By Johnbosco Agbakwuru
In law, it is said that he who asserts, proves, but this appears not the case in the allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against three members of the House of Representatives during their exchange programme in Cleveland, Ohio, the United States of America. It was expected that the former United States of America Ambassador to Nigeria, James Entwistle, who had, in his letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, alleged that one of the ten members of the House who attended the programme grabbed a hotel house keeper while two others solicited the services of car park attendants to hook them up with prostitutes, should make available the evidence. The evidence took flight and everything appeared to be just beer parlour gossip even though the allegations had caused the lawmakers their visas to the US.
From the emerging scenario at the investigative public hearing to unravel the veracity of the allegations, many people have been left to ponder the intention of the Ambassador and this has also fuelled the suspicion that Entwistle was out to make mischief. While some had said there was an attempt to blackmail the National Assembly and indeed the country with such weighty allegations, another school of thought believed the claims tallied with what Nigerian politicians do during conferences.
The three lawmakers caught in the allegations of sexual misconduct, according to the U.S. Ambassador, are Mohammed Garba Gololo (APC, Bauchi); Samuel Ikon (PDP, Akwa Ibom) and Mark Gbillah (APC, Benue). Entwistle had, in his petition to Dogara, alleged that the actions of the three lawmakers at the International Visitor Leadership Programme in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, from 7th to 13th April, 2016, brought disrepute to the parliament by soliciting for sex from prostitutes and grabbing a hotel housekeeper in a bid to rape.
While referring the matter to the Committees on Ethics and Privileges and Foreign Affairs, the Speaker described the allegations as serious, especially as many people had made their conclusion that the three accused lawmakers were wrong.
Many people, including family members of the accused, gathered at the 231 Conference Hall of the House of Representatives to hear the testimony of the U.S. Ambassador and maybe produce the video tape that would pronounce the three lawmakers guilty. Even, Sophia Gbillah, the wife of one of the accused, Mark Gbillah, came with her little baby perhaps to witness how her husband “misbehaved”. The guilty verdict never came.
On the first day of the hearing, the Chairman of the House Committee on Ethics, Nicholas Ossai, while ruling on the postponement of the exercise, following the absence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyema, and Entwistle, declared that the envoy, having breached the Vienna Convention by communicating directly with the Speaker, must unfailingly appear before the committee accompanied by the minister to substantiate the allegations made against the lawmakers.
He announced that the committee was postponing the investigative hearing based on the excuse byOnyeama that he would be unavailable because he was attending the executive meeting of the 29th Ordinary Session of the African Union meeting in Kigali, Rwanda.
However, it was expected that the Minister of Foreign Affairs would come along with the Ambassador last Thursday, but that was not to be, as the minister came alone to present to the committee his interactions with Entwistle. Even though Onyeama employed diplomacy in his presentation, especially with the cordial relationship Nigeria appears to have with the American government, some analysts were of the opinion that the former Ambassador was protected, while the Nigerians in the eye of the storm and indeed the image of the country did not get much protection.
Onyeama told the committee that there had not been any sufficient evidence to prove that the three lawmakers engaged in sexual misconduct during the US trip. He also disclosed that the Ambassador had tendered apology for breaching the diplomatic protocol by writing directly to Dagara instead of passing his letter through the Foreign Affairs Ministry. The Minister said in the course of his interactions with the Ambassador, he (Ambassador) said when the allegations against the members came up from his country, he felt the obligation to bring it to the notice of the Speaker.
He said Entwistle did not say the allegations were true or not but wrote the Speaker because of the impression they created, as the situation could affect Nigerians participating in future programme. According to Onyeama, the letter from the Ambassador was to tell Dogara to caution his members not to behave in a way that could jeopardise their subsequent participation in the programme and put Nigeria in a bad light.
He also informed the committee that the Ambassador told him that the house keeper in the hotel, allegedly grabbed by Gololo, had refused to testify before the American authorities and that when he demanded for evidence from Entwistle linking the lawmakers to the offence as alleged, the evidence was not as strong as the allegations. He said, “I was surprised that the alleged complainant (house keeper) refused to testify when approached by her own government. “Regarding my meeting with the US Ambassador, the first point I made to him was that he didn’t, at any point, notify the ministry about the matter and he said it was his failing and apologized.
“He said he deemed fit to write a private letter to the Speaker. I asked him what kind of evidence they obtained that emboldened him to write such letter, and that without evidence, it would amount to a defamatory act and that legal action could be taken. “He said the hotel management reported the matter. The Ambassador, however, did not present any corroborative evidence to me nor did he indeed indicate that they had any corroborative evidence because even the issue of identity, I understand, was based on group pictures.
“Yes it is confirmed that allegations were made obviously, but what he told me was that the housekeeper in the hotel refused to testify in respect of the matter which I was quite surprised to hear. “The assumption was that there were very strong evidences, maybe closed circuit television and recordings; so I was surprised that the main complainant refused to testify.” On the three years ban placed on the three lawmakers, he said the US embassy has total discretion on who to issue visas and may not give any reasons or explanations to anybody.
Also speaking, one of the accused lawmakers, Gololo, said he never grabbed anybody, adding, “I have been humiliated, embarrassed. It takes courage for me to continue with my daily activities. We demand apology from the Ambassador.” Ikon said, “Since the allegatory were made, we have been publicly tried and convicted. I will like the committee to look at how private the communication was, the letter written to the Speaker was copied to 10 other people”.
Gbillah said, “At no point did I ask any car park attendant such a demeaning attitude to solicit for prostitute. I will appreciate it if the committee continues after the testimony of the minister to pursue it to the US. “Nigerians have not heard the last from this. Wherever the James Entwistle is, he will take responsibility for his action.” The lawmakers accused the American Ambassador of racism, adding that Ohio is noted for racism in the United States. Sophia, Gbillah’s wife, exonerated her husband from the alleged sexual misconduct, saying it was false and never happened.
According to her, since 2007 when she had been with her husband, she had confidence in him and that since the allegation started, she knew it did not happen. Sophia, who claimed to have been with her husband in America during the programme but did not stay in the same hotel with him, said she always faulted women that said that all men cheat on their wives. She explained, “I say so because when a man fears God, he will not cheat on me. The second reason is because he loves God. He doesn’t even stand in the midst of people having conversation on women or prostitutes. “I know the accusation levelled against my husband is false, it never happened.”