In July 2004, police lay in wait at an airfield in the far northeastern corner of Nigeria. Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese businessman and one-time adviser to the late dictator Sani Abacha, was set to touch down in his private jet. Nuhu Ribadu, then the country's top anti-corruption prosecutor, says that Chagoury was a kingpin in the corruption that defined Abacha's regime.
"You couldn't investigate corruption without looking at Chagoury," Ribadu tells me in a recent interview in California.
Six years after Abacha's death, Ribadu's officers stood ready to take Chagoury down. Ribadu says that Chagoury made it possible for Abacha to steal billions of dollars and lined his own pockets in the process. The prosecutor says he indicted Chagoury and ordered his arrest for relatively minor violations related to Chagoury's businesses so that he could later bring additional charges for his activities in the Abacha era.
Gilbert Chagoury attending a benefit in Beverly Hills, California, in 2008. Photo: Getty Images.
But, no sooner had Chagoury's plane hit the ground, than it took off again. Ribadu says it's likely that an airport official tipped him off, and Ribadu's big catch slipped away, literally into thin air.
Chagoury was among the last of the all-powerful middlemen who served the heads of oil-rich African states, says Philippe Vasset, longtime editor of Africa Energy Intelligence, one of a series of influential energy industry newsletters. "He [Chagoury] was the gatekeeper to Abacha's presidency," Vasset says.
In many African countries, a Western entrepreneur might hand over money to a fixer or middleman, who would then pass it on to a political leader in exchange for support for a business venture. In Nigeria, Vasset explains, Chagoury was just such a figure in the mid-1990s, when Abacha ruled the country and held the key to much of the country's oil wealth.
Today, Chagoury is a diplomat representing the tiny island nation of St. Lucia. He is also a friend of former President Bill Clinton and a generous philanthropist, who, since the Abacha years, has used his money to establish respectability. He appeared near the top of the Clinton Foundation donor list in 2008 as a $1 million to $5 million contributor, according to foundation documents. (His name made the list again in 2009.)
Chagoury's contribution to the Louvre in Paris some years back was large enough for the museum to name a gallery for him and his wife. In recent years, he has put up $10 million for the construction of medical and nursing schools in Lebanon, his parents' country of origin, that also bear the Chagoury name.
Unlike his friend, the former president, Chagoury conducts his affairs largely out of public view. He rarely talks to reporters.
But on a cool day in late 2008, I headed up a gently winding road in Beverly Hills, where Chagoury's Moorish-style villa sprawls across the top of a steep canyon. The home once belonged to entertainer Danny Thomas, and Richard Nixon, Raquel Welch, and Michael Caine have all lived in the neighborhood.
After a written request for an interview and many follow-up phone calls, Chagoury invited me to meet him. "We'll see if we can get along," he said. Chagoury's home is packed with art, antiques, and crystal chandeliers, and offers a staggering view across West Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean.
As I'm taking it all in, Chagoury climbs a thickly carpeted, winding staircase to the living room to greet me. He's a stout man, dressed in a navy blue sport coat with buttons that strain against a barrel chest. His fingernails are buffed and manicured, and he has a full head of salt-and-pepper hair.
Almost immediately, he has a proposal: Do your story, but don't sell your work to a media outlet. "Do it for me," he says, offering me access and contacts -- even the chance to write a book. In exchange, I would get cash, and he would get full control of the product. I politely turn him down, but he brings up the offer several times during the interview.
As we talk, I learn that much of what Chagoury says about himself is so out of sync with the public record and what others have told me -- even those who are friendly toward him -- that it seems he's not just in the market for positive spin, but for all-out reinvention.
When I bring up his days in Nigeria, he tells me that he detests his reputation as Abacha's middleman. "I am not in that business," he says. Rather, he has worked hard since he was a teenager, building a conglomerate called The Chagoury Group, which employs 20,000 people in Nigeria in construction, real estate development, telecommunications, and other sectors.
"I am an industrialist," he says in lightly accented, near-perfect English. "I spend a lot of time with my family. I don't have time to do all that people say I do."
