The presidential candidate of Peoples Democratic Party PDP Atiku Abubakar visited Washington two weeks ago to meet with top U.S. diplomats and lawmakers thanks to a temporary suspension of a travel ban linked to decade-old bribery scandals, according to people familiar with the matter.
The U.S. administration has not commented on Atiku’s status or his travel, but several U.S. diplomats and others familiar with the visit told Reuters the former vice president has been banned from entering the United States for the past several years after he figured prominently in two corruption cases.
For Atiku’s supporters, the fact he was able to visit Washington on Jan. 17 and 18 without being arrested was proof that the allegations were baseless.
“It is fake news, and we showed that,” said Harold Molokwu, who heads the U.S. chapter of Atiku’s People’s Democratic Party of Nigeria.
Several U.S. government officials said the travel ban was waived temporarily by the U.S. State Department after lobbyists mounted a campaign among congressional lawmakers arguing that the administration should not snub the leading challenger to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in the Feb. 16 election.
One person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Atiku was allowed to enter because the United States saw little benefit to creating bad blood with the man who might be the next leader of Africa’s most populous nation and the continent’s biggest oil producer.
Lobbyists hired by Atiku said they sought to overcome resistance at the State Department by securing support from members of Congress for the visit, as well as arguing that the top U.S. official for African affairs, Assistant Secretary Tibor Nagy, had an obligation to encourage democracy in the seventh most populous country in the world.
“Assistant Secretary Nagy was pleased to meet with him and share the U.S. government’s expectations that Nigeria’s elections be free, fair, transparent, and peaceful, and reflect the will of the Nigerian people,” a State Department official said, stressing the department had not requested the waiver.
Buhari first took power in a military coup in the 1980s but was democratically elected in 2015. He is seeking a second term in part on an anti-corruption platform.
Atiku’s visa troubles stem from when he served as Nigeria’s vice president, from 1999 to 2007.
He figured prominently in the corruption trial of former U.S. Representative William Jefferson, who was accused of trying to bribe Atiku in an effort to expand a technology business in Nigeria. Jefferson was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 13 years in prison. His sentence was subsequently reduced.
Separately U.S. Senate investigators in 2010 alleged that one of Atiku’s four wives helped him transfer more than $40 million in “suspect funds” into the United States from offshore shell companies.
At least $1.7 million of that money was bribes paid by German technology company Siemens AG, according to Senate investigators. Siemens pleaded guilty to bribery charges in 2008 and agreed to pay a $1.6 billion fine.
Atiku has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Neither he nor his wife face criminal charges in the United States.