Friday, April 18, 2014

Dr. Wale Babalakin’s travails: How much land does a man want? By Olumide K. Olusegun-Obayemi


Wale Babalakin

“He may not be found guilty by the court of law as we expect, but the court of public opinion is there.”

I. Introduction: how much land does a man need?

Let us introduce Dr. Bolanle Olawale Babalakin. Wale Babalakin was born on July 1, 1960, to the family of Hon. Bolarinwa Babalakin, retired justice of the Supreme Court from Gbongan, Osun State. Wale Babalakin attended Sacred Heart Primary School, Ibadan, and later proceeded to Government College, Ibadan, GCI, now in Oyo State, at the age of 10.

Let us come back to the theme of this work: “How Much Land Does a Man Require?” (Russian: Много ли человеку земли нужно? Mnogo li cheloveku zemli nuzhno) is an 1886 short story by Leo Tolstoy about a man who, in his lust for land, forfeits everything.

The protagonist of the story is a peasant named Pahom, who at the beginning can be heard complaining that he does not own enough land to satisfy him. He states that “if I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” Unbeknownst to him, Satan is present sitting behind the stove and listening. Satan abruptly accepts his challenge and also tells that he would give Pahom more land and then snatch everything from him. A short amount of time later, a landlady in the village decides to sell her estate, and the peasants of the village buy as much of that land as they can. Pahom himself purchases some land, and by working off the extra land is able to repay his debts and live a more comfortable life.

However, Pahóm then becomes very possessive of his land, and this causes arguments with his neighbours. “Threats to burn his building began to be uttered.” Later, he moves to a larger area of land at another Commune. Here, he can grow even more crops and amass a small fortune, but he has to grow the crops on rented land, which irritates him. After buying and selling a lot of fertile and good land; finally, he is introduced to the Bashkirs, and is told that they are simple-minded people who own a huge amount of land. Pahóm goes to them to take as much of their land for as low a price as he can negotiate. Their offer is very unusual: for a sum of one thousand rubles, Pahóm can walk around as large an area as he wants, starting at daybreak, marking his route with a spade along the way. If he reaches his starting point by sunset that day, the entire area of land his route encloses will be his, but if he does not reach his starting point he will lose his money and receive no land. He is delighted as he believes that he can cover a great distance and has chanced upon the bargain of a lifetime. That night, Pahóm experiences a surreal dream in which he sees himself lying dead by the feet of the Devil, who is laughing.

He stays out as late as possible, marking out land until just before the sun sets. Toward the end, he realizes he is far from the starting point and runs back as fast as he can to the waiting Bashkirs. He finally arrives at the starting point just as the sun sets. The Bashkirs cheer his good fortune, but exhausted from the run, Pahóm drops dead. His servant buries him in an ordinary grave only six feet long, thus ironically answering the question posed in the title of the story.

II. Dr. Wale Babalakin, SAN, is a blessed man with a rich and illustrious pedigree

Dr. Wale Babalakin does not need any introduction. Recent publications show that he is one of the top 25 richest Nigerians. He is reputed to be worth about $$100 million. He is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria—the highest echelon of the Nigerian Legal Profession. He is a personal friend of the two immediate presidents of Nigeria: Retired General Olusegun Obasanjo and Late Alhaji Umar Yar’ Adua. Babalakin is the owner of the richest Construction Firm (Bi-Courtney) in Nigeria (although Wale is a lawyer). Babalakin holds, in addition to his law degree, both Masters and Doctoral degrees.

More importantly, Wale’s father, Retired Justice Bolarinwa Babalakin was an Associate Judge of the highest court in Nigeria—the Nigerian Supreme Court.

Wale was surely born with a silver spoon and he also earned his own reputation.

Why would Dr. Wale Babalakin throw all that away with recent allegations of financial impropriety by the Abacha government, and, lately, by the Nigerian EFCC under Jonathan government?

For some people, having a High Court Judge as a father is enough reputation to protect forever. It appears, for Wale, that he would go down and be remembered as a money launderer.

III. Wale Babalakin’s educational and professional background.

Dr. Wale Babalakin attended the University of Lagos, Nigeria, where he obtained an LL.B (Hons.) in 1981. He thereafter proceeded to the University of Cambridge, where he obtained an LL.M in 1983 and a Ph.D in 1986. He was a Commonwealth Scholar of the University of Cambridge, 1984-1986. Dr Wale Babalakin was admitted to the Nigerian Bar in 1982.

Babalakin is a member of the Body of Benchers, which is the highest legal body regulating the affairs of legal practitioners in Nigeria. He is an active member of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), where he is currently the Chairman of both the Committee on Construction and Real Estate under the Section on Business Law and the Committee on Government Practice under the Section on Legal Practice. He is also a member of the International Bar Association. He was appointed by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as Chairman of the Constitutional Drafting Sub-Committee of the National Political Reforms Conference in 2005; Member, National Political Reforms Conference in 2005 and Vice Chairman of the Committee on the Review of the Evidence Act CAP 112 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990 in 2005. Dr. Babalakin is currently the Pro-chancellor of the University of Maiduguri and Chairman, Committee of Pro-Chancellors of Nigeria Federal Universities. Dr. Babalakin is the Senior Partner of his law firm.

