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Bola Ahmed Tinubu: From Drug Lord To Presidential Candidate
From Gary, Indiana to Abuja, Nigeria via a stopover in Chicago. Here is how the bagman for a 1990's Chicago drug ring has become a frontrunner for Nigeria's most powerful office. And then some.
“The 1990s were a crazy time.”
- John Kelly, White House chief of staff 2017 - 2019
On October 11, 1990, federal agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) knocked on the front door of 460, Taft Place in the city of Gary, Indiana. Once a booming steel town with a population approaching 180,000 in 1960, Gary was one of a number of cities and towns across the US suffering from severe population loss, among other adverse effects of overseas competition on their mainstay industries. From having over 30,000 employees at its peak in 1970, the city’s main employer U.S. Steel Gary Works retained just 6,000 employees in 1990.
In these circumstances, this city and its 77 percent African-American population were witnessing explosive growth in one of the few industries guaranteed to boom in response to such difficult circumstances. 42 year-old Lee Andrew Edwards was one of the entrepreneurs who had found a place in the heroin trade, and by all accounts he had done well for himself. With the proceeds from his illegal business, he had bought 2 residential homes including 460, Taft Place, an apartment building, a liquor store and a new car - all paid for with cash.
According to court records from the United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, the DEA agents arrived at the property to execute a search warrant after a 7-month FBI investigation involving Edwards’s brother Jimmie, implicated him as the narcotics kingpin of Gary. Edwards did not open the door for the agents, who were forced to break into the house. He instead fired 3 gunshots at them, after which he surrendered.
DEA agents found weapons including a carbine rifle, thousands of dollars in cash, drug prepping equipment including a triple-beam scale, and several grams of cocaine and heroin powder in the house. He was later sentenced to life in prison, but not before something about his business operation came to the fore.
Two Drug Dealers And An Accountant: A Partnership Begins
Federal investigators had determined that Edwards’s heroin supply came from a Nigerian drug dealer in Chicago called Abiodun Agbele. Abiodun had earlier agreed to work for the feds in exchange for lighter sentencing, and as part of the plea deal, he revealed everything he knew about the heroin trade in Chicago.
Located at the junction of 4 states with combined population exceeding 27 million at the time, Chicago was a key trafficking hub in the American heroin trade. And as it turned out, the wholesale trade of an especially potent form of heroin from Southeast Asia (SEA) in 1990s Chicago was controlled by Nigerian criminal gangs.
The following excerpt is taken from the January 2001 Illinois Drug Threat Assessment published by the US Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Centre:
“Nigerian criminal groups are responsible for wholesale distribution of most of the SEA heroin shipped into Chicago. SEA heroin, which is 80-90 percent pure, is being sold by Nigerian traffickers for $80,000-$110,000 per kilogram. Wholesalers in Chicago usually sell heroin without cutting it to minimize their handling of the product and their exposure to law enforcement.”
Agbele himself was no criminal mastermind however. As he testified under oath, that honour belonged to a man who went by the name of Adegboyega Mueez Akande, who was apparently his uncle. Shortly after Agbele’s arrival in the US, Akande had taken him under his wing and showed him the ropes of wholesale heroin trafficking. When Akande returned to Nigeria in mid-1990, Agbele was left in charge of selling regular heroin shipments from Nigeria to Lee Edwards and delivering the profits to his uncle.
In the meantime, the Nigerian-led heroin trade in Chicago fed an addiction epidemic that became so bad that it changed local health and law enforcement practises. For the first time, providing addicts with free access to safe syringes and needles to ensure that they did not share them and possibly spread HIV became a core focus of public health policy. In other words, SEA heroin from Nigeria was so potent and addictive that public health policy in Chicago shifted away from trying to make heroin addicts stop using altogether, and merely ensuring that they used “safely.”
