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  • In Nigeria, Rev. Lyons explored oil deals

    By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 24, 1997


    Oil. Construction contracts. The Nigerian Stock Exchange.

    In what they called a humanitarian mission to assess Nigeria's needs, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons and 12 other Baptist ministers and business people also turned their sights on investment opportunities in Africa's most populous nation.

    By the time the group left in early July, many Nigerians were wondering if the true purpose of the visit was less to help the needy than to make money.

    "It was manifest that these . . . American clergymen were neither in Nigeria for evangelism or democracy but simply for contracts," said a story headlined "Contractors in Cassocks" in the Nigerian weekly magazine The News.

    Lyons, president of the 8.5-million National Baptist Convention USA, was reported by Nigerian-based press organizations to have:

    Expressed a "profound interest" in getting involved in Nigeria's multibillion dollar oil industry, one of the world's Top 10. Nigeria's government sometimes gives lucrative oil contracts to foreign "friends" as a way of rewarding them for their support of the nation's unpopular military leaders, one expert says.

    Requested contracts to build housing in Abuja, Nigeria's capital city. Abuja, with more than 1-million people, has a housing shortage that Lyons reportedly promised to ease by putting up single-family units "in under three weeks."

    Met with officials of the Nigerian Stock Exchange to discuss the possibility of listing NBC Holdings, a for-profit company created by the National Baptist Convention.

    Boasted that the convention has "enough clout to block any sanctions on Nigeria." He reportedly added that 500,000 letters have been mailed to African-Americans to educate them on the "real situation" in Nigeria, whose leaders have been condemned by the U.S. government for jailing the winner of the 1993 presidential election, executing dissidents and committing other human rights violations.

    Joining Lyons on the trip -- hosted and paid for by the Nigerian government -- were three women and nine men with a variety of business interests. They included a minister who helps market cemetery plots and another Baptist pastor who was an early investor in Donald J. Trump's Gary, Ind., riverboat casino venture.

    Among other members of the delegation were the co-founder of a huge U.S. computer company; an anchor woman for CNN's financial news network; and her husband, a former Denver Broncos running back who is now in the technology business.

    Lyons returned home July 10 to a firestorm of controversy that erupted after his wife tried to burn down a $700,000 Tierra Verde home that he owns with Bernice Edwards, a woman who accompanied him on the trip. He has refused to answer most of the questions that have arisen about his complex personal and financial dealings.

    But even before his wife's arrest Lyons was generating criticism several thousand miles away.

    "You Are Fake" shouted the headline on one Nigerian newspaper story in which a pro-democracy group denounced the visiting Americans as "military apologists pretending to be religious leaders."

    "I'm so very disappointed . . . this cloud has been cast on this otherwise fruitful and productive trip by some of the activities of the National Baptist Convention, which candidly I knew nothing about prior to going," said Robert Morris, the former Broncos player and a partner in Digital Universe Organisation, an entertainment technology company.

    Morris said that another member of the delegation -- whom he would not identify -- approached him about joining the mission.

    ""They saw us as a valuable component (of the mission) and something Nigerians certainly wanted to discuss and that's technology and that's why we were invited," he said.

    Morris said he and his business partner, Myra Peterson, were most interested in exploring ways that technology could be used to improve life for Nigeria's 101-million people in such areas as education, communications and new-business development. He acknowledged, though, that they were also exploring business opportunities for themselves.

    "When you're in the midst of all this and see other American companies, you say to yourself, "If everything is so bad here, why are they here?' It raises the question in your own mind as a business person what does this region have to offer professionally. That's consistent with the way that I as a businessman operate within this country looking for opportunities."

    Morris also was accompanied by his wife, CNN financial network anchor Valerie Morris. The couple say she came along strictly as "a corporate wife" and was not representing CNN, which can be seen in Nigeria as well as other African nations.

    Lou Dobbs, executive vice president of CNN, said he knew Morris was going on the trip. He would not comment when asked if there was any concern that her visit, paid for by the Nigerian government, could have the appearance of impropriety or pose a possible conflict with her role as a news person.

    "I do not seek to control any journalists," said Dobbs, who said Morris was on vacation from CNN at the time. "What she does as the wife of Robert Morris is her personal business and does not in any way fall under my influence as her manager."