Dr. Babalakin was conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 2002.

He was also conferred with the National Honour of Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR), in February 2008. In 2007 he was appointed as the Honorary Special Adviser on Legal Matters and General Counsel to the former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, late Alhaji Musa Yar’ Adua.

Dr. Babalakin has considerable experience in Litigation, Arbitration, Real Estate law and Project Finance. He has acted in high profile Commercial Arbitrations proceedings and Civil Litigations in disputes arising from various sectors of the Nigerian economy. He has conducted trials and appeals in all our courts, from the courts of first to the Supreme Court in matters of significant constitutional national importance and equally in commercial transactions that cut across the entire gamut of Nigeria’s economy- construction, real estate, oil and gas, telecoms, maritime, aviation, banking and financing.

Dr. Babalakin has worked with Federal and several State Governments in conceptualizing transactions to support the development of infrastructure and investment in the country. He led the team of legal consultants to a state government for the building of an international airport in Nigeria, a multimillion dollar project. He is currently leading the team representing a state government in an arbitration claim arising therefrom.

Dr. Babalakin led the team of lawyers who represented the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation in a $100 million dollar claim in arbitral proceedings for the determination of contractual rights and obligations of the Corporation. Dr. Babalakin also led the team of lawyers in a landmark election petition case which resulted in the appointment of one of Nigeria’s Senate Presidents. He is also acting as lead Counsel in arbitral proceedings on behalf of a state owned oil company, in a billion dollar claim.

IV. 1st arrest by General Abacha’s government

Wale’s first arrest stemmed from his involvement with Stabilini Visinoni, began in 1989 when he contracted the company to help him construct a multi-purpose 10-storey building on Campbell Street, Lagos Island (Akuro House: my friends/colleagues–late Olamide Kajero and Mr. Dennis Emamode Omorojor worked there). By the end of that project, he had become very friendly with the directors in the company. Thus, he awarded another major project to them that is now known as Bruno Sheriff Gardens, Ikoyi. When the owners of the company decided to sell off their controlling shares in the company in 1992, Babalakin stepped in with a N10 million offer and was made a director. In 1999, he became the substantive chairman of Stabilini Visinoni, making him the first Nigerian to steer the Italian company’s activities.

But Stabilini Visioni failed to perform some contracts that were awarded by the Federal Government. Thus, Dr. Babalakin was held for sometime during the Abacha regime.

V. 2nd arrest: money laundering and failed contracts: Ibori’s monies, Muritala Muhammed airport terminal and Lagos/Ibadan Expressway

On May 10, 2000, the terminal one building of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos was gutted by fire. Dr. Wale Babalakin’s company, Bi-Courtney lost the bid to re-build the structure to Royal Sanderton. Though he lost the bid to work on the project, he was still focused and dogged about his determination to help give Nigeria a facelift. This must have influenced the Federal Government to re-award the contract to his company in 2003 when the initial winner reneged on contractual obligations.

Bi-Courtney’s contract was to be on built, operate and transfer arrangement (BOT). On Saturday, April 7, 2007, after seven years the terminal was destroyed and four years after the contract was awarded to them, the new state-of-the-art Murtala Muhammed Airport, Terminal 2 was commissioned.

Bi-Courtney also won the contract for the concession of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, and plans to build a world class interstate expressway

As to the money laundering charges, the EFCC has told the court that Wale Babalakin helped James Ibori to steal Delta State blind. It is stated that at the twilight of his two-term rule in Delta State, jailed former governor, James Ibori, executed a heinous fraud that ripped the oil rich state of several billions in a high-web scam that left blurry traces. He needed a private airplane. A supplier was located in the South African nation of Mauritius. Between May and December 2006, several millions of dollars of state funds were funneled to the company through multiple third parties. According to the EFCC, at the center of the several strings of huge scale fund transfers, in breach of federal and state financial laws, was the revered lawyer—Dr. Bolanle Olawale Babalakin. Babalakin, was identified by investigators as the same person as the current chairman and owner of the controversial infrastructure management consortium, Bi-Courtney, according to court papers bearing charges filed against Wale.

The documents, tell a troubling story of the terrific corruption Delta State endured under Mr. Ibori. It presents, for the first time, what seems the unknown portrait of Babalakin, a feisty businessman with hands in so many controversial deals. Court documents show that in a fast-paced twist lasting just days, Babalakin’s firm, Bi-Courtney, awarded the concession of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway for three years, has now lost the job in November 2012, and the Chief Executive Officer now faces charges of corruption.

In a 27-count at a Lagos High Court, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, said Babalakin and associates, including Bi-Courtney construction group, Stabilini, Renix Nigeria Limited, and a certain Alex Okoh facilitated the fund transfers to Mauritius under the pretext of funds for a construction contract for the state. Between May and December of 2006, the EFCC said, more than 24 transfers were made to the company, Erin Aviation, for the supply of a Challenger Jet Aircraft. The first transfer occurred on May 3 and involved the sum of N145.5 million while the final transfer involved $2 million on November 17, 2006. Further transfers were executed through little-known firms, namely, Interactive Technologies, Sopetrol Oil, Casaka Nigeria Company limited, Geofluids limited, ABS limited and Hyundai heavy Industries Nigeria limited, by Mr. Babalakin and his companies for Mr. Ibori, the commission said.

