NEW YORK - Until last month, Nigerian presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar had a problem. He was persona non grata in the U.S. after cropping up in connection with several corruption investigations.
Then the cloud lifted. Years after he’d last been seen in the U.S., Abubakar surfaced in Washington in January. He held court at the Trump International Hotel. He met with members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Congress. Those meetings were trumpeted to his followers back home on Facebook and Twitter. The public tour has helped silence opponents who said Abubakar couldn’t effectively lead one of Africa’s biggest economies if he wasn’t even welcome in the U.S.
Abubakar had been blocked from entering the U.S. under a State Department edict applying to officials linked to foreign corruption, two former U.S. officials said. One of them said the Nigerian had been seeking a waiver to enter the country for years and expressed surprise when told that the effort was ultimately successful.
Abubakar’s rehabilitation was driven in part by Washington lobbyists and lawyers with links to President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential race. Ballard Partners — run by Brian Ballard, a fundraiser for Trump’s campaign who now has a deep roster of clients eager for an inside track to the administration — helped set up meetings for the candidate in the U.S., according to people familiar with the firm’s work for him.
Law firm Holland & Knight lobbied the State Department, House of Representatives and National Security Council on Abubakar’s behalf on visa issues, according to a disclosure filed with Congress. The firm’s lead lobbyist on the effort was Scott Mason, who previously directed congressional relations for Trump’s campaign and transition team.
In defusing opponents’ chief criticism, the U.S. visit and meetings positioned Abubakar as a stronger challenger, not to mention a potential international partner to the U.S. should he prevail in Nigeria’s Feb. 16 presidential race. He’s the leading opposition candidate to run Africa’s most populous nation and top petroleum producer, where wealth and corruption mix with extreme poverty to create deep concerns about security and safety.
A member of Abubakar’s communications team, Boladale Adekoya, denied Abubakar had been banned from the U.S. A State Department representative declined comment.
Mason didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Ballard referred questions to its lead lobbyist for Abubakar’s political party, James P. Rubin, who said he wasn’t involved in getting the travel visa and was focused on pushing for fair elections in Nigeria.
Abubakar’s troubles with the U.S. date back more than a decade. In 2004, George W. Bush signed a presidential proclamation meant to deny corrupt foreign officials a coveted luxury — fluid access to the good life in America and a safe place to stash ill-gotten proceeds.
Abubakar’s name surfaced in two criminal cases in the U.S. — the prosecution of German engineering giant Siemens AG for paying bribes to officials in Africa, and the prosecution of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.
In the latter case, Abubakar, then Nigeria’s vice president, gained notoriety for his connection to $90,000 in cash found in Jefferson’s freezer in 2005. In a secretly videotaped conversation, Jefferson told an undercover informant that the money was for Abubakar, intended to smooth the way for a U.S. company’s African expansion. Prosecutors never introduced evidence showing Abubakar solicited or accepted a bribe, and he was never prosecuted. Jefferson was convicted, though his case was partially overturned on appeal.
Abubakar was also the subject of a 2010 congressional investigation, which found that he and his wife transferred more than $40 million in suspect funds into the U.S. from offshore corporations. Lawmakers said Abubakar held a stake in an oil-services company that received hundreds of millions of dollars in payments from Western companies seeking to do business in Africa, including when he was vice president.
Abubakar has attributed his wealth to prudent investments and luck. In an interview, Edward Weidenfeld, a Washington lawyer who represented Abubakar at the time of the Jefferson and Siemens cases, said he maintained his innocence in those proceedings.
Adekoya, the Abubakar spokesman, said Jefferson had falsely accused Abubakar of being the intended recipient of the cash. Regarding the $40 million Abubakar brought into the U.S., Adekoya said it was intended as payment to American University to launch a school in Nigeria. He added that Abubakar is a “reputable entrepreneur’ and a successful businessman, that his funds were from legitimate business ventures and that his oil-services stake was held in trust while he was in office.
Once the State Department bars a foreign official it becomes difficult to get the ban rescinded, according to the two officials. By U.S. law, the status of visa applications is confidential. So are the identities of barred foreign officials. The process by which people get on or off the list is also opaque.
In certain cases, the department will grant temporary waivers allowing dignitaries to visit, often with limits on duration and itinerary. If indeed a ban were in place, Abubakar may have been granted a waiver to encourage good relations should he win, one of the officials said.
Holland & Knight, which was hired at the end of October, disclosed payments of $80,000 in relation to its visa work for Abubakar.
Through his spokesman, Abubakar said he applied for and received a visa through the U.S. mission in Nigeria.
Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party of Nigeria inked a $1.1 million annual contract with Ballard Partners last fall, according to foreign lobbying records filed with the Justice Department. People familiar with Ballard’s work on Abubakar’s behalf said it included getting him a meeting at the State Department during his visit and shepherding him to various events.
Rubin, Ballard’s primary lobbyist on behalf of Abubakar’s party, was an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration. He joined Ballard’s firm as a lobbyist last year, according to a disclosure filing. (He was also previously an executive who helped lead Bloomberg’s editorial page, then called Bloomberg View.)
“My work on behalf of the People’s Democratic Party exclusively focused on pushing for free and fair elections and did not involve any consular matter or visa matter,” Rubin said.
Ballard Partners opened its Washington office in 2017, just months after Trump’s election. Ballard had previously been as a lobbyist in Florida for Trump; after the election, he was a member of Trump’s inaugural committee. The expanding client roster includes household corporate names such as Amazon.com Inc., Boeing Co., Uber Technologies Inc. and H&R Block Inc., according to lobbying disclosures filed with Congress.
Ballard has also attracted a roster of foreign governments such as Kosovo, Qatar, the Maldives and Azerbaijan. Another pair of clients, the Republic of Turkey and Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS, have been implicated in U.S. court proceedings in a scheme to aid Iranian sanctions evasion, for which Halkbank remains under scrutiny by U.S. authorities.
The firm has also been expanding and adding firepower, in recent weeks hiring other Trump loyalists including a recent White House spokesman, Raj Shah, and the former attorney general of Florida, Pam Bondi. As attorney general, Bondi declined to pursue fraud charges against Trump University after Trump’s charitable foundation gave $25,000 in 2013 to a re-election fund for Bondi.
During his visit, Abubakar held a “town hall” at the Trump International Hotel in Washington to meet with Nigerians in the U.S. He also appeared on a panel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, stopped at the office of the Voice of America and met with Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican. Abubakar’s campaign broadcast the town hall meeting on Facebook, and he posted a string of photos of his U.S. visit and meetings to his Twitter account, including one from his arrival at the airport putting him back on U.S. soil.
A spokesman for Smith didn’t respond to questions about the meeting. A Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman said the round-table discussion was private.