ABUJA – Yoshi first met the nightclub owner once known as “the king of Roppongi” in 2011. Yoshi (not his real name), a building engineer from Utsunomiya who had emigrated to Nigeria extra-legally a year earlier in search of work, was swimming at the Transcorp Hilton, where Nigeria’s power brokers stay when they’re in Abuja, the capital.
He was with a friend, a Nigerian returnee from Japan, and together they approached a Japanese woman they had been surprised to spot. She was visiting with her Nigerian husband, she said. Her biethnic children splashed in the pool nearby.
The husband, Gilbert Otaigbe, told Yoshi he was in the hospitality business. He said he’d been arrested in 2010 for violating Japan’s vice laws. Ever since, he’d been wanting to relocate to Nigeria. He talked to Yoshi’s friend, and confided that he rarely left his house in Japan anymore. The police were waiting for him, he said. He couldn’t be too careful.
Otaigbe is the current owner of Black Horse bar and nightclub in Roppongi. At the height of his success in the mid-2000s, he owned at least seven bars, clubs and restaurants. The arrest he mentioned to Yoshi had come on the heels of a major police raid at Black Horse (then named 911 Black), conducted on the basis of Japan’s controversial fūeihō law, which forbids dancing at most nightclubs (detectives at the Azabu Police Station would not comment on the particulars of the raid or Otaigbe’s arrest).
Otaigbe had begun establishing Nigerian counterparts to his Japanese company, Skymit International, as early as 2006. But friends, family and employees insist that his arrest in 2010, followed by a lengthy forced shutdown of 911 Black, caused a fundamental shift in his perspective.
“Before that shutdown, Gilbert would react very negatively to anyone who idealized Nigeria and talked about going back there,” said a current employee at Black Horse and longtime friend of Otaigbe’s. “After it happened, he gave up on Japan. He started to say, ‘I’m in another man’s land.’ “
Contacted during work on this article, several Roppongi business owners expressed an understanding of Otaigbe’s bitterness; many of them insisted that the shuttering of 911 Black may have been the longest such closure in Roppongi history.
When Yoshi met Otaigbe in 2011, Otaigbe’s Nigerian company, Black Seed Global Services, was selling and installing small solar energy systems. He wasn’t making much money — tax documents indicate annual earnings of approximately ¥550,000, although Nigerian tax records are notoriously unreliable and a fraud investigator at Nigeria’s Federal Inland Revenue Service confirmed that Otaigbe had been sought by his office for questioning.
But Otaigbe’s employees figured it didn’t matter much; they were under the impression he owned a large distributor of machine tools in Japan, with a bustling office in Tokyo that employed over 100 people. In reality, Otaigbe’s office in Roppongi is rarely occupied by more than three people, and he has never owned any moneymaking enterprises in Japan that are not hospitality-related.
At the pool, Yoshi exchanged contact information with Otaigbe. Maybe they’d work together someday, Otaigbe said. Otaigbe called Yoshi the following April and asked him to take charge of his latest construction project: He was going to open a nightclub in Abuja.
Otaigbe, who came to Japan in the early ’90s as part of an initial wave of immigration from Nigeria’s Edo state, first took an interest in the nightlife business while working for a restaurant in Kamiyacho. After work, he’d walk to Roppongi with his friends and talk about how he planned to get in on the neighborhood’s action.
By then, Roppongi’s entertainment district had begun to decline, under pressure from developers who hoped to turn the area into an upscale, self-contained office and condominium district. But police enforcement wasn’t yet what it would eventually become; there was still money to be made, provided one knew how to keep the party going.
A few African immigrants proved themselves exceptionally adept at navigating Roppongi’s vicissitudes and intrigue; many of the area’s most popular nightclubs and hostess bars during the late ’90s and early 2000s were African-operated. There were no true kings in Roppongi, but the neighborhood’s African immigrant community boasted a handful of impressive fiefdoms.
Otaigbe’s first venture was a small basement club named Hideout, opened in 1998. Business was tepid until he hired a New Zealander who had previously managed at Roppongi gentlemen’s clubs. This new manager suggested that a steady female presence at Hideout would bring business; why not start by letting a few working girls hang out, and comping their drinks? The tactic worked — Hideout developed a reputation as one of the best places in Roppongi to meet women.
