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Nigeria sent cash to a fund Rev. Henry Lyons controlled
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- Subject: Nigeria sent cash to a fund Rev. Henry Lyons controlled
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- Date: Thu, 04 Dec 1997 10:58:08 -0500
Please find below the article that appeared in the St. Petersburg Times
and was published November 25, 1997. It is the most well researched
and comprehensive investigation into the relationship between the
Nigerian government and Rev. Henry Lyons, president of the National
Baptist Convention USA.
Nigeria sent cash to Lyons fund
By DAVID BARSTOW, MIKE WILSON and MONICA DAVEY
©St. Petersburg Times, published November 25, 1997
During a period when the Rev. Henry J. Lyons lobbied the Clinton
administration and Congress to soften opposition to the military
government of Nigeria, a total of $350,000 was deposited into a secret
bank account controlled by Lyons.
The source of the money: the Nigerian government.
As the money poured in, Lyons was establishing himself as one of
America's most visible and important spokesmen for the regime of Gen.
Sani Abacha, who seized power in the African nation in a palace coup in
Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, sent
convention members on "fact-finding" missions to Nigeria, vigorously
lobbied influential black members of Congress and pitched the Nigerian
point of view to the National Security Council at the White House.
The three deposits into Lyons' secret account -- the Baptist Builder
Fund at the United Bank in St. Petersburg -- occurred between April
1996 and February 1997. The checks came from Nigeria's Permanent
Mission to the United Nations. Over the past few years, the mission has
played a significant role in financing the Abacha government's
multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign in the United States.
The checks -- for $200,000, $50,000 and $100,000 -- were made out to
the National Baptist Convention Education Fund or to the National
Baptist Convention Fund. No record of the deposits appears in
convention financial reports and several convention board members said
they knew nothing of them.
It is a felony under federal law to lobby for a foreign government
without filing formal registration papers with the Justice Department.
Lyons did not register. Government officials do not recall Lyons
informing them about the $350,000 deposited to the Baptist Builder
Fund, over which he had sole control.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which staunchly opposed the
Abacha government, were shocked when Lyons lobbied them in July 1996.
"We didn't know what kind of compensation he was receiving, but we knew
from what he said that he was working for the government some kind of
way," said Rep. Harold Ford Sr., D-Tenn., now retired. "If he had told
us that he was a paid lobbyist for Nigeria, he never would have been
allowed to come before the caucus."
Lyons declined to be interviewed for this story, but his attorney
released a statement from Lyons' office on Monday. The one-page
statement did not address the deposits to Lyons' secret account, nor
did it address his lobbying activities. It referred only to an
expense-paid trip that Lyons and others took to Nigeria in July.
"No member was under any obligation, whatsoever, to endorse the
political views of Nigeria's government or its people," the statement
According to the statement, "this office or one of its representatives
consulted certain African-American members of Congress prior to the
delegation traveling to Nigeria -- for the purpose of learning any
concerns such members might have."
In an interview with the Times after returning from his trip, Lyons
denied that he had been asked to become a paid lobbyist or agent for
"I'm a man, I support my family, I'm not going to sit here and say I'm
going to turn down some money, but that never came up," he said then.
"My effort has been strictly from a humanitarian point of view and
right now that's strictly what it is."
Nigeria's Permanent Mission, the country's diplomatic liaison to the
United Nations, has "no evidence . . . that we made any payments to Dr.
Lyons," according to deputy defense adviser Yusuf Mshelia.
Asked whether the mission wrote checks to the National Baptist
Convention Education Fund or the National Baptist Convention Fund,
Mshelia would not answer.
Lyons' transition from religious leader to lobbyist began in 1995.
At the time, Nigeria's military dictatorship was facing a serious image
problem in the United States.
The State Department had reported a catalog of abuses by the Abacha
administration: crushed protest marches, harassment of pro-democracy
groups, the imprisonment and assassination of political rivals. The
Clinton administration denounced Nigeria as a hub of the world heroin
trade and denied entry visas to Nigerian officials and their families.
The Abacha government responded by hiring a battalion of Washington
lobbyists to get the United States to rethink its policies toward
Nigeria. The Nigerian government spent millions; one firm received
$2.5-million over three years.
The most visible lobbyist for Nigeria was the Rev. Maurice Dawkins, 76,
a former Baptist minister and unsuccessful Republican candidate for the
U.S. Senate in Virginia in 1988.
In July 1995, Dawkins helped the lobbying firm of Symms, Lehn &
Associates land a $350,000 contract with the Abacha government.
Dawkins' job was to present Nigeria as a modern, flourishing country
moving toward democracy under the shrewd leadership of Abacha.
