Afis up to? And Yinka Odumakin? I learnt that he has returned to attacking me; I mean Yinka”, he said as the smile faded away and was replaced by a thoughtful posture.
When he noticed me switching my phone into a recording mode, he asked me of I was having a conversation with him or interviewing him. I then asked him if it was okay to record our discussion. He insisted that would amount to an interview. I admitted it could be an interview. He smiled and waived for me to go ahead.
I thought I should use the opportunity to put some questions in my own bit as an armature journalist. The questions and answers went as follows:
QUESTION: Sir, it is unbelievable how you do it. From what I read, you were in court in Maryland on Friday of last week. You were in a deposition in Washington, DC on Saturday. You had to leave the US the same Saturday to be available in Lagos by Monday morning. And you don’t even look it. How do you manage? Are these not having their toll on you?
ANSWER: Hell yes, the cases have their toll. But what about it? All major strivings in our lives have their tolls.
QUESTION: Could you have avoided these cases and the stress you face over them?
ANSWER: Don’t be naïve, my friend. How could I have avoided it? Don’t forget that the charges filed against me are all acts of the state against me. How could I have avoided that? As for the cases I filed in court in Maryland, they are all legitimate and justified. I could never have avoided responding in such a manner to Saharareporters defamation. Also, I could never have avoided suing Aluko. There was really no option, notwithstanding the nonsense you may read on the internet or listserves. The only thing I had not fully considered at the outset of the cases was the level of coordination amongst my opponents. I had underestimated their determination to pull me down at all cost. They have incredible propaganda machinery and abilities. They can declare victory in any direction they want at any time. From day one, it was an intense media onslaught using Saharareporters as a ready and willing tool together with their list-serves operated by Matto Akindana and Bolaji Aluko. I did not fully anticipate all that.
Along the line, the attacks began to have their effects. The public began to perceive me in certain unfavorable lights. I then realized how vulnerable and delicate my position was. My attackers were mostly inconsequential people internationally. Even those that knew Saharareporters never heard of Omoyele Sowore. Nobody outside the Nigerian netters ever heard of Afis. Indeed, nobody knew of Afis until he began to gain notice by attacking Ugwuonye. Nobody outside a marginal handful of Nigerian netters ever heard of Yinka Odumakin. On the other hand, I was a member of nearly 15 professional bodies worldwide. My attackers had nothing to lose by attacking me. On the other hand, they could gain some public notice by so doing. In that atmosphere, the effort to clear my name, which gave rise to the lawsuits took dimensions that I had not anticipated. But, I am glad that my opponents have lost their monopoly over the instrumentalities of mass communication. Despite the ups-and-downs in my struggle, most of it was unavoidable.
QUESTION: What specifically do you mean by coordination on the part of your enemies?
ANSWER: Whether it is Afis, Yinka Odumakin, Sowore, Aluko, etc, they act in a well-coordinated fashion for the purpose of propaganda and spreading false messages. I will give you a simple example here. I was in Court on Friday of last week and the issue of what would be my most convenient address came up because someone had claimed that they could not reach me. As you know, since I returned from my last detention, I have made a number of changes in my offices and I have directed that mails be sent to my home. During that occasion, I informed the court that my mails should be sent to my house instead. The only person in court was Mr. Sobo, Aluko’s lawyer and Yinka’s friend. On Saturday, during deposition, I was asked a question with legal consequences about my office, I answered that question truthfully as the law required and I made it clear that the defamatory publication had harmed my business and forced it to close. Remember I am asking for millions in damages, you know. Now, guess what happened. By this morning, Yinka was already telling the world that I am now practicing law from my basement. So, either Sobo was reporting to Yinka what happened at the court (inaccurately, as it were) or Sowore was reporting to Yinka what happened in deposition (again inaccurately). Yinka already paints the picture of a man that has lost everything. So, would you not conclude that Yinka is either a fool or that his goal is mislead the public or that he simply doesn’t understand the controversy? His goal is simply to help paint a particular picture. It is the value of the painted picture over reality that constitutes the propaganda objective and method.
