Chairman of Ocean Marine Solutions Limited, Dr Idahosa Wells Okunbo, has threatened to sue Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki for accusing him of sponsoring political thugs. The retired commercial pilot alleged that the governor is behind the dispute over the Secure Anchorage Area (SAA) operated by OMSL, an allegation Obaseki denied. Deputy News Editor JOSEPH JIBUEZE revisits the issues.
An investor and philanthropist, Dr Idahosa Wells Okunbo, is threatening to initiate legal action against Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki.
Okunbo, a retired commercial pilot and a business magnate, chairs the Ocean Marine Solutions Limited (OMSL), which operates the Secure Anchorage Area (SAA).
OMSL is in dispute with the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) over the SAA, with the Senate intervening and maritime operators backing the company.
Okunbo believes Obaseki is behind his company’s problems with the NPA.
The governor, through his Special Adviser on Media and Communication, Crusoe Osagie, accused Okunbo and a former All Progressives Congress (APC) National Chairman Adams Oshiomhole of sponsoring political thugs to be deployed for the forthcoming governorship election.
The governor said: “It has come to our notice that…Oshiomhole and a Benin billionaire Captain Hosa Okunbo held a meeting on July 19, 2020, where they perfected plans to recruit thugs to disrupt forthcoming September 19 governorship election in the state, having discovered that they cannot win the election in a fair contest.”
Obaseki alleged that thugs met at Okunbo’s home where they were given targets and were “paid in advance to cause trouble and undermine the will of the people during the election”.
The governor said Okunbo “is a key figure in the gang-up to take Edo backwards” and is sponsoring “warlords”, “thugs” and “ill-intentioned politicians that are scheming to dislodge Governor Obaseki so that they can have free access to the state’s treasury”.
He urged security agencies to “rein in Okunbo in his quest to set the state ablaze and foist an unpopular candidate…on the people through violence and thuggery”.
The governor said the government would bring “these merchants of violence and destruction” to “justice”.
Okunbo threatens lawsuit
Okunbo, through his lawyer Dr Oladapo Olanipekun (SAN), is demanding N2billion from Obaseki for the “embarrassment, inconvenience, losses and damages done to his person, character and interests” through the publications.
The SAN said the allegations against his client were “most unfortunate, inaccurate, misleading, malicious, unfair, defamatory, libellous and incriminating”.
He said in a statement: “You are aware that our client is one of the most prominent citizens of Edo State and, indeed, a foremost Nigerian. He is an accomplished businessman, whose interests and achievements transcend Edo State and Nigeria.
“Through hard work, excellence and the rare business acumen, our client has built and nurtured a diverse and vast business conglomerate, spanning different spheres of the Nigerian economy. Edo State is one of the primary beneficiaries of our client’s industry.
“He invests significantly in the welfare of the state and he employs several hundreds of Edo indigenes in his many businesses. Our client has been meticulous in building his career with the hallmarks of diligence and integrity.
“His peace-loving nature has received global acclaim. Hence, he was recognised with a global peace award in 2019, by the Chairman of the Order Lafayette awards in Geneva, Switzerland.
“We could refer to an endless list of numerous awards and achievements certifying our client as a man of integrity, industry, means and peace.
“It is instructive that some of these awards were conferred on our client by institutions based in Edo State. He is a respected Nigerian and philanthropist, who is held in high esteem within and beyond the shores of Nigeria.
“As a remote and direct result of the false, inaccurate, misleading and libellous publications, our client has been inundated with several enquiries from different parts of the world by concerned associates, clients, investors, friends and family members, demanding explanation and clarification about the criminal insinuations of the publications.
“This has caused serious embarrassment to our client’s reputation and businesses. It has also caused our client undue apprehension, with implications to his health.
“Our client is not unmindful that these publications are calculated to instigate public antagonism against his person, family and business interests.”
Olanipekun said the publications have caused considerable distress to his client, putting his distinguished and illustrious reputation at risk.
