Accountability

Published — August 24, 1998 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

General as bandit

General Jeremiah Timbut Useni, after four decades of service in the Nigerian Army, proves himself a jolly bad fellow. Can he wriggle out of the probe of General Sani Abacha’s aides who have soiled their hands?

Introduction

LAGOS, Nigeria — Until General Sani Abacha’s death 8 June 1998, Lt.-Gen. Jeremiah Timbut Useni was the second most senior officer in the Nigerian Army. But all that changed over two months ago, when Abacha, Nigeria’s worst dictator died. Not only did Useni lose out in the power-game that followed, he also carried the burden of guilt as playing a part in the indulgence that saw Abacha to his grave.

Then Major-General Abdulsalami Abubakar was promoted a four-star General above Useni and made the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. It was a bitter experience, just when he was closest to capturing the position of the most powerful man in the land. Indeed, the events of the first few days after his friend’s demise were the prologue of the story of his fall from the opulence of power and influence, where he had sojourned for so long. Since his retirement three weeks ago from the Nigerian army, after 41 years in service, Useni has been made to feel the difference between being in power and out of it. Aside from the paraphernalia of office which no longer enjoys, his activities, and sources of stupendous wealth, have come under the scrutiny of the Gen. Abubakar regime.

In a dramatic move last week, Useni was made to taste the bitter end of power. As it did to Ismaila Gwarzo, Abacha’s National Security Adviser (NSA), the Abubakar government, swooped on Useni’s palatial homes in Langtang and Jos.

On Friday 7 August, security operatives from Abuja flew into Jos and Langtang to search Useni’s houses. First, they landed on the Langtang airstrip built by Useni, in his days as Minister of Transport and Aviation during the Babagida era.

The NEWS sources disclosed that over N4 billion was found in his palatial country-home by the combined team of SSS and DMI officers. Of the total money recovered in the Langtang home, over N2 billion was in foreign currency. On the same day, the operatives moved to his house in the millionaires’ quarters (Tundun Naira) area of Jos, on the British-American road, where they discovered over a dozen coaster buses, valued at N110 million, brand new Peugeot cars, shimmering and expensive jeeps and the latest model of Mercedes Benz cars, totalling nine. Sources in Jos, who witnessed the raid, said they saw several bags and other property being moved out of Useni’s house. In the same building, an underground vault where most of the money he looted is kept, was discovered by another team of investigators. The vault, expertly concealed, escaped the prying eyes of the security operatives that carried out the weekend raid.

The Langtang-born General had a modus-operandi for moving his loot from Abuja to Langtang and Jos for safe-keeping. Reliable sources revealed that, at least once a month depending on the in-flow of cash, huge millions of naira are stuffed into beer cartons, sealed and loaded into one of his official vehicles and transported to his country-home, in Langtang. The NEWS has it that on one of such occasions, the driver and the escort, became very curious and decided to find out why the General was stock-piling beer cartons. They opened a few of the cartons and were shocked by what they found in them. On getting to Langtang, they off-loaded 15 of the cartons and fled with the remaining 10. A man-hunt was immediately ordered by Useni but he later gave up because he did not want it to become public knowledge.

Before the Jos raids, Gen. Abubakar had moved against Useni in Abuja, temporarily putting his telephone lines out of service. Also, he was ordered to move out of his official residence in Life Camp. Last week, senior officers of the FCDA, told this magazine that the General had forwarded an application to the permanent secretary pleading that the authority should assist him to furnish his personal house in Maitama district of Abuja. According to him, he had no funds to furnish it himself.

Useni’s current fate might not totally be unconnected with promptings and petitions by serving military officers to Aso Rock, insisting that Useni must be probed since it is common knowledge that he made so much money and wielded excessive power under Abacha. Among military officers, junior and senior, Useni’s stupendous wealth, business investments around the country, his meddling in politics and his personalisation of the Federal Capital Development Authority are issues often discussed. The interview he granted This Day, a Lagos-based newspaper, in which he made feeble attempts to dissociate himself from the excesses of the Abacha junta was said to have angered a few senior military officers now in government, who knew the role he played as Abacha’s pointsman. This group of officers, it was learnt in Abuja, cautioned that the clampdown on the Abachas, national security officer, Alhaji Gwarzo; Chiefs Anthony Ani and Tom Ikimi, former finance and foreign affairs ministers respectively, would be incomplete, if Useni was simply allowed to walk away with his loot and say just anything in the papers.