But it also forced a change in the club’s atmosphere: from mellow to raucous. Fights weren’t unusual; in one oft-repeated story about Hideout (confirmed by club employees), the son of an ambassador was beaten by a group of assailants while the party raged on around them. And keeping the girls around meant looking the other way when they used cocaine and Ecstasy. But none of this was unusual in Roppongi, and perhaps the only real headache was the feud slowly taking shape between Otaigbe and the owner of Gaspanic, then located in the same building, which belonged to a landlord none too happy to find himself burdened with two of Roppongi’s rowdiest nightspots.
By 2000, Hideout was generating a reliable profit in the neighborhood of ¥5 million a month. But a restaurant Otaigbe had opened in Ebisu was losing about as much, and his overall bottom line was barely in the black. Around that time, he hired a new management employee, an American with extensive nightclub experience. This manager noticed that one of the best-located spaces on Gaien-Higashi Dori was coming up for rent. Otaigbe was able to secure a lease, and his in-laws provided ¥40 million for the deposit. In the spring of 2001, 911 — bearing the name Otaigbe’s American manager had insisted upon — opened in the space.
Business was initially tepid but took off after the club’s name recognition soared in the wake of 9/11, and after a TV news segment depicted it as a favorite spot for soccer fans in Roppongi. Almost overnight, Otaigbe found himself in charge of a business that could make ¥3 million on a good night, and generated a steady take-home profit of over ¥7 million per month.
Otaigbe’s friends and employees say the changes in his demeanor were immediate. He spent most nights in the VIP room, partying with well-wishers. He picked up a cigar habit. He began micromanaging the experienced managers on whom he used to rely. According to some of his managers at the time, he started skimming revenue, sending some home to Nigeria and pocketing the rest to support an increasingly lavish lifestyle; one manager said he turned the entirety of 911’s coin locker revenue (more than ¥500,000 per month) over to Otaigbe for use as off-the-books petty cash.
Most alarmingly, Otaigbe began to antagonize uniformed police officers, belittling them on the street, and even in front of the police station. “He’d say, ‘What’s your salary? I can buy and sell you,’ ” said one former manager at 911. “He thought he was invincible.”
Otaigbe also took a mistress, a 25-year old native of Khabarovsk, Russia, who worked as a hostess in a Roppongi gentleman’s club. Otaigbe’s friends and employees saw his mistress — who made no secret of her dislike for Otaigbe’s countrymen nor her paradoxical desire to give birth to his children — as a serious liability. She was careless about her (ostensibly secret) affair with Otaigbe; employees worried about what Otaigbe’s wife — who effectively ran the business — would do when she found out.
Otaigbe also elevated his mistress to general manager of 911, a move that stoked resentment among staff and played havoc with the club’s day-to-day operations. Several of Otaigbe’s longtime friends and managers approached him and expressed their concern that his relationship with her was emblematic of a serious loss of perspective.
Things reached a boil on Dec. 31, 2001, when cash earned on New Year’s Eve — nearly ¥7 million — went missing from the club. Otaigbe proclaimed he’d been robbed by one of his own managers, a longtime friend who had grown up near Otaigbe in Nigeria — a friend who had initially encouraged Otaigbe to come to Japan and had secured the Kamiyacho restaurant job for him shortly after his arrival. But Otaigbe’s employees knew better: Several of them claimed that only Otaigbe or his mistress could have possibly accessed the money. These employees — including Gilbert’s senior managers — also said that people close to the incident understood that the money had been taken by Otaigbe’s mistress, or by Otaigbe himself.
A number of Otaigbe’s longest-tenured employees resigned shortly thereafter. “That’s when we knew he was completely around the bend,” said one of his top managers. “He had lost it. Absolutely lost it. He was a victim of his own success.”
Still, 911 didn’t have any trouble making money. The same couldn’t be said for Otaigbe’s other ventures, almost all of which failed. Piper’s Lounge provided the most dramatic example. “That place was Gilbert’s baby,” said one of Otaigbe’s managers. “More like a stillbirth, actually.”