"I have never bribed anyone," he says, looking me straight in the eye. "I have never had to make a crooked deal." He is absolutely sure of himself, even though he has offered me a bribe of sorts just minutes earlier.
As for Ribadu, the Nigerian investigator who says his officers nearly made that 2004 arrest on corruption charges, Chagoury says, "He's not such hot stuff." He tells me that Ribadu -- who until 2007 headed the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, an agency similar to the FBI -- was an attack-dog set against the enemies of President Olusegun Obasanjo, who appointed him.
Olusegun Obasanjo was elected president of Nigeria in 1999 on an anti-corruption platform.
Ribadu was pushed out of his job after Obasanjo left office, and says he was given the freedom to act independently during his tenure and was ousted because of his zealous prosecution of high-level officials.
Chagoury, who turns 64 this month, was born in Lagos and is the eldest of eight children. He has dual citizenship in Lebanon and the United Kingdom because of his parents' heritage and because he was born in Nigeria while it was still under British rule.
His father came to West Africa in the 1930s from the northern Lebanese town of Miziara. The elder Chagoury followed what was by then a well-worn migrant trail to Nigeria, where he traded in textiles and helped his brother in a small trucking operation.
Chagoury is part of the Lebanese diaspora, which is by some estimates several times larger than the population of Lebanon, and includes such influential members as Mexican businessman Carlos Slim, the world's third richest man, Columbian entertainer Shakira, and American activist Ralph Nader.
Like their Palestinian and Jewish neighbors, the Lebanese have scattered about the world, and Chagoury seems equally at home in Lagos or Beverly Hills. He has also maintained close ties to his parents' home town of Miziara.
Today, Miziara survives -- and even thrives -- because of Chagoury and his brothers, says Gilbert Aoun, who was Lebanon's ambassador to Nigeria during Abacha's rule. Still, nine months of the year, the mountainous settlement of some 15,000 is a ghost town, Aoun says, because most Miziarans old enough to work are employed by the Chagourys in Nigeria.
Chagoury didn't grow up rich, but he says that he always wanted the security and prestige that money brings. He went into business with his father-in-law, and later with his brother. The family established several flour mills in Benin and Nigeria, a construction company in Nigeria, and a club in Lagos.
An Indispensable Adviser
Chagoury says he met Abacha by chance on a flight to the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt, when the future dictator was a young officer. The two struck up a friendship, and when Abacha seized power in a 1993 coup, Chagoury became the general's indispensable adviser.
General Abacha was an eccentric man and a brutal leader, who consolidated his power by declaring martial law and jailing political rivals. He kept a menagerie of exotic animals and rarely removed his sunglasses. The regime drew worldwide condemnation in 1995, when activist playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other men who had campaigned against the environmental degradation of the oil-rich Niger Delta were executed for what most observers say were trumped-up murder charges.
From his earliest days in power, Abacha set the tone for an administration that would become the most corrupt in Nigeria's history. Today, more than a decade after the dictator's death, investigators from Washington DC to the Nigerian capital of Abuja are still unraveling the web of shady dealings around Abacha's rule.
Within months of taking office in 1993, Abacha began to divert money from Nigeria's central bank to the overseas bank accounts of his family members and associates, including Chagoury's. A lawsuit brought by the Nigerian government against Abacha's heirs and associates in the United Kingdom shows that the dictator fraudulently ordered the bank transfers for national security purposes.
By the time of Abacha's death in 1998, those so-called security payments would total $2 billion, but they would represent less than half the funds that money-laundering investigators around the world estimate that Abacha and his associates stole from their country.
However, Abacha found other ways to pad his bank accounts. A $180 million bribery scheme -- the largest ever discovered as part of a U.S. Justice Department investigation -- was hatched the first year Abacha was in office.
Halliburton's Nigerian Bribes
The scheme began in the early 1990s, when Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), at the time a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation, led a joint venture that bid for a $6 billion contract to build a sprawling liquefied natural gas facility in the Niger Delta.