From Benin to Lagos, Abuja to Jos, Useni has built a sprawling empire of businesses and landed properties, way beyond his means as a military officer. Most of his properties were acquired under questionable circumstances. In Plateau State, there is a joke in the streets that ‘Jerry Boy’ has virtually bought over half of Jos.

In 1997, during the asset-sharing between Plateau and the newly-created Nassarawa Sate, Useni influenced the allocation of the expansive former Benue-Plateau bus terminus property, in Tafaw Balewa Street, Jos, to Nassarawa State. A few months ago, The NEWS investigation revealed,

Useni bought the terminus at N20 million, a sum property analysts described as gross under valuation. The bid by the Plateau Transport Company (Plateau Riders) was rejected. The bus terminus is now being used by Useni’s transport company — Tim-Tali, which has over 25 buses. The UTC building on No. 7, Lord Lugard Road opposite El-Shaddai Chapel in Jos (which he bought a week before he retired), the former army workshop building (001155 PHT) in the same area and a block of flats in Dogon-Karfe, Jos, all belong to Jerry Useni. The block of flats on Dogon-Karfe which hitherto housed the Nigerian Customs Service now serves as quarters for staff of the Tim-Tali Industries. The structure was formerly owned by an Israeli company, Dizengof. There is also the Tim Industries, established three years ago, which manufactures exercise books, files, staple-pins and other office equipment. The industry is located in the Rayfield area of Jos. Early last year, the operation of the industry was said to have been stalled when, on Amos Gizo, Useni’s business front and publisher of City Watch magazine, brought into the country obsolete production machinery. Jerry, on realising he had been duped, ordered Gizo’s arrest. His cars and major properties were seized in Jos. Gizo was only left off the hook after he refunded some money. Their business partnership has since gone sour. The house, No. 6, on Dogon-Karafe, formerly owned by the Industrial Training Fund was bought by Useni and then rented out to the defunct Democratic Party of Nigeria (DPN).

In Langtang, his home-town, his motel, also named Tim-Tali, located not too far away from Gen. Joshua Dogonyaro’s majestic country-home, is one of the cosiest places to stay in Langtang. In his home-town, Useni is reputed to have about seven personal houses and nearly a dozen others in Jos. Yet, another testimony of his ‘stewardship’ in former Bendel, now Edo and Delta states, are the three houses he has there.

In Lion Bank alone, (the Plateau State-owned bank), Useni is said to have bought N100 million shares in his own name and another N50 million worth in the name of FCT with the intention of converting them in the future.

Investigations also revealed that the Abacha Foundation was used as a conduit to rake millions of dollars into his accounts. Usually, the foreign companies, which owe Nigeria are blackmailed into donating to the Abacha Foundation’s. They are then given numbers of some dedicated accounts into which they are asked to pay.

The Abacha Foundation house itself is worth about N400 million and Useni insured that immediately. Abacha died, he took full control as the chairman of the foundation.

It is in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, that Useni has diverse and concentrated investments and properties running into billions of naira. In Garki village and township, he owns well over 400 lock-up stalls, nearly two dozen houses and uncountable number of virgin plots. Under the Tim-Tali Investment portfolio is the industry, Tim door, that manufactures steel doors.

Useni is known to be the owner of many petrol stations, shopping centres, plots of land and buildings.

Most of these, according to a civil servant in the FDCA, are registered in the names of his friends, relations and in a few cases children.

Amidst Useni’s known shopping centres is the Abuja Shopping Centre, almost opposite Fototek building in Area III, Garki, Abuja. It was commissioned some months ago. Unconfirmed sources also said the new two-storey building shopping centre near the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Zone 3, Wuse, Abuja belongs to Useni.