Where Otaigbe had previously relied on employees with industry experience, he took every aspect of the lounge’s creation and management into his own hands. He spent lavishly on decor. For the first time, he trained his own staff; a month after the lounge opened, all but one had quit. He designed and splurged on an over-the-top promotional campaign, which included a car giveaway. Even before it opened, the lounge had become an albatross, signaling to employees and competitors alike that Otaigbe had lost any sense of financial discretion.
Business at Piper’s was sluggish from the start, and the upstairs half of the space — intended for use a hostess bar — sat empty. Otaigbe, then in the midst of his affair, worried what his wife would think if he opened such a salacious business. The upstairs eventually saw some use when one of the lounge’s managers snuck into the space with a few friends and drank much of the alcohol.
In spite of its steady profits, 911 had its own troubles. Employees recall that customer complaints to the police originating from the club rose steadily after Gilbert hired and promoted his mistress, in part because she had proven an ineffective manager of personnel; in particular, she wasn’t much liked or listened to by the mostly African security employees. In one especially egregious incident recounted by eyewitnesses, a bouncer carried a woman out of the club while holding her by the neck, then threw her onto the sidewalk, where she landed against the guardrail.
Contacted during work on this article, several employees indicated that the decline in employee discipline also emerged from morale problems related to Otaigbe’s failure to pass the club’s financial success along to his managers and employees, many of whom expected Skymit would finally be able to offer benefits and job security to its employees. “He gave us this speech at the beginning,” said one former manager: ” ‘If I drive a Mercedes, you’ll all have BMWs. If I have a house, you’ll all have condos.’ “
The club’s increasingly uncontrolled atmosphere finally caught up with Otaigbe in February 2005, when gold medal-winning freestyle skier Tae Satoya was involved in a scuffle in the club’s VIP room. Otaigbe told the police that the skier and a friend had been having sex, and that she’d become violent when asked to stop. But according to eyewitnesses, no sexual intercourse had occurred, and Otaigbe fabricated this detail to prejudice the police’s response to the incident. “[Satoya’s] behavior — inside and outside the VIP room — was terrible. Very inappropriate. But as far as I could tell, no sex was involved,” said one eyewitness. Popular tabloid Shukan Bunshun nonetheless ran an expose shortly thereafter, based on Otaigbe’s version of what transpired in the VIP room and peppered with club patrons’ recollections of Satoya’s risque behavior on the dance floor. Satoya was suspended from her job at Fuji TV and booted off Japan’s World Cup ski team.
Besides damaging Satoya’s career, the incident also had the effect of making Otaigbe better known to the police. In the era of rapidly escalating (and ethnically targeted) nightlife law enforcement under nationalist Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, this was a major liability. And Otaigbe was particularly vulnerable; in spite of warnings from his top managers, he’d opted to incorporate all of his nightlife ventures under one company, and to own that company openly, eschewing the more shadowy approach favored by most of his African counterparts (a different holding company for every club, each one owned and operated by several Japanese and foreign fronts).
By early 2006, 911 had been shuttered and wouldn’t reopen until late that year, with a new name, 911 Black. Otaigbe told friends and customers the club had been closed for renovations, but employees contacted during work on this article indicated that the closure was the result of pressure from authorities, citing complaints Gilbert made about interference from the police and tax authorities at that time.
Yet Otaigbe persisted in his antagonism toward the police, according to employees. And he continued to skim revenue, several said. Whatever transformation success had caused him to undergo appeared irreversible.
A friend of Otaigbe who also owned clubs in Roppongi was asked what he made of Otaigbe’s behavior. “No one should want to be the king of Roppongi,” he said. “This place makes you heartless. Wherever the king sits, it’s the Tin Man’s throne.”
During the planning stages, Otaigbe took inspiration for his club in Abuja, also named 911 Black, from Kryxtal Lounge, a nightclub infamous in the capital for letting working girls hang around as a means of attracting customers. But where Abuja’s nightlife insiders saw sleaze, Otaigbe saw democracy: Kryxtal Lounge was a place where senators and plumbers rubbed elbows, as long as they both had money to burn. His new club’s motto was a paean to that atmosphere: “Socialize!!”
After Otaigbe hired him in April 2012, Yoshi put eight months of work into building 911 Black Abuja, supervising a 15-person construction crew. It wouldn’t have been a bad gig if Otaigbe, who lacked the requisite expertise, hadn’t insisted on micromanaging the project, and if promised building supplies hadn’t routinely failed to show up at the site. It also bothered Yoshi that a promise Otaigbe made to find him an apartment never bore fruit; instead, Otaigbe told Yoshi to crash in his office.