The group won the bid, but not before Abacha had agreed to accept a $40 million bribe that he would share with other Nigerian officials, according to Department of Justice court papers. It was the first installment of $180 million in bribes that KBR would pay, not only to officials of the Abacha regime, but to officials of the two heads of state who succeeded him.
A few months before I interviewed Chagoury, former KBR CEO Jack Stanley had pleaded guilty in a Texas courtroom to charges related to organizing the bribery scheme that went on for a decade in Nigeria, and to taking millions in kickbacks for himself. Since then, two more KBR contractors have been indicted, and Halliburton entered a guilty plea and paid the government a record fine of more than $500 million.
Chagoury denies any involvement in the bribery case, but his name surfaces in notes taken by one of the indictees, Chodan, who kept detailed records of so-called cultural meetings, where bribes were discussed.
One entry reads, "$250 ... to IPCO via Chagoury."
When I ask Chagoury about these records, he doesn't dispute that the note refers to a sum of $250 million, but he argues that it refers to a contract, which, he says, was legitimately awarded to one of his companies, IPCO Nigeria Limited, for construction related to the liquefied natural gas plant.
Chagoury has not been named by the Department of Justice or charged with any crime related to the KBR affair.
His work as an intermediary for Abacha went beyond business affairs. He was also deeply involved in diplomacy, even though he held no official government post. In the mid-1990s, when Nigeria came under increasing pressure from Washington to hold elections, Chagoury gained access to high-level U.S. emissaries like Jesse Jackson and Bill Richardson as well as to a number of senior State Department officials, according to Donald McHenry, a former American ambassador to the United Nations, who worked in U.S.-Nigeria diplomacy at the time.
The Clinton Connections
Chagoury, along with his wife and three of his children, were guests at a the Clinton's White House holiday dinner shortly after Chagoury gave nearly half a million dollars to a voter registration committee, Vote Now '96, according to a report in The Washington Post. (Chagoury would have been barred from donating directly to the Clinton campaign because he is not a U.S. citizen.) Since then, Chagoury and Clinton have traveled together and seen each other socially.
"Every one knows I'm friends with the Clintons," Chagoury says.
As Abacha's health began to fail in the late 1990s, Chagoury made major efforts to prop up the dictator. A State Department memo obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, entitled "The Health Watch on the Head of State Continues," shows that Chagoury appeared to have brought medical specialists and sophisticated medical equipment to the presidential residence in Abuja, while publicly downplaying the seriousness of Abacha's condition.
When Abacha died in June 1998, a second State Department memo notes that Chagoury placed an in-flight call from his private plane to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria to report that he was in touch with Nigeria's Provisional Ruling Council, which would be meeting later that day to discuss a successor to Abacha. In the phone call, Chagoury asked what governmental structure would be acceptable to U.S. officials, according to the memo.
Immediately after Abacha's death, Ribadu, then a young police investigator, says he began looking into the dictator's financial affairs. "It wasn't uncommon for Nigerian leaders to put money elsewhere," Ribadu says. "But the magnitude was beyond anybody's comprehension."
Nigeria's former chief prosecutor, Nuhu Ribadu, who unsuccessfully tried to indict and arrest Chagoury in 2004.
The money -- estimated at more than $4 billion -- was stashed in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, and the Isle of Jersey in the names of dozens of individuals and companies. Ribadu argues that it was Chagoury who vouched for Abacha's sons at banks where the source of their assets might otherwise have been questioned.
Indeed, Chagoury's Swiss attorney, Luc Argand, told me that his client served as a reference for Abacha's sons at Credit Suisse. The Nigerian government eventually requested help from law enforcement around the world in tracking the stolen assets. In 2000, Chagoury was convicted in Geneva, Switzerland, of laundering money and aiding a criminal organization in connection with the billions of dollars stolen from Nigeria during the Abacha years.
Argand has insisted that Chagoury used the money for diplomatic missions on behalf of Abacha. Asked if he had records to substantiate that claim, Argand said he couldn't produce any. He also conceded that the money was "stolen by Abacha, and had to be returned."