Others include RISS petroleum by A.Y.A. junction on Keffi Road and the numerous pink-coloured block of flats to the left side of the road leading to the Ministers’ Hill from the Federal Housing Authority end of Maitama. Near this pink-coloured, red-stripped block of flats and on top of the hill are two mammoth palace-like structures still under construction. One belongs to Jeremiah Useni, while the other belongs to late Gen. Sani Abacha’s son, Ibrahim, who died three years back. Useni, very often visits the construction sites at weekends. Near the Banex Plaza junction of the road that connects Berger to Kubwa Road, Useni had also acquired a lot of land. This is atop the hill near the Directors-General quarters. It was one of Useni’s latest acquisitions a few months before Abacha died. According to a civil servant at the FCDA, he was about to start developing the plot when he lost out. Yet, this is by no means, the entire documentation of the General assets. Though, he parades a mien of simplicity, he is said to be smart, shrewd and at times ruthless when it comes to protecting his interests. He is believed to have several other investments which are mostly not in his mane and cannot be directly linked to him.

The tribe of contractors, political-jobbers and lobbyists, civil servant and Nigerians who reside in Abuja will never forget how Useni, until his recent inglorious exit from the Nigerian Army, bestrode the Federal Capital Territory like a colossus. He held sway like the lord of the manor. His word was law. He sat over enormous wealth and opportunities which he dispensed at his pleasure. Simply put, he presided over a goldmine. He knew it and employed it to greatest advantage.

Under just five years of being FCT Minister, Useni carved for himself an empire, within an empire. Aside from Aso Villa, his office in the FCDA was a Mecca of sorts. A power and clearing house, from where those desperate to see or have the ears of the last occupant of the villa, had to come to pay obeisance and plead for assistance. Ministers, retired officers, politicians, merchants of ambition and professional sycophants, had to see Useni in order to penetrate Aso Rock. They all came for different reasons. From contracts, political appointments and others, to out-rightly beg for money. Indeed, while he remained the closest person to Abacha, a promise by Useni to fix things at Aso Rock was worth taking to the bank. This was at the very height of his power.

The human traffic at the vast Area 11, FCDA premises where the office of the FCT Minister is located was a testimony to Useni’s power and influence. On a typical day, people troop in, taking up every available sitting and standing space, but it was normal. It was for every person who eventually saw the minister on that day, as on other days, a most tortuous journey through security screening. For most of those that eventually got through, the wait was worth it.

Among friends and colleagues, Useni is know to be a Mr. Fix-It. All one need do is to get in touch with him and once one is convinced that something needed to be done, one can be assured that things will fall in place.

What secured for Usenik his position of power and influence was his close-knit relationship with Gen. Sani Abacha, built over three decades and nurtured through professional and social interactions. It was a relationship he exploited to the fullest. Not only was he Abacha’s alter ego, he also had his ears. He is believed to have been the closest person to Abacha, that is, after his wife. That he went out with the late head of state till a few hours before he died is adequate testimony to the nature of their relationship.

Useni’s relationship with Abacha, analysts, insist, was partly responsible for his long stay in the Army. In the Army, especially under Babagida’s regime, it used to be said that Abacha was a winner and officers with burning political ambitions knew where to pitch their tents. Jerry Useni pitched with Abacha. It is thus instructive that while other members of the famed Langtang Mafia, the new cloutless cult of officers from Langtang in Plateau State, were retired or forced out of the Army, Useni waxed stronger and lasted longer. In fact, he was the last of the core of the Mafia, until he crashed out of power about a month ago.

Undoubtedly, before he was forced out, ‘Jerry Boy’ as he insists he should be called, had many things going for him — power, influence, money and women. A most unbeatable combination.