“In particular, you are aware that, as with most businesses, our client’s businesses thrive on goodwill. The negative impact of the publications makes it more tarnishing and grievous.
“Rather than establish the truth of the publications, they published without taking any steps that would have revealed their inaccuracy.
“Our client notes with concern that the resources and insignia of the Edo State Government have been lent to this unworthy cause, which appears to serve no other purpose than to witch-hunt, malign and settle personal scores for incomprehensible reasons.
“Our client has been projected as a criminal conspirator, who sponsors thugs and takes pleasure in unleashing mayhem and anarchy,” the SAN added.
He demanded a retraction of the publications and an unreserved apology in writing and to be published in the same newspapers.
Olanipekun demanded that the state or its agents stop further defamatory publications against Okunbo, and asked to be paid N2billion damages.
“If the Edo State Government fails to meet these legitimate demands of our client within three days from receipt of this letter, our firm instruction is to proceed with other legal means of seeking redress for our client,” he said.
‘My issues with Obaseki’
In an open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari and the people of Edo, Okunbo said he had for some time experienced an unprecedented dose of orchestrated bashings and campaign of calumny calculated to malign his person and cast aspersions on his hard-earned reputation.
“This spate of coordinated attacks, with their attendant mode of vicious execution, can best be described as the unconscionable actions by attack dogs and hirelings of desperate Edo State Government on the watch of Governor Godwin Obaseki,” he said in a statement.
According to him, as a good-hearted Edo son, he does not deserve the embarrassing treatment even as his pedigree will never let him to deliberately concoct any wrong against his state and Obaseki.
“I am, however, shocked, bewildered and pained to observe that despite my very sincere, robust and stated commitment to support the anticipated pace of infrastructure development, progress and other social investment initiatives through the deployment of my modest goodwill and network of capital, for which I am eternally grateful to God, alas, the response has been to paint my person with a brush of public odium that verges on mischief.
“I have, regardless of this very unpleasant experience, remained a lover and promoter of peace and will continue to be at peace with myself and most members of the society, but which the Governor by his actions and inactions has become impossible.
“My contributions to peace, progress and visible development of the economy of the state under our collective aspirations and shared commitments remain a fait accompli.
“These contributions are self-sacrificing without necessarily expecting any iota of reciprocal gesture or patronage from the Government of Edo State.
“I, therefore, find it sickening and incomprehensible to understand or accept any justification for the series of sustained virulent attacks against my person in the social and print media by some agents of Edo State Government,” Okunbo said.
The businessman recalled that in 2016, on the assumption of office, he met with Obaseki to discuss several ways of driving foreign investment and ultimately making Edo an investment hub.
He said he sponsored the governor and his team of officials on an investment pathfinder’s trip to China.
“This was done under my firm conviction in private sector-led participation as being the key to the economic and industrial development of the state,” he said.
He said he donated five houses worth N50million to support Obaseki’s housing project located in Benin city and recently donated generously to the governor’s COVID-19 relief fund campaign.
Moves for peace
Okunbo said when Obaseki started having issues with Oshiomhole, he pleaded with the governor to settle whatever the issues they had to tow the path of peace.
“At a time, I spent almost three hours of my precious time in the governor’s house, explaining to him the need to build synergy between him and Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, the then APC National Chairman, in the best interest of the development of our state.
“He was blunt that he was not interested in any peace talk and that he was embarking on a fight to the finish with Comrade Oshiomhole,” he said.
Okunbo said following a series of “very disturbing, ugly and unacceptable developments”, he decided to hands off the matter, having done all he could do to engender a peaceful atmosphere for governance and development of Edo.
‘Why Okunba, firm are under attack’
Okunbo said overtures were made to him by well-meaning Nigerians from within and outside Edo to run for the office of governor in 2020, an offer he rejected.
“I believe in getting this hint, the Governor decided to bare his full fangs, seeking to tear me apart. He did not want me to run for the position, yet he never sat with me at any point in time to solicit for my support and vote for his second term bid.