A Valentine’s Day 2013 opening was planned, but had to be scrapped when cash flow problems left Otaigbe without any alcohol to sell. The new club’s manager, an Abuja nightlife veteran who had worked at Krxytal Lounge, found a way to buy stock on credit, and 911 Black opened on Feb. 22, a week late. The opening was well-attended, though nagging problems with the air conditioning system left the club sweltering — hardly a party atmosphere. His promoter and his business partner also managed to get Nigeria’s top pop artist, Iyanya, to hold his album release pre-party at 911 Black — a major coup.
But problems arose just as quickly, according to accounts independently corroborated by multiple current and former club employees. Otaigbe revealed a violent temper and a tendency to throw loud tantrums. He fired his promoter during one such tirade and refused to pay for three months of services already rendered, a mistake that left the club without a promoter for months while Otaigbe auditioned a revolving door of ineffective candidates. The club’s graphic designer quit after being subjected to a similar outburst. Employee checks were late, or partial, or didn’t appear at all, leading to high staff turnover. The club’s landlord showed up and demanded that all remaining rent be paid immediately (leases are paid up front in Nigeria) or the club would be shuttered.
The club’s sole potential investor also pulled out after an employee sexually harassed her in full view of the other staff and Otaigbe declined to discipline or dismiss the employee, who owned a car, and who Otaigbe depended on to ferry other employees to work; this investor had yet to contribute any money to the venture because Otaigbe had failed to allocate shares to her. A review of relevant documents revealed that Otaigbe’s Nigerian companies were incorporated fraudulently, meaning any allocation of shares would have required further forgery.
By this time, Otaigbe, who had insisted on paying Yoshi for his work on 911 Black in installments despite the fact that all of his services had already been rendered, had failed to pay the final third of what he owed. Otaigbe had also directed Yoshi to contact his brother, attorney Nicholas Otaigbe, for help regularizing his immigration status in Nigeria. Yoshi had paid Nicholas up front, and had asked him to help collect on a settlement Yoshi had reached with a former colleague who had defrauded him of several thousand dollars shortly after his arrival in Nigeria.
Nicholas admits that never took action on behalf of Yoshi’s immigration status. He also confirmed that he made at least two collections on Yoshi’s settlement agreement without telling Yoshi or passing the money along. Gilbert and Nicholas thereafter stopped returning Yoshi’s calls.
Contacted during work on this article, Nicholas said he was directed to steal from Yoshi by Gilbert himself. “Gilbert hates Japanese people. He hates them for what he believes they have done to him. He believes he came to their country, and he worked hard, and they persecuted him because he is African,” said Nicholas. “I think this thing we did to [Yoshi], he feels it was an opportunity for revenge.”
In light of Otaigbe’s chronic cash flow problems, it was unclear how he had been able to afford the club’s initial expenses, including rent and the hiring of DJs. He told friends and employees that he had secured a 150 million naira (roughly $1 million) contract to install solar-powered LED street lamps from South Korea in his home state of Edo. But a spokesperson for Edo Gov. Adams Oshiomhole (who Otaigbe credited with awarding him the contract) denied any such contract existed, and a review of state budgets from 2010 onward showed no items matching Otaigbe’s description.
“To the best of my knowledge, no such contract ever existed,” said Bamidele Afolabi, an operations manager for Otaigbe’s solar energy and construction business during that period. At least some of Otaigbe’s money came from Japan; employees who glimpsed Otaigbe’s accounting (which he guarded carefully) noted that he often imported significant sums of yen.
Wherever his money came from, there seemed to be plenty of it. Otaigbe lived in a luxury apartment, where he parked a Mercedes G-Class and BMW 330i out front. He kept mistresses, several employees said, and paid some of their ongoing expenses — including university tuition for one of the women, the student herself confirmed. He also provided financial support to several family members in Nigeria.
Otaigbe’s managers quickly found ways to skim the club’s revenue. Otaigbe responded by encouraging employees to snitch on each other, and he took resulting reports at face value, promptly terminating the alleged offender.
