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  • Nigeria's brutal regime paid for recent Lyons trip

    By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 16, 1997


    On its recent visit to Nigeria, a delegation led by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons stayed in luxury hotels, rode in limousines and flew on a state-owned plane -- all at the expense of Nigeria's government.

    Given the VIP treatment, critics say, it's not surprising that Lyons has emerged as a friend of that government and its military ruler -- a man viewed by much of the world as a brutal, repressive dictator.

    Lyons "should be ashamed of himself," said Randy Echols, U.S. representative for the imprisoned winner of Nigeria's 1993 presidential elections. "The president now lingers in jail while Lyons is sipping on pepper soup in Abuja," the capital.

    Lyons, head of the National Baptist Convention USA, was several days into his African mission when his wife was charged July 6 with setting fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde home Lyons owns with another woman. The arrest ended his trip and focused national attention on his complex financial and personal affairs.

    But Lyons spent enough time in Nigeria, a nation riddled with crime and corruption, to raise questions about his reasons for going and the potential impact on U.S. foreign policy. Lyons has publicly praised Nigeria's ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha, and promised to push for a loosening of U.S. sanctions imposed on Nigeria for its failure to cooperate in international drug interdiction efforts.

    By some estimates, Nigerian smugglers account for 40 percent of the heroin sold on U.S. streets.

    Lyons disputes the extent of Nigeria's role in the U.S. heroin trade -- "We didn't see a drug problem over there" -- and says the African nation has gotten a bum rap in general from the U.S. government and media.

    "I was afraid to go because . . . all I had to feed off was the propaganda this State Department was selling," Lyons said Tuesday in a brief and limited interview, his first since his return. "I found it was as different as night and day from what I expected."

    But Lyons' trip, paid for by the Nigerian government, was part of Nigeria's own propaganda effort to legitimize the current regime, said Mobolaji Aluko, president of the U.S.-based Nigerian Democratic Movement.

    "There's a healthy skepticism of Western pressure on black nations," Aluko said. "However, we would have preferred that before they go to a place like that they converse with a cross section of Nigerians so all of us can present our own cases to them."

    A British colony until 1960, Nigeria has been ruled by military dictators for much of its 37 years of independence. Abacha seized power in 1993 and jailed the winner of that year's presidential elections, wealthy businessman Moshood Abiola.

    In 1995 the government caused international outrage when it hanged nine dissidents, including a prominent writer. A leading newspaper, banned from publishing for a year, had no sooner returned to circulation than its offices were nearly burned to the ground by attackers brandishing machine guns.

    Today Nigeria is considered so dangerous that the United States has suspended all direct flights by U.S. airlines and warns about travel in certain parts of the country because of frequent carjackings, robberies and assaults, some committed by people in police and military uniforms.

    "Upon arrival in Nigeria, U.S. citizens are urged to register at the U.S. Embassy in Lagos where they may obtain current information and advice on minimizing risk," said a recent State Department travel warning.

    However, officials said, Lyons and his delegation had no contact with either the State Department or the embassy. It is unlikely that they needed any help, given the kind of travel arrangements described by a local reporter.

    Gilbert Da Costa, an Associated Press writer based in Abuja, said the group stayed in a five-star Hilton hotel -- Nigeria's finest -- flew in a plane from the presidential fleet and rode in stretch limousines with police escorts clearing the way through the notoriously crowded and dangerous streets.

    "I figured the government wanted to make things easier for them to get around," said Da Costa. "When you're a guest of the Nigerian government you get the best kind of treatment."

    Lyons said he had no idea how much the trip cost -- "I imagine it was a pretty penny" -- but called it a valuable fact-finding mission to assess the country's needs and its progress toward restoring democracy.

    The 14 or so members of the delegation included experts in computer sciences, telecommunications, construction and other fields. "It is a country that exists 90 percent on its oil," Lyons said. "It's rich with other resources but it doesn't take advantage of them."

    Lyons said he and the Nigerian housing minister discussed how African-American companies and entrepreneurs might help alleviate the country's acute housing shortage. The delegation also met with the minister of oil and with the Oba of Benin, a tribal leader who greeted them at his palace and appealed to them to "withdraw all sanctions on Nigeria and leave us to solve our problems."

    In a subsequent speech, the AP's Da Costa reported, Lyons praised Gen. Abacha for refusing to bow to U.S. demands for a quick return to civilian rule.

    Lyons also told reporters he would increase pressure on the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus -- a fierce critic that has called for tougher sanctions on Nigeria -- to change its attitude.

    "We'd tell them that if you don't come over here to see things for yourself, don't criticize over there in the U.S."

    Da Costa said Nigeria's own Baptist convention "wasn't too happy" with Lyons' delegation because of its obvious ties to the government. "They sensed it was really quite embarrassing." The current Nigerian regime and Nigerian interests have spent at least $5.1-million to lobby the U.S. government since 1993, records show. In 1996 and in March, Nigeria paid for dozens of Americans -- including several from the National Baptist Convention USA -- to observe local elections that were supposed to be the first step toward restoration of full democracy in 2006.

    "My impression is they were fairly run," said Sharion Thurman, a St. Petersburg high school English teacher who was chosen by Lyons to be one of the observers last year. "You can't just go there and throw Western ideas of democracy on these people. Nigeria has more than 250 tribes, each of which speaks a different language and has own customs, and just to get together to do this kind of thing was remarkable."

    Despite his efforts on behalf of the Nigerian government, Lyons said he has not been asked to become a paid lobbyist or agent. "I'm a man, I support my family, I'm not going to sit here and say I'm going to turn down some money, but that never came up," he said. "My effort has been strictly from a humanitarian point of view and right now that's strictly what it is."

    African-American support of Nigeria, he said, is no different from that of other ethnic groups speaking up for their homelands:

    "Jewish-Americans see to it that Israel is well cared for, Polish-Americans take care of Poland. Why shouldn't me or somebody like me stand up for Africans?"

    However, Echols, representative of the jailed Abiola, said U.S. "fact-finding" missions only serve to perpetuate a brutal regime that is hurting its own people.

    "This is the central question with American blacks such as Rev. Lyons who go over there -- would they go over there if this regime were white? If it were a white minority oppressing a black majority like they did in South Africa, would they have the nerve to take money, go over and become part of a propaganda campaign that's reminiscent of Nazi Germany?"
    -- Washington bureau chief David Dahl contributed to this report.


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