“The only time he made a remark about the governorship to me was at a reception in Lagos where he mockingly addressed me as ‘in-coming governor’, which I immediately dispelled and told him like I was telling others, that I wasn’t interested in the office of the governor.
“Coincidentally, on that same day that the reception held in Lagos, the story of Nigerian Ports Authority’s move against my company, SAA, was published…
“The story insinuated I was interested in the Edo governorship race and numerous reports have come back to me that Obaseki was the one behind all of that.”
Okunbo said while in the company of some friends in the governor’s house in Benin, he confronted Obaseki, telling him that he was the one behind the attack on OMSL.
“In a bid to defend himself, he put a call through to someone in Lagos and, perhaps, mistakenly, left the phone speaker on.
“He asked the person at the other end: ‘Why is the MD of NPA worrying Captain?’ and the man replied: ‘Godwin, I thought you said this man was fighting you. The MD of NPA is fighting your battle for you.’
“I quickly told him that I had caught him. On this occasion I had witnesses and if further probed names could be mentioned,” Okunbo said.
‘I’m not interested in politics’
Okunbo said he has stayed out of politics and made it known that he was not interested in the office of the governor.
Besides, he said he got no encouragement from the governor in his bid to expand his greenhouse farm in Benin, even as his proposal to set up a fish farm never materialised.
“All these and more had discouraged me from further investment in the expansion of my farm and also a further investment in Edo because the business environment was now looking a little bit too toxic and harsh for my liking…
“I wish to make this save-my-soul appeal to all well-meaning Edo indigenes and Nigerian citizens both at home and in the Diaspora to tell Governor Obaseki to stop these continuous attacks on me, my family and my business,” Okunbo said.
The SAA dispute
Working in partnership with the Navy, OMSL operates and manages the Secure Anchorage Area (SAA) off the coast of Lagos for vessels that require a dedicated and compliant maritime security solution.
The SAA is protected by multiple armed Patrol Boats (PBs), which enforce a Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ) around the anchored vessels to interdict and deter potential threats.
It does not involve the use of local armed guards onboard client vessels.
The Senate had overruled the NPA on the suspension of OMSL from Lagos ports.
NPA suspended the firm’s operations for allegedly constituting a security threat.
The Senate adopted the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Navy, Marine Transport and Finance that investigated the matter.
The Committee, in its report, noted that the Navy “is the one operating on the platforms with the logistics provided by OMSL.”
The Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN) and the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders urged President Buhari to intervene in the row. They want the Senate’s decision on the matter to be respected.
The SOAN President, Dr Mkgeorge Onyung, said his members received notices from NPA to the effect that they should leave the SAA.
“This, to say the least, is disturbing and quite counter-productive. It is also capable of exacerbating uncertainty, disrupting the relative calm that shipowners have enjoyed in recent times,” he said.
NAGAFF President, Mr Increase Uche, said dismantling the SAA may fuel insecurity.
“The position of concerned shipping operators is that we want to see that our waters are well-secured,” he said.
The SAA is a secure place where vessels can anchor safely from the threat of pirate attack.
OMSL’s said its PBs significantly outmatch the capabilities of any threat witnessed in the region, adding that SAA has been conducting support operations since 2012 and holds a 100 per cent safety record.
Obaseki: Allegations untrue
Obaseki, in a letter to Okunbo, said he does not have the propensity to inflict evil or pains, “especially of the scale you alleged…”
He added: “I sincerely empathise with you over these unfortunate and negative incidents but hereby state without equivocation that I am innocent of all you have accused me of.”
Observers preach politics without rancour
As governorship campaigns gather steam, observers say it should be devoid of virulent attacks against perceived opponents.
They noted that the onslaught against Okunbo and his businesses could discourage potential investors.
A public affairs analyst, Niyi Efosa, said Okunbo’s businesses crisscross major sectors of the economy, adding that his kind should rather be encouraged.
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