However, Argand says that Chagoury had already decided on his own to return it. In the end, he says, his client agreed to a plea deal: Chagoury would pay a fine of a million Swiss francs and hand over $66 million to the Nigerian government. Swiss authorities promised to expunge the conviction after two years, which they have done.
In 1999, Chagoury won immunity from prosecution in a separate looted-assets case in Nigeria by agreeing to return money that he held in Swiss bank accounts. The precise amount that Chagoury returned is unclear.
Meanwhile, the hunt for Nigeria's stolen treasure continues. A panel appointed by Nigeria's current president, Umaru Yar'Adua, is currently investigating which Nigerian officials took bribes in the Halliburton case and has reportedly requested U.S. Department of Justice cooperation in the probe. However, some Nigeria watchers, including Ribadu, doubt the seriousness of the inquiry.
While the Nigerian government struggles to recoup the losses it suffered under Abacha, Chagoury has prospered and continued to win acceptance from influential people around the world.
Last year, he was knighted by the Catholic Church and inducted into the Order of St. Gregory the Great, an honor bestowed upon those who serve the church, including many who are big donors to the institution. Bob Hope, Ricardo Montalban, and Rupert Murdoch are among past recipients.
The Clinton Foundation did not respond to emailed questions and repeated phone calls about the nature of Bill and Hillary Clinton's relationship with Chagoury. Former Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe, who, according to The Washington Post, was a sponsor of Chagoury's invitation to the White House in 1996, also failed to return phone calls. A spokesman for former Clinton political advisor James Carville, also a Chagoury acquaintance, said that Carville could not comment on the relationship.
And Chagoury hasn't stopped earning his fortune. Knowledgeable sources say that Chagoury controls South Atlantic Petroleum, a company that was awarded a choice oil exploration license before Abacha's death. Three years ago, the company sold a portion of its government-granted concession to the Chinese oil company, China National Offshore Oil Corporation, for $2.7 billion.
In our interview, Chagoury didn't deny that he profited from the deal, but he said rumors that former President Clinton helped make the deal happen were untrue.
Chagoury is unfazed by the crackdown by the U.S. Justice Department on foreign bribery, exemplified by the Halliburton case, and waves off the recent spate of prosecutions like an elder statesman: "You have lobbyists; we have agents," he says.
"You are never going to stop corruption," because it's favoritism, and that's human nature, which laws won't change, he tells me.
It's no wonder he is so confident. He is now free to come and go in Nigeria, while his nemesis, corruption hunter Nuhu Ribadu, left the country last year, he says, after an attempt on his life.
Robin Urevich is a reporter in Monterey County, California. Her work has appeared on NPR, Marketplace, NPR affiliates KQED and KPCC, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Las Vegas Sun. She is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley School of Journalism.
Jide Babalola - Abuja, Nigeria
This is an absolutely wonderful insight into what happens in "our world" here in Nigeria. Chagoury is still a business partner of few of the most highly influential Nigerian elites.
George Chidiebere Iheanacho - Lagos, Nigeria
This article is superb and represents every bit of investigative journalism. Nigeria has been raped thorough by all manner of pretenders and greedy capitalists at the long run the Nigerians people bear the brunt of this greedy and selfish capitalism.I hope a day will come when very naria and kobo from Nigeria will be accounted for.Shame to our past and present leaders, really they have betrayed the good will of Nigerians and vision of our heroes past as a result of corrupt enrichment.
Deep and insightful commentary and report. Sad though that Bill Clinton's name surfaced on this piece, but we need him (Bill Clinton) to get Gilbert arrested. The likes of Gilbert and his cronies are still on ground in Africa, milking, thieving, robbing and corrupting the entire fabric of the continent. Nigeria is a place where they thrive most due to easy cash from Oil and Gas. This fight will go two ways. Physical and Spiritual. And I can assure you none of them will go unpunished. Well done for this well researched information.
Los Angeles, California
Mind blowing Article!