    Morris said he wanted his wife along to share the experience of returning "home" to Africa as descendants of slaves captured 400 years ago.

    "That was the heart of our trip, that we were returning and hopefully in better shape than when we left, hopefully in a position to contribute what we have learned in our time away.

    "It's just unfortunate that some potential good may get lost in the midst of Dr. Lyons' story and I have no idea how that's going to shake out."

    'There is no way to lose'

    Although Nigeria's military government has paid for numerous African-American groups to visit the country, Lyons' delegation was widely seen as getting more access than usual to top government officials. Among those they met with were the head of state, Gen. Sani Abacha, and oil minister Dan Etete

    Gilbet Da Costa, an Associated Press reporter based in Nigeria, said Etete's press officer told him that Lyons "expressed profound interest in conducting business in the oil sector."

    The officer would not give details and Lyons did not respond to questions from the Times. However, experts say that individuals -- as opposed to large companies -- sometimes deal in Nigerian oil through the use of potentially lucrative "spot-oil" contracts that enable them to sell surplus Nigerian oil on the world market.

    The contracts, issued by the Nigerian government, can be "a way of rewarding people to sort of gain favor for the government," said Alan Frishman, who specializes in Nigeria as an economics professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York.

    Most of Nigeria's oil is sold through "term" contracts held by major oil companies. Sometimes, though, they have more oil than they need, so the excess is put up for sale on the spot market. The Nigerian government sets the price and a spot oil trader can make a handsome profit if he sells the oil for more than the specified price.

    Conversely, a trader can lose big if the market is glutted and the oil doesn't sell for the set price.

    "It's just like shooting dice -- you can win or lose," says John Pastis, an American who has spent years in the Nigerian oil business.

    Pastis, who said he knows Gen. Abacha personally, disputed the idea that the Nigerian government would give a spot oil contract to someone like Lyons who presumably is unfamiliar with the oil industry.

    "If you say, "Look, I hear there's plenty of money in the oil business, can I have a spot?,' the reply would be "Definitely not -- you're not an oil trader.' You can't take just one spot and make money -- you have to be known in the industry."

    However, the government can give its friends spot oil contracts with built-in profits, according to Bola Tinubu, a former corporate treasurer for Mobil Oil in Nigeria.

    "When it's arm's length, yes, you can lose money," said Tinubu, a government opponent who is now in exile in the United States. "But when they give it to a contractor as patronage, the profit margin is included. There is no way to lose money."

    Among the other business ventures Lyons explored was building low-cost housing in Abuja, the new capital city that is in the midst of a construction boom.

    According to the Associated Press, Lyons told the minister of works and housing, Maj. Gen. Abdulkarem Adisa, that his group had developed an innovative technology using burnt bricks, and had similar projects under way in Ghana and the United States.

    The minister told Lyons "that the Nigerian government as a matter of policy only approves of housing projects executed under joint partnership agreements (with the government)," the AP said. "He advised the delegation to furnish him with details of their proposals specifying the technology to be applied, type of houses to be built, costs etc."

    It is not known whether Lyons followed through on that request.

    In a meeting with officials of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Lyons and others in his group expressed interest in listing NBC Holdings Inc. on the exchange, according to several Nigerian newspaper accounts. The National Baptist Convention created NBC Holdings as a for-profit company that has, among other things, been involved in an effort to build a convention center hotel in Broward County.

    Lyons told exchange officials that the company already is managing an unspecified multimillion dollar business in Ghana.

    The delegation's 10-day visit to Nigeria was condemned by human rights groups, opposition leaders and even many Nigerian Baptists, who said that Lyons and others had made little effort to get a range of opinions about the country and its leadership.

    Said the National Democratic Coalition: "The team has been cornered by their hosts who daily organize luncheons and dinners for them at public expense, thereby making them accessible mostly to the government's views."

    And Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's Nobel Prize-winning playwright who is now in exile and teaching at Atlanta's Emory University, wondered how much "fact-finding" Lyons' group could do on such a visit.

    "Information is always useful but the question is how much first-hand information you can get under a rigid dictatorship that arrests and imprisons those with dissenting opinions."
    -- Contributing to this story were staff writers David Barstow, David Dahl and Waveney Ann Moore, and researchers Natalie Watson and Kitty Bennett.


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