This did little to curb theft, so he hired a young hotel employee from Benin City (Edo’s state capital) named Destiny to monitor the club’s cash flow from behind the bar. Otaigbe paid for Destiny’s travel expenses to Abuja and promised him a tripled salary. He also made good on a promise to provide Destiny with accommodation, though it turned out to be a small, unfinished room that Destiny shared with other club employees.
The club’s managers quickly approached Destiny and offered to cut him in on their system. On a busy Friday, Destiny learned, he could make more than a month’s salary. He demurred as quietly as possible, and made subtle changes in club operations to discourage theft. Within a few weeks, he’d eliminated one of the chief problems: employees bringing their own bottles of alcohol to sell in place of club stock, and pocketing the proceeds.
For his part, Destiny couldn’t believe he’d lucked into working closely with an international entrepreneur like Otaigbe. He made sure to be at work every night, including his nights off. He considered Otaigbe a mentor; Otaigbe told friends he thought of Destiny as a budding protege.
Destiny was concerned, though, that the club — which was rarely busy, except on Fridays — seemed to be bleeding money, and had been for months. He suggested closing on Mondays and Tuesdays, when the cost of running the club’s diesel generator made turning a profit impossible (Nigeria experiences frequent, prolonged power outages). A typical weeknight saw most of the club’s staff congregated in the parking lot; without any customers to serve, they preferred to escape the cacophony inside the club, where Otaigbe demanded the music be played at ear-splitting volume — despite employee and customer complaints — as a means of broadcasting the club’s presence to the rest of the neighborhood, Abuja’s red light district.
Destiny was also unnerved by his first paycheck, which he said was significantly smaller than what he and Otaigbe had agreed on. And he wondered about all the stories the club’s longtime employees told about Otaigbe’s sudden tantrums; the thought occurred to him that if Otaigbe ever turned on him as he had on other employees, he might find himself not just jobless, but also without a place to stay.
After trying on numerous occasions to arrange an interview with Otaigbe, on July 13 I left a note at his apartment in Abuja asking him to get in touch. That night, Otaigbe stormed into his club and demanded to know which of his employees had been associating with me; according to his employees, he later informed them that I was not a reporter as I had claimed, but a special agent hired by the Japanese government to gather intelligence about his business activities.
Sensing an opportunity to rid themselves of a squeaky wheel, those of Otaigbe’s managers who depended on the skimming that Destiny had worked to prevent fingered him as my source of information. In fact, Destiny had not provided me with any sensitive information about Otaigbe’s club or other business ventures. Other employees had. Otaigbe fired Destiny immediately. He also ordered Destiny to vacate the room he had been sharing with other club employees; if he wasn’t out by tomorrow, there would be “trouble.”
In fact, this was not the first time Otaigbe had brought a young employee to Abuja from elsewhere in Nigeria with promises of better pay, a new apartment and meaningful mentorship only to fire them over a perceived slight shortly thereafter, leaving them jobless and homeless in an unfamiliar city. I had spoken with two other people whose experiences with Otaigbe were identical, at least in those particular respects. One current club employee expressed shock and outrage at Otaigbe’s behavior, but asked that I not use his name or publish any direct quotations — Otaigbe had brought him to Abuja, too; he was in the same compromised position.
Three days after Otaigbe fired him, Destiny went to see the accommodation he’d managed to secure in order to give himself time to locate a new job in Abuja; otherwise, he’d have to go home to Benin City. Destiny had only been in Abuja for two months, had spent almost all that time working nights at Otaigbe’s club, and had made very few friends.
Finding short-term housing had not been easy (in Abuja, prospective occupants are required to pay a year’s rent in advance). The best option he had been able to locate was a vacant storefront room where he could lay down a piece of foam to sleep on. The store was in a remote business park that rarely received electricity; the shop had a sink and toilet, but no shower. After getting his first look at the place, Destiny grew silent for a time.
“I’m going to make a lot of money,” he said when he did speak, “and I’m going to get out of this country.”
He was asked where he would go.
“America is too rough,” he said. “Japan should be better.”
This article was reported from Tokyo, Abuja and Benin City, Nigeria. Dreux Richard last wrote about Nigerian cultural troupes in Japan. Read the story here: bit.ly/15xh7IK. Send comments and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org