In all the transfers, Babalakin and his associates, the court papers said, knew the funds were the proceeds of corrupt conduct by Mr. Ibori. The revelations provide a new layer to the events involving Bi-Courtney.

Babalakin lost the Lagos-Ibadan expressway contract. After a frustrating three years as the concessionaire of the key Lagos-Ibadan expressway, a long-awaited revocation of the contract was announced by the federal government in November 2012.

Further, in November 2012, the Ondo State also signaled another N4.8 billion contract handled by another of Mr. Babalakin’s companies could also be cancelled.

Also, at a House of Representatives meeting in November 2012, Works Minister, Mike Onolememen, characterized Bi-Courtney as a firm versed in violating procedures and agreements. Such breaches, the minister said, informed the decision of the federal government to terminate the three-year-old Lagos-Ibadan road contract.

In charges before the court, it is alleged that while fronting for contracts from the Delta State Government, Bi-Courtney, Stabilini and Renix, served as a conduit for frittering state fund into foreign accounts. The EFCC said Mr. Babalakin, and companies he had interest in, including Bi-Courtney, played a major in helping Mr. Ibori transfer these funds using surrogate companies. To quote the charges:

“That you, Dr. Bolanle Olawale Babalakin, Stabilini Visioni limited and Bi-Courtney Ltd between May 2006 and December 2006 within the jurisdiction of this Honourable Court did corruptly confer benefit on former Governor James Onanefe Ibori to Wit: the sum of N1, 356, 600, 000.00 (One Billion, Three Hundred and Fifty Six million six Hundred Thousand Naira), on account of contracts awarded by Delta State Government to Stabilini Visioni limited by transferring the said Sum through various third parties to Erin Aviation account in Mauritius for the purchase of Challenger Jet Aircraft by the Said James Onanefe Ibori,” one of the 27-count charge reads.

The London Metropolitan Police, which successfully investigated Mr. Ibori leading to his conviction, also assisted with the investigations, with at least three visits to Nigeria by its officials since Mr. Babalakin’s suspicious involvement in the scam began, sources at the commission said.

Those who have been to both the airport and the freeway to Ibadan from Lagos can state the level of performance by Babalakin

VI. Conclusion

Of course, Babalakin is presumed innocent of the charges.

As one of the young lawyers in the early 1990’s who wanted to work with Wale’s law firm, I hope that he is innocent. But he must stop hobnobbing with shady characters. Money cannot buy a good name. Whether the charges can stick is not our concern in this piece of work. We are most concerned as to why a person so blessed can allow all goodwill to filter away carelessly. How much land, money, influence etc does Wale want?

Doing business in Nigeria is perilous—it is for people such as Iyiola Omisore, Dangote, Adenuga etc and not (we say—NEVER) for a lawyer who is a SAN. The only way is down. Nigeria is Nigeria. In this vein, we shall advise him to consider Yemi Candide-Johnson, SAN (son of Hon Late Chief Judge of Lagos State Candide-Johnson) and Dr. Gbolahan Elias, SAN (son of the 1st Indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria—Late Hon. Taslim Olawale Elias). Like Wale Babalakin, these two also have great pedigrees, schooled in Great Britain, were admitted into the Inns of Courts in England, had fathers who were great judges and excelled to be appointed as SANs, well. Yet, they have managed to protect their families’ names. There are also Dr. Konyinsola Ajayi, SAN and Anthony Idigbe, SAN also to emulate.

Even, there are the younger generations, who have had opportunities to use their parents’ reputation to garner questionable riches, but, have chosen to stay clean. There are Dr. Muhammad Akanbi, Ph.D. –the former Dean of University of Ilorin Law School (son of Retired Hon Mustapha Akanbi—former President of the Nigerian Court of Appeal) and Dele Belgore, SAN (son of Retired Chief Justice of Nigeria)

With abundant opportunities laid before Wale Babalakin, he does not need to carouse with persons of shady characters like Ibori & co. as our elders say: “a lamb that mingles with strayed dogs will eat excreta”.

Tongues have been wagging that the Ikeja High Court Complex constructed by Babalakin has broken down within a year of completion and that the amenities and infrastructures do not work. Everybody is afraid of stepping on the Retired Justice’s toes. Wale’s friends should advise him about the impression that his business escapades is doing to his reputation

He may not be found guilty by the court of law as we expect, but the court of public opinion is there: from what we hear, the verdict has been given long time ago.

Those close to Wale should speak to him: How much land/riches does he want, and, at what expense? We are praying for my mentor and an enigma, as well as the flowery and intelligent Dr. Bolanle Olawale Babalakin, SAN to come out of the present trials– innocent. But he must restrict himself to the practice of law only.

(The author, Professor Olumide K. Olusegun-Obayemi, LL.M., SJD, was recently appointed as an Associate Professor of Law, Lagos State University, Nigeria).

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