Meanwhile, he portrayed U.S. policy as racist. Why else does the United
States grant most favored nation trading status to China but not
Dawkins pitched these ideas to black leaders, who strongly influence
U.S. policy toward Africa. But there was a problem: Almost every member
of the Congressional Black Caucus regarded Abacha as a brutal leader
who promised democracy even as he held Nigeria's elected president in
So Dawkins tried to reach African-Americans by appealing to the people
who speak to them -- preachers and black newspaper publishers.
In September 1995, he sent a group of black publishers on a tour of
Nigeria. The Nigerian government paid all expenses. Several of the
black newspapers later published special sections touting Abacha as "a
family man" and "a historical figure." Dawkins wrote some of the copy.
Then Abacha made Dawkins' job harder.
On Nov. 10, 1995, Abacha's government ignored international appeals and
executed writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others. A military
tribunal convicted the activists of inciting a riot that led to the
deaths of four pro-government tribal leaders.
The activists were hanged without an appeal days after their
Suddenly Abacha wasn't merely unpopular; he was viewed as a pariah.
Nelson Mandela called Nigeria's government "an illegitimate, barbaric,
arrogant dictatorship." Fifty-four influential black Americans,
including Bill Cosby and Coretta Scott King, sent Clinton a letter
demanding a harsh response. In Congress, bills were introduced calling
for a ban on new investment in Nigeria.
There was talk of an oil embargo. This would have been a serious blow
to Nigeria, which supplies 600,000 barrels a day to the United States
and gets 80 percent of its government revenues from oil.
Nigeria countered with a newspaper ad campaign, but that wasn't going
to be enough. The Abacha regime needed a spokesman, someone prominent
and well connected who could counter the Bill Cosbys and Coretta Scott
Henry J. Lyons was just the kind of person Abacha had been looking for.
Lyons claimed to represent 8.5-million black Baptists. President
Clinton sought his advice and support. He had useful contacts in the
Congressional Black Caucus.
Weeks after the nine activists were hanged, Dawkins sent a group of
ministers on another expenses-paid trip to Nigeria. Among them were the
Rev. James Rogers of Las Vegas and the Rev. Russell Odom of West Palm
Both had close ties to Lyons. Rogers was a member of the National
Baptist Convention board. Odom had served as Lyons' political director
when Lyons was president of the convention's Florida branch.
Along with Dawkins, these men would attempt to get Lyons interested in
In January 1996, Odom sent Lyons a packet of pro-Nigeria literature.
Rogers and Dawkins followed up with phone calls.
The National Baptist Convention had shown little, if any, interest in
Nigeria during Lyons' presidency. Available records show the subject
did not come up at convention meetings in 1994 and 1995. The convention
hadn't sponsored a mission in Nigeria since 1962.
But now Lyons was receptive. He had often hired himself out as a
spokesman for political causes. Lyons had worked for Democrats and
Republicans, management and labor, sometimes shifting his views
depending on who was paying him.
In March, Lyons sent a delegation to monitor local elections in
Nigeria. He called it his Task Force on Africa and put Rogers in
charge. The task force also included Odom and the convention's first
Rogers said the delegation met privately with Abacha, who spoke of
wanting to enlist America's black leaders in Nigeria's cause. Rogers
said the delegation emphasized Lyons' stature and influence.
They stayed a week, traveling in government Mercedes-Benz limos,
shopping with hundreds of dollars also provided by the Nigerians,
Rogers said. The delegation originally had planned to meet with top
political prisoners, he said, but never got around to it.
When the delegates left, their government handlers presented them with
souvenir tie-dye T-shirts.
Dawkins -- whose firm so far had been paid $350,000 to represent
Nigeria -- would later boast that he "enlisted the support of Dr. Henry
Lyons . . . and launched a nationwide petition campaign to battle for
the mind of President Clinton."
On April 9, Lyons had an opportunity to do just that. Clinton hosted a
reception for a group of ministers at the White House, and Lyons was
there. The White House won't say whether Lyons talked to Clinton about
Nigeria that night, or ever.
Five days later, a check for $200,000 was deposited into the Baptist
Builder Fund, Lyons' secret account. The check was drawn on an account
at a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in New York City.
That account, #0141147009, belonged to the Permanent Mission of
To people in the business of lobbying for Nigeria, the account sounds
familiar. One lobbyist, Jeff Birrell, said he once received a $100,000
payment from a Chase Manhattan account belonging to the Permanent
The lobbying firm Dawkins worked for dealt exclusively with Col.
Mohammed Marwa, then the defense adviser attached to the mission. Marwa
often hired lobbyists. He also briefed Odom and Rogers before their
December trip to Nigeria.