One notable organisation that did such outreach work with heroin addicts was the Chicago Recovery Alliance (CRA). I reached out to its current executive director John Werning to get a sense of how the heroin epidemic changed law enforcement practises from the 1990s to date in Chicago. His comments were predictably grim:
“Heroin of course, has consequences, right? But I think we would probably say that the the more major impact is the draconian laws around how heroin was policed. I think that it's pretty well established that there was a very specific targeting of folks who use drugs generally, but also heroin in particular, and it was mostly targeted towards the policing of black and brown communities.
That's not specific to Chicago. I think that's across the nation. But just in general, I think [there was a] lack of compassion by government entities to give people access to the treatment that they need, or nonviolent drug possession and mandatory minimum sentencing. I mean, there's a ton of different aspects of this that absolutely eviscerated populations, particularly marginalised populations in Chicago, and that's probably the advocates view on this.
Now, whether or not that that can be translated into a comment about the international drug trade, and specifically from, you said, Nigeria, I just don't know, but that's definitely more like domestic politics than international.”
While all of this was going on, an interesting sub-plot was taking place in the background. An accountant living in the Chicago area who worked for Mobil Oil Nigeria with a declared monthly income of $2,400 had just deposited over $1.4 million in the bank. He had no known source of income apart from his day job, but he had become friends with Akande and Agbele, discovering one key piece of information in the process - drug dealers need accountants too.
Soon he would find himself holding and wiring money on behalf of a Nigerian heroin gang in Chicago. Fast forward a bit to January 1992 and he would find himself the subject of a US federal investigation
Fast forward a bit further in the same year and he would successfully run for office in Nigeria as a senator for Lagos West. Then another politician said to have ties to international drug trafficking would successfully run for president in Nigeria on a controversial all-Muslim ticket in 1993.
The election would be annulled, the politician jailed, and ultimately another Nigerian military coup would take place in 1994. The accountant would find himself exiled and working with the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) to unseat a kleptocrat military dictator. Then the dictator would unexpectedly drop dead one day in 1998, followed in quick succession by the jailed politician with the alleged drug links.
The accountant would return a hero, and successfully run for governor of Lagos in 1999. The kleptocrat dictator’s bagman who helped launder over $4 billion would become the accountant’s new bestie, as an erstwhile Chicago drug gang’s “loader” would start his new lifetime mission of capturing Africa’s largest subnational economy and turning it into his personal “aza.”
A major political opponent of the accountant would end up strangled to death in his bedroom 10 months to an election which his chosen candidate would go on to win. Said opponent’s son would subsequently be offered a cushy job working for that candidate. He would accept the offer… If you’re already struggling to follow this unlikely sequence of events, don’t worry, it gets worse.
“The 1990s were a crazy time.”
Bola Ahmed Tinubu - The Origin Story
A US District Court would seem like an odd place to begin this story, but this is no ordinary story. The main character in this story is an individual whose entire existence is as puzzlingly mysterious as it is loud and public. For at least 30 years, Bola Ahmed Tinubu has been at or near the grinding face of frontline politics in Nigeria, yet a peek one inch below the surface reveals how little is actually known about the man who some say is Nigeria’s president-in-waiting.
First of all there is the age controversy. How old is the man really? What is his real date of birth? Short answer, no one actually knows. Like many Nigerians born into the less-than-auspicious circumstances that characterised his childhood in Iragbiji, Osun State, he himself may not even know. Similar controversy exists around what his actual name is. A popular theory is that “Bola Ahmed Tinubu” is an identity that he transitioned into at some point after moving to Lagos to live with his surrogate mother, Alhaja Abibatu Mogaji.
The only thing every version of his life story has in common is that for the first 2 decades or so, he was apparently invisible and unmemorable. There are no childhood friends, classmates, neighbours or colleagues that remember him. Sometime in the mid 1970s, he somehow materialised at the international airport in Lagos holding a passport with a US visa and a one-way ticket to Chicago in hand. From his arrival in Chicago in 1975, his story became easier to track and verify.