Talking about the toll, it is still too early to tell how this is going to end. I have my hunch and people on the other side have their hunches. All I can assure you is that what you have seen so far is nothing compared to the lawsuits that are going to be filed in the coming months.
QUESTION: What do you mean by that?
ANSWER: Let’s look at it this way; we have several issues that are unresolved. We have the question of the manner in which certain people have abused my name and told unprintable things about me and that has had its effect on me in certain ways that are unacceptable. I am not supposed to just ignore that and walk away. These bullying activities that are aimed at further damaging me while I tried to redress past injuries are not going to force me back. You can see their line of reasoning: They are chorusing amongst themselves that Emeka would have been better off if he had not taken any measures to redress the original injuries. The notion that they could publish anything and nothing would happen is so troubling and it offends the core of my being, whether the publication is about me or about someone else. I resist all forms of unchecked powers. My philosophy militates against all forms of arrogance of power. It was only going to be a matter of time before I would clash with those who believe that they could do as they liked with total impunity. It is a matter of deeply held beliefs. So, you have seen nothing in terms of lawsuits over these matters.
Then you have the criminal charges that Nigerian Government had filed against me in Nigeria. Those cases are being dealt with in several ways. I am defending them. At the same time, I am taking measures against the abuse of my rights by the regime. Even the government should not have unchecked powers. We must subject government powers and all official conducts to the Constitution. Time ought to have gone forever when Nigerian officials could do as they pleased and no questions would be asked. So, what has happened is that each additional injustice triggers a new quest for justice. All that I have done so far stemmed from a brooding sense of injustice. The error on the part of my opponents is that they continued to believe that the more they further attack me, the more likely it would be for me to back down. That is a clear miscalculation.
You could hear someone say that I had indeed been forced to practice law from a basement in my house, which is funny. For him, that is a sign that they are winning against me. It does not occur to him that, even if true, that might be a sign that I should fight on. But the entire notion of victory for my opponent is an idea that is driven by their own campaigns. It is fair to look at my practice 5 years ago and compare it to now and say: these are difficult times for Emeka. But one really has to be deeper and more sophisticated than that to appreciate what has happened. Five years ago, I was serving and working for an extremely corrupt system of government. It was then impossible to speak up against that system because one was perceived to be part of it. Today, I am a free man. I am able to look at Nigerian history and tell that it has been a blood history of abuse of power and marginalization and massive corruption and unbridled looting of the national treasury, leading to war and genocide, and threats of disintegration, more wars and massive humanitarian disasters down the line. I am able to look the evil regime in the face and tell it that it is ugly. Five years, ago, I could not openly criticize the Attorney General of Nigeria. Today, I could and I have been, and will continue. I could never have thought of taking Nigerian officials to the ICC to answer for various atrocities. Now, I am in the process of filing an ICC complaint. So, clearly, this is a new person here.
QUESTION: What about your sister, Ifesinachi’s involvement in these problems.
ANSWER: I don’t know exactly what you mean by that. There have been different ways to explain the tragedy that befell my family as far as my sister’s condition is concerned. But you know I cannot start telling you right here what and how I feel about her. It was terrible that my struggle against my opponents coincided with a time that there is a serious dispute in my family. Ifesinachi felt strangely sufficiently insecure that she found her only way out in my demise. Naturally, a determined and ruthless enemy group has taken advantage of that family crisis. My enemies now talk of “his blood sister” said this and said that. Their emphasis on blood is one-sided, though. It should have also included an intense curiosity why a sister would do that. That curiosity would have opened up a lot of things about the peculiar life of my sister and her circumstances, and fully explain her aberrations. Sowore’s lawyer had asked me why didn’t I sue my sister. I understood the question. They wanted to hold her responsible for the publication that everybody considered defamatory absolutely. They deposed her in my back not to help her or to hear her; but to exonerate Sowore and pass the blame to someone in my family. In other words, it would become that Emeka was destroyed by a member of his own family. And my naïve and misguided sister wants to bear that blame gladly, as it were. But we will see how that works out for them.