"His assignment was to buy as much support as possible for the junta,"
said Julius Ihonvbere, a member of the Nigerian opposition in the
Lyons' support was needed now more than ever. The U.S. Senate was
considering legislation to impose new sanctions on Nigeria. Also that
May, the internationally respected Committee to Protect Journalists
named Abacha to its list of the world's top-ten Enemies of the Press.
Abacha was No. 3 on the list, just behind China's Deng Xiaoping, but
several notches above Fidel Castro.
On June 3, another check from the Permanent Mission of Nigeria was
deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund.
The amount: $50,000.
The next day, Nigeria's image problems worsened. Kudirat Abiola, mother
of seven and wife of the imprisoned winner of Nigeria's 1993
presidential election, was murdered near a military checkpoint. Armed
men pulled Mrs. Abiola out of her car and shot her in the forehead.
Days later, Lyons had another opportunity to lobby the Clinton
administration. On June 8, he attended a private reception for Hillary
Rodham Clinton at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg. Mrs.
Clinton's spokesman would not say whether Lyons spoke to her about
Later that month, a Nigerian government official addressed the board of
the National Baptist Convention in St. Louis. According to minutes of
that meeting, the representative "appealed to the convention to share
in leading a crusade to change present United States policy toward
Rogers, who had led the task force to Nigeria, was in St. Louis. He
spoke to Lyons about Nigeria. Lyons didn't mention deposits into the
Baptist Builder Fund, Rogers said.
He was not entirely surprised when a reporter told him of the deposits.
As early as January 1996, Rogers said, he had heard gossip of such
payments among top convention officials.
"I was told there was supposedly money transferred over from Nigeria,"
Nigeria talk angers
The Congressional Black Caucus has long opposed the Abacha government.
Lyons set out to change that.
In the summer of 1996, Russell Odom asked then-Rep. Harold Ford Sr. to
put Lyons on the agenda for a meeting of the caucus. Odom said Lyons
would talk about issues of interest to the caucus -- nutrition,
education, and so on. Odom never mentioned Nigeria, Ford said.
As a member of Lyons' religious denomination, Ford set up the meeting.
Lyons addressed the caucus on a Wednesday in July. Instead of talking
about social issues, he argued that the United States should normalize
relations with the Abacha regime.
Few in the caucus would have considered that idea. Rep. Donald M.
Payne, D-N.J., then the caucus chairman, was the man who introduced a
bill to stiffen U.S. sanctions against the Nigerian government. His
successor, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., was a co-sponsor.
In an interview, Waters said she thought Lyons' stance was naive.
"I just feel that some of these people who lobby on behalf of Nigeria
really don't understand what they're doing. They're involved in an
international question that they don't understand the enormity of," she
Still, she and others were livid over Lyons' presentation. They had no
idea Lyons was coming to speak on Nigeria. They felt blindsided.
"Maxine Waters and everybody else raised pure hell. I had to tell my
colleagues that I had nothing to do with it," Ford said. "I was totally
taken aback and felt like I was ambushed."
Did he know Lyons' account had received six-figure deposits from the
"No," Ford said. "Are you kidding me?"
Waters had a similar reaction. Asked what she would think if she found
out Lyons' account had received $350,000, Waters sounded stunned.
There was a pause.
And then: "I'd be shocked, I'd be absolutely shocked and pained," she
said. "I hope that is not true."
Any person who seeks to influence U.S. government officials "at the
order, request, or under the direction or control" of a foreign
government must register with the Justice Department as a foreign
Foreign agents are required to fill out extensive reports describing
who hired them, how much they were paid, which U.S. officials they met,
and what they discussed.
It's the law, and those who "willfully" violate it are guilty of a
felony. The punishment is up to $10,000 in fines, five years in prison,
Though prosecutions are rare, the purpose of the law is to deter other
countries from covertly shaping U.S. foreign policy through front
groups, disguised propaganda campaigns or the secret recruitment of
influential figures. The law was a response to just such efforts by
Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus said it was clear what Lyons
was trying to do. "We were definitely lobbied," Waters said. "He did
lobby us. I don't think he'd deny that."
Sessions with Clinton
In September 1996, about 20,000 members of the National Baptist
Convention assembled in Orlando for its 116th annual meeting.
Lyons introduced his guest of honor -- "our friend for many years" --
President Clinton, who came seeking support from a key constituency for
The next day, Lyons spoke at length about Nigeria in his annual address
to the convention. According to the text of his speech, Lyons echoed
themes and arguments Dawkins and other Nigerian lobbyists had been
making for months.