A survivalist no doubt, he held prominent positions both under the Babangida and Abacha regimes. But it was under the Abacha regime that he achieved the height of his power. For a General believed to have enjoyed too many plum political appointments and perhaps overstayed his welcome in the corridors of power, his exit was long expected. Perhaps, consumed by power and its paraphernalia, Useni failed to see the handwriting on the wall and hung on a little too long, like a child holding on tightly to a cone of ice-cream.

For instance, the humiliation he suffered after Abacha’s death. He was not told about his friend’s death until nine hours later, after major decisions and actions had been taken. Even after he was informed, he was evidently sidelined, as others took charged and terminated his hitherto unimpeded access into the power villa. Only recently, he expressed bitterness over what happened. “I had thought because of my relationship, if there were four or more, when he died, I should be the fifth to hear or know first. Well, when I got there, I felt bad, but they told me they could not reach me on telephone. But what remained unclear was how much they had tried to reach me within Abuja…” he whined in an interview he recently granted. Perhaps, unknown to him is the fact that Maryam Abacha, connived with Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, Abacha’s former chief security officer, to keep him in the dark for as long as possible about his friend’s death, so as not only to scheme him out of the succession plot, but also to get her pound of flesh. Maryam was known to have severally complained about Useni, and in fact, confronted him on a few occasions. Apart from sternly warning Useni to leave her family alone, she equally accused him of being ambitious and of prodding her husband on, on the path of marital infidelity. To date, Maryam holds Useni for her husband’s death, reliable sources revealed. The story of his last outing with Abacha is too well-known by Nigerians.

Shortly after Gen. Abubakar took charge, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Alhaji Gidado Idris, in a terse release, directed that ministers wishing to see the head of state must go through his (Idris) office. Keen observers insist that the directive was meant to checkmate Useni and block his access to Aso rock. Not long after, the Federal Executive Council was dissolved. Useni, in spite of the dissolution, kept going to his office at the FCDA, in the hope that he will be retained. The NEWS investigations revealed that the Presidency simply ordered him to keep off the FCDA and asked the DG to take full charge. An Useni loyalist in Abuja, told this magazine that the General knew that some officers were gunning for him, but he was helpless. “He believed that his years of generosity will see him back in power, but as it has turned out, he was totally mistaken.”

Useni eventually lost out and somehow, the party is over, with the hovering possibility that the government will soon commence a full-scale probe into his tenure as FCT minister.

As he was shrewd in business, so was Useni in politics. Under Gen. Abacha, Useni veered off completely from military professionalism into the field of partisan politics. He was a political organiser and mobiliser extraordinaire as can be seen in the different roles he played in the Abacha political transition programme. His role in the fraudulent political project was said to have fetched him billions of naira. It is on the record that between himself, Gwarzo, Mustapha, Alhaji Wada Nas and Sule Hamma, over N650 billion was spent to run the Abacha parties — UNCP, DPN, CNC, NCPN and GDM and ultimately the self-succession bid of the dark-goggled General.

In an interview he granted a Lagos newspaper, Useni disclosed how he was the grand-co-ordinator of the five parties, while Gambo, Mustapha, Gwarzo, Hamma and Nas served as liaison officers for each of the five parties.

Useni admitted a bias for the UNCP, a party into which he channelled enormous financial resources. He spared no kobo in ensuring UNCP’s victory in all elections. In fact, his aged mother was made the party’s chairman in Plateau State. The landslide victories of the party during the local government and senatorial elections was not unconnected with Useni’s political manoeuvres, which had the blessing and support of his friend, Abacha. He is believed to have put a lot of money at his mother’s disposal to buy victory for the UNCP in Langtang. His brazen involvement and partisanship went a long way to discredit the transition programme. Abacha, on his part refused to call him to order, simply because he was acting out a prepared plot. Useni’s role, however, sparked a great deal of controversies. The riots that followed were inevitable. In the 1997 local government election, Useni interfered with the results both in the FCT and Langtang. In Abuja, in spite of the run-off controversy surrounding the election results, he went ahead in total contempt and usurpation of NECON’s powers, to swear-in one Princess Vivian Anazodo, as the Abuja Municipal Council chairman.