I have avoided open confrontation with Ifesinachi for several reasons. Many more people in the family might get dragged out into it if I were to move against her. Secondly, it would distract me from the present strategy. The big question is how I could maintain such approach given her deeper involvement with my enemies. The irony of it is that they don’t have much of a regard for her. I was told how her request to be interviewed by Saharareporters was turned down repeatedly. They sensed an ambition on her part to project herself into some mock fame. In other words, even she wanted to benefit from my detention predicaments by seeking to reach hundreds of thousands of people via their platform. Even in their game, of which she has become a part, they still feel the need to control her and cut back on her ambitions. She is not even a free participant in that game. She is to be controlled and manipulated. They would rather have her speak under oath in a deposition than speak freely in an interview. Anyway, we are going to see how her involvement plays out. All that would have been funny in a different setting.
QUESTION: How do you see the Nigerian cases playing out? What is your game plan? In one of the cases, I understand you are defending yourself. Isn’t that a bad idea?
ANSWER: My decision to take on my own defense in person was born out of special circumstances and it was well discussed and agreed to by all those involved in the decision. But I can’t tell you more about that now without giving away my tactics and strategy. As for my game plan, I don’t really know what you mean by that. But I am happy you are thinking that there must be some plan. That is the opposite of those who believe that I am bumbling through things without some calculations. As for the ultimate outcome of these cases, I really cannot say what I think now for obvious reasons. My opponents are far more ignorant than they realize. And I do realize that I am faced with an extremely oppressive and brutal system. They can go to any conceivable extents to achieve their goal. I have spent a chunk of my time representing national governments and I know too well that every government is powerful, even the government of the smallest country is powerful. They can do virtually anything. I remember my discussion with one Nigerian Ambassador while preparing to defend the Embassy in a case in New York. The Ambassador said to me so starkly, “We are a government. We can manufacture any evidence we need because we even have the power to mint currency. Therefore, Counsel, there is no document we cannot produce. Just tell us”. Also, the Nigerian government people are not used to being challenged. But what are being disguised as strength by the Nigerian state are actually signs of its weakness. The Nigerian state is so weak and inherently unstable that any few set of individuals could manipulate any segment of the apparatuses of the state, be it, as in my case, the criminal justice system. The cases they filed against me are a sham. There is no substance or justice to it. It was all to intimidate an otherwise nonconforming persona (me). So, however long it takes, they would lose in the end.
QUESTION: Some people fault the manner in which you are handling your cases in Nigeria. What is your reaction to that?
ANSWER: Everybody has his opinion and I am sure that other people would have handled similar situation differently. I can give you several examples. When Nuhu Ribadu was charged by the Nigerian authorities, he fled for two years. When El Rufai was similarly charged, he stayed away from Nigeria for two years. Many people stayed away until such a time that the tension had mellowed down and they had worked out some deal that assured them that they would not be persecuted. For me, I did the opposite, despite the opportunity for me to stay away from Nigeria in the interim, I decided to stick around and fight back. Nobody can tell you that Emeka Ugwuonye ran away. Everybody would agree that he fought back. There are other areas where others would have handled this matter differently. For instance, if I had given money in bribe to the Nigerian Ambassador, as he requested, there would never have been a controversy. Also, if I had given bribe to the EFCC leadership, there would never have been much of this problem either. Further, if I had kept quiet and allowed them to screw me a bit, free of charge, they would have become my friends. I could even have been one of the lawyers representing the EFCC today, and they would point at me as evidence that they are nice people who are liked by even the people they prosecuted. But I fought back right from their cells, and that wounded the ego of an arrogant organization. And that made them mad. It was like going after the legendary crime family. They come after you with all they’ve got – guns and projectiles in full display of impunity. So, I think I have handled my cases the way Emeka Ugwuonye would handle things of this nature. If some people don’t like my style, I can understand that.