He first spent 2 years gaining an Associate degree at Richard J. Daley College in Chicago. From there, he proceeded on to Chicago State University where he studied Accounting, completing his Bachelor’s degree in 1979. Subsequently, his story appeared straightforward and prosaic - got a job as an accountant at Mobil Oil Nigeria Ltd in Fairfax, Virginia, got married to Oluremi, and went on to have 3 kids with her. Well after, you know, 3 fruitful indiscretions, shall we say. Ahem.
In a 2016 interview with TheNews, Tinubu claimed that his break into the financial big time came at the Big 4 consultancy firm Deloitte & Touche, where he supposedly received an $850,000 bonus as a result of his work on a single onsite engagement at the Saudi state-owned oil firm.
For anyone with even a passing knowledge of corporate consulting remuneration, the categorical dishonesty in the screenshot above needs no explanation. For everyone else, here is a current breakdown of the maximum amount a Partner (the highest attainable position) can realistically expect to earn at Deloitte USA.
Bearing in mind that the time period in question was sometime in the mid 1980s, $850,000 adjusted for the roughly 2.74 percent annual dollar inflation rate over the intervening 37 years comes to about $2,300,000 in today’s money. Even more incredibly, Tinubu claimed that he was awarded such a bonus when he was essentially less than 5 years into his career as an accountant, never mind making Partner.
While the interview in question contains several other giant fibs, this one stands out specifically, because it is the first time in the Tinubu story where he himself acknowledges and tries to explain the fact that he once had a lot more money than a simple accountant working a 9-5 consultancy job could reasonably account for at that point in his career. This point becomes more important later in this story.
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In any case, one does not need an economic study or a Glassdoor salary survey to establish that Tinubu was blatantly lying about where the “$1.8 million” sitting in his account came from. A document whose existence has long been teased and rumoured, but never quite properly dissected in the public domain tells us all we need to know. This document, which was obtained from the US District Court of the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division, contains damning information that Tinubu has spent the past 30 years trying to suppress, undermine and ignore.
Uploaded in full and publicly accessible here, the document contains federal case files from July 1993 containing clear and incontrovertible evidence that Bola Ahmed Tinubu was once in fact, a bagman handling and laundering proceeds of heroin trafficking for a Nigerian drug ring in Chicago.
This is not the first time that the contents of this document have been reported, but the stories have typically not gone into the detail needed to drive home the point that the man who would be Nigeria’s next president is in fact, a drug criminal. Tinubu’s vast army of media shills and spokespeople have spun an endless web of narratives explaining why what is written in black and white is all a big mistake or a mischaracterisation. One of the most common defenses is seen in the example below:
Taking advantage of the Nigerian knowledge gap that typically misunderstands how US federal indictments work and how they differ from criminal convictions, such narratives have been floating around the Nigerian media ever since Tinubu became Lagos State governor in 1999. Explaining the efficiency of indictments in the US, H. Michael Steinberg, founder of The Steinberg Colorado Criminal Defense Law Firm says:
“What are the chances for a ‘not guilty’ verdict if a federally charged criminal defendant takes the case to trial? Statistically not very good. Currently federal prosecutors tout above a 95% conviction rate. This is primarily due to the fact that most cases never make it to trial. Most defendants end up taking a plea bargain rather then risk a potentially much greater prison sentence which could be dealt them if they actually went to trial and lost.”
In other words, America’s feds are very good at their jobs, and the likelihood of a federal indictment not being accurate is roughly 5 percent - basically, not very much. But could Tinubu perhaps have been part of that 5 percent? And if not, what happened that prevented a conviction?
Among the dozens of documents in the case file, there is a sworn statement by IRS Special Agent Kevin Moss who personally investigated Bola Tinubu’s financial activities in the lead-up to Lee Edwards’s arrest. Here, we reunite with our old friends Abiodun Agbele and Adegboyega Mueez Akande as we pick our way through our hero’s forbidden past.
