Expatriate allegedly owed by Atiku’s company cries out, says Nigerian lawyers refused to take up our case
Some expatriates including international broadcast journalists drawn from CNN, NPR, CNBC and other reputable networks recently accused a former Vice President of Nigeria and owner of Gotel Africa Media Limited, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, of a breach of contract and being owed months of salaries by the company. The current Managing Director of Gotel, El-Yakub Mohammed, and Atiku’s spokesperson, Paul Ibe, declined to grant interviews on the matter, each saying the other should address the issues. One of the expatriates involved, Mr Devon Petley, speaks from New York, US about his experience in Nigeria
You are one of the expatriates brought into Nigeria for the Gotel media project and said to be owed salaries, how did you come in?
It has been five years now that we have been trying to get our money from Atiku Abubakar. I was brought to Nigeria from New York in early February 2015 to help Atiku run his Gotel media operations. I was hired as the head of technical operations and we were supposed to build Atiku a television operation in Abuja and help with its operation in Yola, Adamawa State. Atiku initially paid our salaries while I was there in Abuja but he never funded the operation in Abuja so we were never able to build anything for him or hire the personnel for the TV network that he asked for.
I was to oversee the technical staff and technical execution the TV broadcast. I was responsible for planning how the operations would go and for running that organisation. I put together many proposals and plans and submitted them to the management but we were told again and again that we could not do it at that moment because we didn’t have the required funds from Atiku. For example, we were covering the election that brought Buhari into office in 2015 and we wanted to provide good quality coverage for the audience but we were not able to get everywhere we wanted. We didn’t have access, we didn’t have all the cameras we wanted, and we didn’t have the broadcast capability that we needed so that people could see the reporting that we were trying to do. All the plans that we put together were submitted. We tried to make things happen again and again, unfortunately, we were told repeatedly that we didn’t have the resources and money that Atiku had promised.
And when we were in Yola, it was a similar situation. We were never given the funding to build for him what he asked and it was a one year contract that I was given through John Chiahemen and Gary Alphonso, who were the Managing Director and the Chief Operating Officer of Gotel that Atiku had hired. And from February to about August, things never got off the ground. Around September, we stopped getting paid. And we didn’t have any money despite being in Yola at the time.
Where did you live in Yola?
We were living in Yola on the compound that Atiku had given us himself. And we never received our salaries after that so I’m owed quite a considerable amount of money by Atiku. When we left, we had begun to discuss what the terms would be used for Atiku to pay what he owed and Atiku’s representatives, Paul Ibe (Atiku’s spokesperson) and some others, acknowledged that they owed the money and said they would pay, but they never did.
What reasons were given by Atiku and his representatives for not paying the money?
We were never given any reason. They stopped payment and for the most part, they ignored us and the one gentleman who reached out in April 2016, Ezekiel, one of Atiku’s representatives, sent me an email saying he had been instructed by the board of Gotel Communications to contact me about the subject of outstanding salaries. The board requested that we provide them some information and I provided all of that. I detailed all of my contracts and all of the money owed to me, everything else they had requested.
Ezekiel never reached out to us again. I did have contact with Paul Ibe who works with Atiku and he also did not give us any reason as to why but he acknowledged that the money was owed and I tried to contact him again to follow up but was not able to get in touch with him. He ignored us and stopped communicating with us.
How many months are you being owed?
I am owed for three months and a half—October, November and December of 2015, and I was given a portion of what I was supposed to be owed for September. So call it about three and a half months.
Were there other promises made to you before you were brought in that were not fulfilled?
Yes, it was that we would be provided a living arrangement in Abuja, set up with a place to live while we were working for Atiku in Abuja. We were never given that.
So where did you stay?
We stayed in Madugu Hotel for the entire time we were in Abuja. And what I think bothers me the most is that I came to Nigeria to help build a TV network for the people of Nigeria and the money that Atiku promised to fund that network with never came. He never gave us the resources that he promised us to build it.
Who took care of the hotel bills while you were there?
The hotel bills were never paid. As far as I understand, Madugu Hotel was operated by a friend of Atiku and on good faith, he allowed us to stay but as far I understand, the hotel bills were never paid by Atiku or by anybody at Gotel.
No one ever paid the bills and I believe the gentleman at Madugu is probably owed a good deal of money as well.
Did you ever wonder why you were brought into the country for a project and funds were not made available for it?
I can only suspect, I don’t know what happened. I suspect that when Atiku did not win his party’s nomination to be its presidential candidate and when it became clear that Muhammadu Buhari was going to be the President, Atiku decided it wasn’t worth putting in the money because he was not going to be President. I don’t know if Atiku saw value in it anymore if he wasn’t going to be President.
Does that mean the station was being set up for political reasons?
Yes, absolutely, I believe it was totally a political decision.
So since all of this happened in 2015, why did you wait till now to speak out?
We tried for many months afterwards, for most of 2016, we tried to negotiate and communicate to work in good faith with Atiku’s people, with Paul Ibe; Ezekiel; Atiku’s son, Abu. We worked for quite some time to communicate with them and find a resolution and eventually, they started to ignore us and we tried to get the information out there to the people in Yola and Abuja but it was not a story that anybody wanted to hear at the time.
When were your plans supposed to take off normally?
I came to Abuja in February (2015) and our first plan was to begin covering the elections and we were supposed to hit the ground running. We had very few resources but because we were a very strong team, we were able to get a few pieces of reporting put together. We were able to shoot films during the elections with some of the cameras that we personally brought. We were able to bring together small pieces here and there. I believe the rough plan was that sometime in the summer, we would have full funding to begin construction of a newsroom and studio in Abuja but those funds never came. I was on the ground in February and by summer time, we were supposed to begin the initial phases of building a studio and newsroom in Abuja.
Why did you just give in? Why didn’t you consider suing Atiku and Gotel before leaving Nigeria?
We contacted several lawyers in Nigeria to help but nobody wanted to take the case. The lawyers that we spoke to initially were very hesitant to file a lawsuit against the former VP of Nigeria because he was a very powerful and important gentleman.
Which lawyers were contacted?
I don’t want to speak on their behalf. We reached out to several lawyers; there was one lawyer who was willing to engage with us. He looked at our documents, contracts and agreed that Atiku owed the money but we never heard from him again. There were lawyers that I think in 2016 when Atiku’s favour was being courted by many of the politicians in Nigeria, were hesitant to move in a way that might upset Atiku or be seen as attacking Atiku.
How much are you being owed?
I’m owed a large amount of money, just over $25,000. It’s been some time. My family here has been able to help me but it has caused a lot of harm for me and my colleagues. My colleague, Hannington Osodo from Kenya, was especially hurt because he was attempting to purchase a house for his wife and family based on the promises made to him and those plans were completely destroyed because the money he was owed never came to him. He was unable to make things happen the way he needed to.
A recent statement from Atiku’s camp accused John Chiahemen of taking your money, which he has denied. What was his role in all of this?
John was the managing director hired by Atiku and John in turn hired us to execute Atiku’s vision. I think Atiku has acknowledged that money is owed. I don’t know what happened. I just know that the money that we are owed never came to us.
What did John tell you about the money?
John has said he doesn’t have our money. I have not spoken to him for some time but when I spoke to him in April 2016, he said Atiku had cut off the funding and didn’t have the money he needed to pay us. Punch