You have only one more question.
QUESTION: I saw a lot of your supporters in the court today. And you have them all over, including outside Nigeria. What message do you give to them.
ANSWER: I am grateful to them. Their support already saved my life more than once. I hope they would stay focused and not get discouraged by the propaganda of my opponents. Also, I hope they don’t get fatigued by the length of time this whole ordeal would take before it could be resolved. I must also say that my supporters all had the choice of towing the path of comfort and populism, i.e., just being on the path of the powerful government authorities. But somehow they figured that the path of justice is ultimately the strongest and most enduring path. It takes courage to do that and that’s why I am so proud of my supporters. Some of them have surprised me in many ways.
One thing I have never been fully able to understand is why some would feel so strongly that they compared me with Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr. Initially, I had thought that those people were just crazy or carried away. But I later understood what they mean. They are not saying that I am Mandela. They are not deluded. Rather, they are simply saying that I have the opportunity and qualities to challenge an oppressive system. They are urging me to use all my intellectual resources and strength of character to fight for the greater good of the society than for my personal vindication. I hear them to be saying, “Fight for us too. We are also victims. Fight for us the way civil right leaders of history fought for others”. That is where the comparison lies, I believe. At the very beginning of the lives of the two great icons of history, they probably had comparable levels of education as I do. Both at some point had individual cases against their respective states. (Mandela was “convicted” of treason and terrorism). But they used the opportunity of their ordeals with the state to push for the greater good of the society. It doesn’t matter when that turning point occurred in their lives, but it did occur. My supporters are searching for some semblance between my experience and those of these icons. I am humbled for the confidence and trust my supporters are placing on my shoulders. I don’t think I am qualified for that, though. I don’t believe that I deserve all that. But so did each prophet initially resist his mission. I don’t want to be like Jonah who refused his commission, only to be swallowed by a whale and defecated on the land he had refused to go to. By the gesture of the aspirations of my supporters, I understand that they want my struggles to be something beyond the story of one man. I understand them very well.
QUESTION: Please just one more question; apart from these cases, what else do you focus your attention on these days?
ANSWER: (Laughs!) Are you suggesting there could be anything else apart from these cases? My opponents think otherwise. Good question, by the way! There is certainly life outside the cases. We are currently seeking to establish in Nigeria the ECULAW INSTITUTE which is going to be one of a kind as a center for training in law and development, and various fields of management. I believe this country and the region would need more efforts in the area of skill improvement and professional training. Wherever I go, I hear that young Nigerian professionals are untrained and are even untrainable. I see a bit of that everyday in the Nigerian courts. There is an incredible shortage of manpower in Nigeria. Looking at countries like India, we really lag terribly behind. Indeed, I would say we will face crisis in the near future as a result of this problem, unless something serious is done now. So, ECULAW INSITUTE is my response to that problem. It is a big challenge, but we are already moving forward. As a I speak with you now, two 40ft containers are awaiting clearance at one of the Lagos ports. The Institute is going to be based in the Eastern part of Nigeria. You may recall that in October of last year, I did drive from Port Harcourt to Enugu, with stops at Aba, Owerri, Umuahia, etc. The purpose was partly to see for myself how that region might be poised for economic transformation in the coming years. Also, through a sports and entertainment law practice group, I will be leading a team of investors that are interested in the Nigerian movies industry. So, these are some of my passions other than defending myself in the Nigerian courts.
With that came to the end of my discussion/interview with Emeka Ugwuonye in Lagos. I can report that the man was in great spirit. Judging from 2004 when I last met him, he has grown far more mature and charismatic. He stares at you straight with a mixture of smiles and frowns as he contemplates each answer. One thing is clear to me, Emeka Ugwuonye is not afraid. He also seems to know what he is doing. Only time would tell and all should keep an open mind over events in the coming months.