In the interest of brevity, here is a Cliff Notes version:
The US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Michael Shepard files the complaint for forfeiture of funds in bank accounts held by Tinubu as they hold the proceeds of a heroin distribution organization headed by Adegboyega Mueez Akande. Tinubu’s funds represent the “proceeds of this operation or property involved in money laundering” and the “proceeds of narcotics trafficking.” Shepard requests that the Court adjudge and decree that the funds should be forfeited to the United States.
Special Agent Moss has analysed financial documents including bank statements, money orders, cashier’s checks, tax returns, and “wire transfers of huge amounts of cash generated by individuals who are believed to be members of this heroin distribution organization,” and he reaches a professional conclusion that the accounts controlled by Tinubu “were involved in financial transactions representing proceeds of drug trafficking.”
The investigation, which began in 1988 has identified Adegboyega Mueez Akande, and his nephew, Abiodun Agbele as key figures in the trade and distribution of heroin. The investigation identifies the third individual working with the duo to launder their money as a certain Bola Tinubu.
In December 1989, Akande takes Tinubu to a First Heritage Bank to open an individual money market account. On the application, Tinubu gives his address as 7504 South Stewart Avenue, Chicago, which is the same address Akande uses as his heroin trap house. Special Agent Moss discovers that Mrs. Oluremi Tinubu has previously opened a joint account at the same bank with Audrey Akande, wife of Adegboyega Mueez Akande.
On January 4, 1990, just 5 days after opening the account, Tinubu deposits $80,000 into it. On a subsequent credit application dated January 6, 1990, Tinubu states that he is an employee of Mobil Oil Nigeria Limited, with a total monthly salary of $2,400 and no other sources of income. He gives his address as 7504 South Stewart, and lists Akande as his cousin.
Despite earning $2,400 a month with no other known source of income, bank records from First Heritage Bank show that over the course of 1990 alone, Bola Tinubu deposits $661,000 into his individual money market account, followed by a further $1,216,500 in 1991. (If you’re paying attention, that is roughly equal to the $1,800,000 he would later claim he made from Deloitte bonuses and salary deposits).
When Special Agent Moss interviews Mobil Oil reps about Tinubu’s employment, they confirm that Tinubu works at Mobil Oil Nigeria as a treasurer, in a capacity that does not involve transfer or custody of large amounts of money. Moss also discovers that Tinubu has failed to file US income tax returns since 1984.
On January 10, 1992, a court order is obtained to freeze some of Tinubu’s bank accounts containing the suspected proceeds of heroin trafficking in excess of $1,400,000.
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On January 13, 1992, during a telephone conversation from Nigeria with Special Agent Moss, Tinubu admits to the Agent that he knows Akande and that he had previously wire transferred $100,000 to Akande’s account in Houston. Further, Tinubu says that the $80,000 he deposited into the First Heritage Bank came from Akande. Tinubu also reveals that he had additional bank accounts in Fairfax, Virginia and London, UK.
Speaking over the telephone with Special Agent Moss on January 14, 1992, Tinubu admits that he knows Agbele and that he met him through Akande. Tinubu admits he has associated with Agbele and Akande in the US and Nigeria. In this conversation, Tinubu denies having any additional bank accounts in the US
On January 24, 1992, following a seizure warrant to freeze over $500,000 of unexplained funds in Tinubu’s Citibank account, Citibank discovers 2 additional bank accounts controlled by Tinubu under the name of “Compass Finance and Investment Company Ltd.” Citibank’s account-opening KYC records bring up a Memorandum of Association and Articles of Organization identifying Akande and Agbele as directors of Compass Finance and Investment Company Ltd.
Between January 30 and 31, 1992, Tinubu does an about-face and tells US agents that he has never had any business association or financial relationship with Agbele or Akande. This statement directly contradicts his earlier statements and the documentation from Citibank and First Heritage Bank.
Special Agent Moss concludes in his submission, that based upon this evidence, there is probable cause to believe that a number of Tinubu’s accounts are involved in narcotics transactions. The Court concurs and orders the forfeiture on August 18, 1993.
