The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, on Thursday, said the outgoing United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. James Entwistle, did not have any credible evidence to prove the allegations of sexual misconduct against three members of the House of Representatives.
The three lawmakers are the Deputy Chairman, House Committee on Petroleum Resources (Upstream), Mr. Terse Mark-Gbillah (All Progressives Congress, Benue); Mr. Samuel Ikon (Peoples Democratic Party, Akwa Ibom); and Mr. Mohammed Garba-Gololo (APC, Bauchi).
The allegations are being investigated by the Joint House Committee on Ethics/Privileges and Foreign Relations chaired by Mr. Nicholas Ossai and Ms. Nnena Ukeje.
On Thursday, Onyeama said Entwistle, who wrote a petition to the Speaker, House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara on the alleged sexual misconduct against the lawmakers, did not provide any concrete evidence that would have proved the allegations.
Entwistle, in his June 9 letter to Dogara, alleged that the members behaved inappropriately towards a hotel housekeeper and solicited the services of car park attendants to get prostitutes for them.
But testifying before the committees in Abuja, the minister said Entwistle told him that all he did was to bring the allegations to the attention of Dogara, not that the US Government passed any judgment of guilt on the Nigerian legislators.
He said Entwistle described his letter as a ‘private, confidential letter’ to Dogara, merely to draw his attention to the fact that the allegations were made against his members, who visited the US in April.
Onyeama claimed that the Ambassador did not accept responsibilityfor the leakage of the letter to the public but apologised for not using the formal diplomatic channel of writing the Speaker through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The minister explained that when the matter was brought to his attention, he summoned Entwistle to verify it.
‘He told me that these were allegations and nothing more; that as far as they were concerned, the matter was closed.
‘That the allegations did not indicate a position that the ambassador had already passed a judgment or the US Government,’ Onyeama stated.
The minister said he was upset by the response of the ambassador and further asked for the evidence that led to his writing to Dogara.
Onyeama said Entwistle replied that the letter was written based on the allegations made by a hotel housekeeper and the park attendants just to keep Dogara informed of the development.
The minister added, ‘I said who made the allegations? He said a hotel maid or cleaner, who said Garba-Gololo made inappropriate request and approached her in the hotel.
‘But he now made it clear that the housekeeper would not testify; that she does not want to testify.
‘I was surprised that the person who made such a serious allegation was not willing to testify.
‘For the parking lot attendants, the ambassador said they identified the lawmakers in photographs.
‘I replied that there is clearly a possibility of a legal proceeding for defamation because I thought there was stronger evidence. Again, he apologised that his only point of writing Dogara was to pass information about those allegations.’
House members asked Onyeama to explain why the US withdrew the visas of the lawmakers if Entwistle claimed that there was no judgment or concrete evidence to prove the allegations.
The minister replied that the ambassador explained that the US had its rules of engagement, as the issue of who should get visa approval was at the ‘discretion of the US embassy.’
When asked what could be the possible penalties against the ambassador for his conduct, Onyeama said nothing could be done outside of the fact that the members could sue for defamation of character.
He expressed displeasure that neither himself nor the ministry was aware of the International Visitors’ Leadership Programme as the US opted to send invitations directly to the 10 members who attended the programme instead of routing it through the ministry.
Onyeama told the committees that the fact of the allegations being made in the first place without concrete evidence was a lesson for Nigerians on how to conduct themselves in other countries.
‘I will see this case as reminding your members not to put themselves in a position that could deny Nigerians participation in such programmes in the future. It is like a caution,’ he said.
Ukeje, who chairs the Committee on Foreign Relations, noted that there was a protocol breach in the fact the ministry was not aware of the programme.
She added, ‘Again, I am disturbed that there was no evidence like video recording, DNA; something strong to prove the allegations.’
When the committee gave Garba-Gololo, Mark-Gbillah and Ikon the opportunity to react to the turn of events, they stated that the development confirmed the innocence they had pleaded all the while.
‘I have been humiliated and embarrassed. It will take courage for me to continue with my daily activities. We demand apologies from the US,’ Garba-Gololo said.
On his part, Mark-Gbillah appealed to the committee to take the investigation further to the US so that he could at least confront his accusers one-on-one.
‘We will take this fight to the very end and the ambassador must take full responsibility for this harm he did to us,’ he said.
Ikon disagreed with the claim of the ambassador that he intended the letter to be a private, confidential communication between him and Dogara.
‘This letter was copied to all the 10 members who went on the trip. If you add the Speaker, that made the number 11.
‘It was not private, he knew what he was doing from the very beginning; it was premeditated,’ Ikon stated.
Meanwhile, Mark-Gbillah’s wife, Sophia, said she believed her husband did not commit the alleged act, adding that Mark-Gbillah had not cheated on her since 2007 when they got married.
Sophia advised women to stop assuming that all married men could cheat.
Garba-Gololo, Mark-Gbillah and Ikon were in the US to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Programme on Good Governance organised by the US Government.
The three legislators were on a team of 10 members nominated to attend the leadership programme, which took place in Cleveland, Ohio, between April 7 and 13 this year.
While there, Entwistle’s petition alleged they solicited the services of prostitutes through car park attendants and assaulted a female hotel housekeeper.