Nigeria: Ruling party leader faces fraud charges

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — A Nigerian court on Monday charged the country's ruling party chairman over a series of corruption allegations, creating a criminal case against the most powerful man blocking the acting president from running in next year's election.

Vincent Ogbulafor faces 16 counts accusing him of funneling money toward fictitious projects during his service as minister of special duties. The charges claim Ogbulafor conspired with two top officials from the National Economic Intelligence Agency and two contractors to defraud the government of about $1.5 million from March to November of 2001.

Nigeria's anti-graft agency, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission, sought the permission of the court to file charges against Ogbulafor and the others for the crime. In a ruling Monday, Judge Ishaq Bello ordered Ogbulafor and others to appear in court to enter pleas in the case.

Joe Kyari Gadzama, Ogbulafor's lawyer, spoke briefly with reporters after the hearing, but did not offer specifics on how he planned to represent his client.

"I think I should be able to defend the charges made known to me by my client," Gadzama said.

The charges come a day before the ruling People's Democratic Party was scheduled to hold a meeting where Acting President Goodluck Jonathan will preside for the first time. However, a separate court decision Monday by Judge Abubakar Talba halted the party from holding the meeting following a lawsuit filed by 19 prominent members recently suspended by its leadership.

The party has yet to coalesce around a candidate for the upcoming 2011 election, as elected President Umaru Yar'Adua fell ill in November and hasn't been seen publicly for months.

In March, Ogbulafor said the next president must be from the Muslim north to satisfy an internal power-sharing agreement in the party. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, served two four-year terms after the end of a string of military dictatorships in Africa's most populous nation. Yar'Adua, a Muslim, is nearing the end of his first term.

"The south had the president for eight years and it is proper to allow the north to have the presidency," Ogbulafor told reporters at the time. That statement appeared to confine Jonathan, a Christian from the Niger Delta, to his current role as custodian of the nation.

However, things appear to be changing. Campaign posters declaring Jonathan "the positive hope for Nigeria" in the 2011 election appeared across the nation's capital of Abuja this weekend. The acting president traveled to a conference on nuclear weapons this month in Washington hosted by President Barack Obama and met privately with the U.S. leader.

Jonathan also reshuffled the nation's Cabinet to remove some Yar'Adua loyalists and funneled billions of dollars of government surplus money into a host of projects. In a nation consistently ranked as one of world's most corrupt, some analysts have suggested that money served as payoffs to ensure he would hold onto power after Yar'Adua came back to the country.

Charles Dokubo, an analyst at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, said the timing of the charges was no surprise to him. He said Jonathan would seek to mold the party leadership to match his "tempo and the direction of government," something that Ogbulafor likely wouldn't have backed.

"In a country like ours, everything is politicized," Dokubo said.


Associated Press Writer Jon Gambrell contributed to this report from Lagos, Nigeria.