In Plateau State, the victories of the CNC in Mangu and Langtang local government areas were annulled by him while the UNCP candidates were forced on the people. This electoral robbery led to riot and mass destruction of lives and properties. It also signalled the parting of ways between him and Chief Solomon Lar and other prominent Langtang sons and daughters. They saw in Useni’s actions, an unbridled lust for power.

Side by side with the co-ordination of the party, Useni also hiked a ride on the Abacha succession plot, of which he was one of the major architects. He was one of the most vocal mouthpieces of the plot. He, it was, who stated “…The constitution has not barred anybody. If the head of state (Abacha) decides to contest, nothing is wrong with it. If you do not accept him, you will be the only one out of 100 million people who do so.” Useni saw in Abacha’s succession bid, an opportunity to fulfil his own ambition of becoming the Mayor of Abuja. “ There was no plan to go anywhere. Useni saw in Abacha an opportunity to remain perpetually in power,” a source said. Truly so. This magazine’s investigation’s unearthed the information that Useni had gone ahead to complete the papers that would have turned his official quarters in LifeCamp, Abuja, into his personal residence as Mayor.

Criticisms trailed his activities as the FCT Minister. He was alleged to have run the place like a personal estate, cornering most of the juicy contracts and plots of land, employing and firing at will and refusing to put in place any significant project. Most projects remain uncompleted, people alleged, because the contracts were given to women and young ladies with whom he had affairs. These women simply, abandoned the projects mid-way and disappeared with the money.

From the billions he made, he is known to have been generous to friends, colleagues, in-laws, family and close political and business associates. Young, beautiful ladies, however, the most favoured. They got easy contracts of N1 million naira and above.

Abacha confirmed his friend’s generosity when he said of him “…his concern for others and generosity are legendary.” Indeed, the former FCT minister was never one to forget saying ‘thank you.’ As he acquired and built houses for himself, he did same for Abacha on a number of times. A few members of the civilian and military wings of the ‘Langtang Mafia’ are equally believed to have benefited from his benevolent disposition.

Jeremiah Useni’s lust was beyond business and property acquisition. He also coveted traditional titles. At most public functions, he was seen grinning from ear to ear, particularly when his title, the Sardauna of Plateau was announced. No sooner, was the new state of Nassarawa created out of the old Plateau State than he acquired, albeit, unofficially, the double Sardauna title for both Plateau State and Nassarawa states. The Sardauna title believed to be core Northern in origin and of Islamic background has drawn flaks from Useni’s kinsmen who regard it as oppressive and foreign. The condemnations did not deter the General from wearing his Sardauna title like a war metal.

An officer given to a love for power and influence, Useni had his hand in virtually every deal. He is reported to have helped himself to so much money and property in the last few years running into billions of naira. Under Abacha’s regime, investigations revealed that he amassed so much wealth. The exact figures of what he is worth is yet unknown. However, he numbers amongst the five richest retired Generals in Nigeria today. Useni is perhaps correctly regarded as one of those that presided over the unprecedented looting of Nigeria’s treasury under Abacha.

USENI INCORPORATED

Business investments:

  • N150 million worth of shares in the Plateau State-owned Lion Bank
  • Tim-Tali Transport Services, with a fleet of about 20 Civilian buses
  • Tim Industries — production of office stationery
  • Tim-Tali Motels
  • Tim-Doors — production of steel doors
  • Two Petrol-stations in the FCT

Properites:

  • Plateau bus terminus, Jos
  • UTC building, Jos
  • Nigerian Army workshop building worth N450 million, Jos
  • Over 32 houses in Jos, Langtang and Abuja
  • Former Dizengof building worth N350 million, on Dogon-Karafe, Jos
  • Two shopping malls, Abuja
  • Nearly 40 lock-up shops in Garki and Wuse
  • About 70 virgin plots in Abuja
  • Two mini-housing estates in Abuja
  • Over 43 different personal cars
  • A specially-built vault in his Jos home
  • Tim Industries Limited worth N650 million

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