Sunday, October 24, 2010

How Fifa's Amos Adamu tried, and failed, to control the Nigerian press

In 2002, the Nigerian reporter Olukayode Thomas began investigating the background of Amos Adamu, the man who allegedly offered to sell his World Cup bid vote and was provisionally suspended last week by Fifa. The executive board member denies any wrongdoing.

Thomas travelled across the country to interview senior figures in sport. Among his questions: how had Adamu, a civil servant, become so wealthy? How had he built up a portfolio of hotels, private companies and properties across Nigeria? And why had he changed his name – with documents showing him as Babatunde Aremu?

"When we met in 2002, I asked about his wealth, where he comes from and his real name," Thomas says. "Adamu's answers were all 'yes', 'no' or 'no comment'. As I left, he said: 'I won't stop your story, but remember, I have the best lawyers in Nigeria.'"

Thomas claims that what followed was a series of remarkable attempts to kill the story, including a visit by Adamu and 20 aides to the offices of Thomas's newspaper, the Guardian, in Lagos. The Guardian published regardless.

The story sparked several new, related allegations about Adamu's conduct from within sport, all of which he denied. There was a claim by the head of the Nigeria Football League that Adamu had sought to have sponsorship money diverted directly to him. Officials from the athletics federation made similar allegations. The Guardian ran a new story in September 2007 – and this time Adamu decided to sue.

Adamu, by now on Fifa's executive committee, launched one claim against the newspaper, and another against Thomas, claiming £2m in damages from the journalist. Adamu said the story impugned his character "by portraying me as an unreliable, dishonest and unstable character who is corrupt and financially indisciplined".

What followed was unpredictable, even by Nigerian legal standards. First, word reached Thomas via an intermediary that Adamu had backed down and withdrawn the case. Checks appeared to confirm it, and Thomas stopped preparing his defence. "The message was that I should try and be their friends, and move on." But then, in the summer of 2008, came news that Adamu's legal team had, in fact, been working on the case throughout, and a judge in the capital, Abuja, was ready to issue his verdict. A shocked Thomas made his way to the hearing.

"When I arrived at the court I was met by a lawyer. He told me he had been on the case for a while, and that he had prepared a statement of defence for me. All I had to do was to tell the judge that the statement was mine. It looked like a set-up. I had never met this guy in my life. I said to him: 'If you are representing me, shouldn't you at least have spoken to me before drawing up my statement?' Then I noticed that the document already contained a signature next to my name."

When Thomas told the judge what had happened, the case was adjourned until March – allowing Thomas time to assemble a public interest defence, helped by a lawyer working for a nominal fee. He had further help in the form of investigations into Adamu's background by the English journalist Andrew Jennings. When the verdict was finally returned last March, it was blunt: Adamu's cases against the Guardian, and against Thomas, were thrown out.

"I am still in debt as a result of all this," Thomas says. "But the joy that truth prevailed is compensation for the loss and the emotional trauma."

Thomas is now working as an adviser to the new minister of sports, Alhaji Ibrahim Isa Bio, who has stated his aim to be rooting out corruption.

"Defeating Adamu opened a lot of doors for me. I get invited to talk about the problems with Nigerian sport, and now I am working with the new minister to help change it. Pulling down Adamu's hegemony in Nigerian sport has not been easy. But thank God for the British press. They have made our job much easier."

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