"It is the contention of this country that due to the "infighting' in
Nigeria, America cannot allow its products and goods to be brought on
U.S. soil," Lyons began. "When the Chinese were committing their crimes
against humanity, did the flow of money brought by the exchange of
goods and services cease in America? . . . The answer is no! Only when
it is a black nation, managed by black people, does the nation of
America get involved to the point of negative impact on a people. The
stoppage of products, goods and services is hurting Black America and
it is killing Nigeria!"
Lyons announced that the convention's board of directors planned to
deliver a resolution to the White House and the Congressional Black
Caucus demanding a repeal of the U.S. sanctions against Nigeria.
In early November, Clinton returned to Tampa on a final campaign push.
He invited Lyons for breakfast in his hotel room. A few weeks later, on
Nov. 24, the Rev. Dawkins wrote a letter to Clinton asking him to meet
with Lyons and two other prominent black leaders "to hear another point
of view on Nigeria."
Julia Payne, a White House spokesman, said Lyons contacted the Clinton
administration about this time to discuss Nigeria. While the meeting
requested by Dawkins did not occur, Lyons spoke to officials in the
National Security Council about Nigeria, Payne said.
Lyons' efforts did not affect Clinton's policy.
"Our policy is unchanged," Payne said.
On Feb. 26, 1997, a $100,000 check from the Permanent Mission of
Nigeria was deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund, bringing the total
payments to $350,000.
The Nigerian checks were made payable to the National Baptist
Convention Education Fund or, at least once, to the National Baptist
The Education Fund has come up before. Some corporations that signed
marketing deals with Lyons were asked to make their checks payable to
that fund. Lyons paid himself and his associates hundreds of thousands
of dollars in commissions from those corporate deals.
At the time of the third Nigeria payment, Lyons was spending heavily.
He and convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards were negotiating to buy a
$925,000 mansion in North Carolina. Also in February, Edwards bought
$130,000 worth of jewelry with money from an account she shared with
Lyons. Weeks later, Lyons and Edwards bought a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz.
Some of the money for these purchases came from the Baptist Builder
Lyons also was paying large sums to Russell Odom, the West Palm Beach
minister who helped get Lyons interested in Nigeria.
Soon after each deposit from the Nigerian government, Odom or his wife
received payments from Lyons. After the $200,000 deposit, Deanna Odom
received $50,000 from Lyons. After the $50,000 deposit, Russell Odom
received $12,500. After the $100,000 deposit, Russell Odom got $26,000.
In an interview, Odom acknowledged that he received $88,500 from Lyons,
handled many of Lyons' dealings with Nigeria, joined Lyons in the
meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, has a long friendship with
Maurice Dawkins, and knows Col. Marwa, the defense attache who
orchestrated some of Nigeria's lobbying activities.
But Odom denied that the payments from Lyons had anything to do with
Nigeria, or lobbying. He also said he knew nothing of the $350,000
deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund.
"Dr. Lyons, to my knowledge, never got any money from Nigeria," he
said. "I don't know anything about any payments from Nigeria."
Odom said he and his wife were paid for consulting work they did for
Lyons on U.S. health care and social service programs. He declined to
Odom has described himself as a consultant before. That is the
occupation he mentioned to Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies on Aug.
10, 1996, when he was arrested for asking an undercover officer to sell
him "20 soft" -- street talk for $20 worth of powder cocaine. Odom
entered a rehabilitation program for first-time offenders.
On July 6, Lyons' wife set fire to a waterfront Tierra Verde home Lyons
co-owns with Bernice Edwards. Lyons was out of town. He got the news
when he called home from Nigeria, where he was on a 10-day visit.
He was there to make deals. He was interested in the oil and housing
markets and in the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
He also talked politics. According to press reports, he boasted that
the National Baptist Convention has "enough clout to block any
sanctions on Nigeria." He said he sent letters to 500,000
African-Americans describing the "real situation" in Nigeria. He
promised to pressure the Congressional Black Caucus to change its
Lyons and his delegation -- Edwards, Odom and at least 10 other
ministers and business people -- traveled first-class. They flew in one
of Abacha's planes. Their limousines were led through the crowded
streets by police escorts. They stayed in a five-star Hilton.
The Abacha government paid for everything.
According to the statement from Lyons' office, the delegation's trip
"cost more $350,000.00 (sic) and encompassed actual on-site study and
analysis in the majority of the (Nigerian) states." That would mean
each member of the delegation spent more than $2,300 per day. The
statement did not say whether the $350,000 in Nigerian deposits --
which began 15 months before the trip -- were intended to pay for the
When Lyons returned home, he said he liked what he saw. "I found it was
as different as night and day from what I expected," he said.
-- Times staff writers David Dahl and Katherine Gazella and researchers
Kitty Bennett and John Martin contributed to this report.
©Copyright 1997 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.