Tinubu opts to fight the case, claiming that the money is legitimate and it belongs to his adoptive uncle Kafaru Tinubu, and his surrogate mother Alhaja Habibat Mogaji. Ultimately, he enters into a settlement with the US government on September 15, 1993, agreeing to forfeit $460,000 of the heroin trafficking proceeds to the US government. The balance of roughly $1 million is released to him
Why did the US authorities adopt this approach instead of going the whole hog and insisting on litigation so as to obtain the full amount? The US Justice Department’s guidelines for asset settlements to settle cases provide the answer in plain English.
In any case, the ascent of Abacha and his rabid anti-American posturing very quickly led to a shift in US government priorities. Anyone who was onboard with NADECO and promoting democracy in the face of Abacha’s fascism became an ally. Even if just a few years before, they had contributed to a heroin epidemic on the streets of Chicago. As anyone with some knowledge of the CIA-Contra Crack Cocaine affair would know, even Uncle Sam can turn a blind eye to drug dealers when they are working in his interests.
Also, remember, it was the 90s. The 90s were a crazy time.
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More Holes In The Tinubu Story - And A Cameo From The Kids
At the time when Tinubu informed the US authorities that he was a lowly treasurer at Mobil on $2,400 a month after having apparently been the world’s most generously remunerated junior Deloitte accountant, he was doing some decidedly non-lowly things in the background. While working on this story, a bit of research across US land registries threw up a few pearlers like this from the Land Records Department at Prince George’s County, Maryland.
On January 20, 1992, barely 10 days after Agent Moss made first contact with Tinubu via telephone, Tinubu purchased a 4-bedroom, 3,016 square foot home at 10111 Limestone Court, Potomac, Maryland 20854 for the miserly sum of $450,000. Paid in full and upfront, by the way.
For reference, this is what the property looks like.
This was about 10 days before he did his about-face to Agent Moss, denying having a financial relationship with his heroin trafficking buddies Agbele and Akande. The obvious question raised here is one about timing. Was Tinubu attempting to hide money from the US authorities by parking it in real estate once he realised they were on to him? Where did the funds to carry out this transaction even come from, at a time when his accounts were being frozen right, left and centre?
More real estate record searches raise even more questions about several other parts of the accepted Tinubu story, including his self-characterisation as a bedraggled hero of the democratic struggle and the NADECO movement under General Sani Abacha. In the above-mentioned interview, he claimed that following Abacha’s coup and his eventual exit from Nigeria, he was forced to live almost like a pauper after the Nigerian government stripped him of all he had. Describing his weary but triumphant return home from exile, he said:
And yet the Prince George’s County Land Records Department would beg to differ because here was our tragic impoverished hero of the NADECO struggle casually dropping the minor sum of $147,000 in 1995 for a 3-bedroom, 1668 square foot home at 12625 Hillmeade Station Drive, Prince Georges, Maryland 20720. He would go on to trouser a tidy $13,000 profit when he sold it on just 3 years later.
He was at it again in 1997, putting down the modest sum of $491,465 on a 4,558 square foot property at 1708 Parkside Drive, Mitchellville, Maryland 20720. Again, all cash. He would go on to sell this property in September 2018 for $700,000.
What is more, these weird transactions did not end in 1999 or stop with our hero and his wife. Even their 2 youngest children, Habibat Oyindamola Tinubu and Zainab Abisola Tinubu got in on the act fairly recently
Aged 32 and 30 respectively, 2 of the 3 youngest members of Bola Tinubu’s family have managed to escape scrutiny, mostly because Freedom Of Information in Nigeria is still more aspiration than fact. Not so in America, where a plethora of services can pull up all kinds of records including birthdays, criminal convictions and real estate transactions. Especially real estate transactions.
Such as the ones where a 25 year-old with no known employment or source of income was able to pay $2,150,000 in 2014 for a deluxe condo at 55, Berry Street, Brooklyn, New York, NY 11249.
Full and upfront cash payment, by the way. No mortgage.
Or real estate transactions where the 25 year-old’s 22 year-old sister who was fresh out of music school with no known source of income, was able to pay $2,400,000 cash to buy a deluxe apartment at 255 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10013 using the 1-inch thick fig leaf that was a company she herself owned.
Bola Tinubu’s good fortune, it seems fair to say, could well be genetically transmitted. What are the odds that the only junior accountant in the world to earn an $850,000 bonus on a single engagement would turn out to have children who buy luxury real estate in New York for millions of dollars while being unemployed with no clear source of income? Not great, but here we are.
Bola Ahmed Tinubu - A Man Of Destiny
In the course of researching this story, a name that kept coming up repeatedly as a comparison to Nigeria’s teflon Asiwaju was a certain Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola. When the Daily Beast took a stab at this story some years ago, a tantalising hint was mentioned in passing about an unimaginable parallel between 1993 and 2023
I reached out to everyone I could think of with some knowledge of the affair. Most declined to speak, citing unspoken concerns. Only Prof Gary K. Busch, a notable African political risk analyst and one time Professor of African Studies at the University of Hawaii agreed to say his piece. His lengthy comment went as follows:
“The Nigerian military on the Council were adamant that the Babangida government should never allow Abiola to run for office and told President Babangida so during the aborted runoff primaries before the election. The basis for their concern about Abiola was the information and documentation being circulated in Washington, London and Lagos of Abiola's alleged ties to the drugs business.
The US, in particular, had expressed its strong opposition to IBB about the candidacy of Abiola as President; not because of his politics or allegations of corruption, but rather for the evidence they felt was correct about Abiola's alleged drugs connections. This issue was raised in the Military Council on three occasions and Babangida was warned. He refused to take a decision until it was almost too late. US Ambassador Lannon Walker and the British Consul visited IBB and warned him about Abiola but Babangida dithered which made the impact worse as the polling had begun.
When he finally decided to intervene and stop the election, he precipitated the crisis of June 12. His friends in the military supported him but felt let down by IBB's lack of decisiveness. While there was consternation in Nigeria about the ouster of Abiola, the major international partners of Nigeria were not upset or concerned because they know what the reasons were for the development.”
Was the 1993 election annulled because of MKO Abiola’s alleged drug ties? Bola Tinubu for one, would certainly hope not. Not only does he have very real and proven drug ties in addition to explicitly positioning himself as the assumed successor to MKO as the political leader of Nigeria’s Yoruba ethnic group, but he has also picked a Muslim running mate ahead of next year’s elections. The only other electoral frontrunner in Nigeria’s history to do that was - no prizes for guessing.
Still, if anybody can manage to avoid having this particular bolt of lightning strike twice, it could well be Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the luckiest politician in Africa. When he needed money to launch a political career in the 90s after all, he apparently had $1.8 million saved up from bonuses and salary payments as a junior accountant at Deloitte. Very handy.
When his chosen successor faced a near-certain electoral defeat in 2007, the more popular frontrunner coincidentally turned up dead inside his bedroom in Dolphin Estate, Ikoyi - one of the safest neighbourhoods in Nigeria. He had been strangled to death. Naturally, the chosen successor then won the election. Happy coincidence.
When he backed a candidate against the incumbent president in 2015, his good friend Gilbert Chagoury, the former kleptomaniac’s bagman happened to have an excellent relationship with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. She just happened to ignore recommendations from the State Department and intelligence services to proscribe Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation, effectively allowing it gain critical mass and make the government of the day unpopular. His candidate duly won the election. Lucky guy.
When a former business partner Dapo Apara took him to court over financial impropriety and money laundering at Alpha Beta Consultants - basically his little straw into the Lagos State treasury - the court became the first court in the history of Lagos to burn to the ground and have its files destroyed. The case has yet to be refiled. Which is absolutely coincidental and very regrettable.
The 1990s were a crazy time. And the 2020s are even crazier.
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