What a surprise it was on our nation’s 36th anniversary of Independence to hear the prime minister’s announcement that one of the year’s two recipients of the Saint Lucia Cross, our nation’s most prestigious award, was a Lebanese-Nigerian.
Imagine the shock and disgust felt by the National Awards committee that had, in accordance with its mandate, submitted several names to the governor general, none of them Gilbert Chagoury.
And now, dear reader, I sense you asking: Who the heck is Gilbert Chagoury, anyway? That was the question I put to Sir John Compton not long after the 1997 general elections, when Kenny Anthony won every seat but one and replaced Vaughan Lewis as prime minister.Sir John told me he had not heard of Gilbert Chagoury until 1995 when Archbishop Kelvin Felix introduced them. The Lebanese-Nigerian was at the time job hunting. If the prime minister (Compton had not yet overburdened Lewis with the PM’s chair) consented to Chagoury as Saint Lucia’s ambassador to UNESCO he would “at his own expense” do everything necessary to gain the organization’s assistance for Saint Lucia’s education programs.
The prime minister agreed, based on Chagoury’s promise also to finance the appointment of a Saint Lucian assistant. The proposed candidate was Petrus Compton, at the time employed at the office of the attorney general. Alas, before Petrus’ traveling arrangements were finalized the island’s political landscape had undergone a sea change: Lewis was no longer prime minister.
Under normal circumstances ambassadors do not survive new administrations. Bearing in mind the Labour Party’s often repeated “Saint Lucians first” pre-election mantra, Chagoury worried his position might be in imminent danger of revocation, with the consequent loss of the related diplomatic passport that was his key to doors previously closed to him. Moreover, he had his eyes on bigger catch.
While on an unpublicized visit to Saint Lucia, the UNESCO ambassador took the opportunity to invite the new prime minister and his deputy Mario Michel to his son’s wedding, all expenses paid. The trip to Monaco marked their first journey overseas since taking office.
Meanwhile, the external affairs minister George Odlum, a nasty smell in his sensitive nostrils, was checking Chagoury’s background. What he discovered confirmed his worst suspicions. By his own account Odlum conveyed all he had learned to his prime minister and his deputy—to no avail. Chagoury had by then landed his whale. Not only had his UNESCO position been guaranteed, he had also managed to persuade the government to install him as Saint Lucia’s ambassador to the Holy See—without any consultation with the local Catholic Church.
In 2003 Gilbert Chagoury again made the news in Saint Lucia. A beaming Mario Michel had announced at a press conference the imminent arrival of Bill Clinton. If already too much was known about the U.S. president’s private proclivities, few Saint Lucians had heard of Chagoury, the man responsible for the presidential visit.
When a pesky reporter asked who would pick up the tab for the visiting president and his huge entourage, the minister was his usual dismissive self.
“That’s an irrelevant detail,” he responded, waving his hand as if shooing a fly. Only after the president had come and gone did the government acknowledge Chagoury had paid.
In July 2004, according to Frontline/World report, police lay in wait at an airfield in the far northeastern corner of Nigeria when Gilbert Chagoury, referred to as “a frontline adviser to the late dictator Sani Abacha,” was set to touch down in his private jet. The report quoted Nigeria’s top anti-corruption prosecutor as saying Chagoury was a kingpin in the corruption that defined Abacha’s regime.
“No sooner had Chagoury’s private plane hit the ground than it took off again,” reported Frontline/World, quoting the Nigerian prosecutor who expressed concern that the billionaire businessman and close friend of Bill Clinton was tipped off. The same source further described Chagoury as “a diplomat representing the tiny island nation of Saint Lucia—and a generous philanthropist.”
In 2010, the then 64-year-old multi-billionaire was yanked off his private jet in New Jersey and detained for several hours after federal agents discovered his name on a recently updated no-fly list.
According to ABC news, “it took Chagoury, a well known philanthropist and an ambassador to the United Nations, more than four months and thousands of dollars in legal fees to get the US government to offer an apology and give him a waiver to fly freely across US airspace.”
Among his good deeds was his contribution a few years back to the Louvre in Paris that was reportedly “large enough for the museum to name a gallery after him and his wife.” In recent years Chagoury has put up reported millions for the construction of medical and nursing schools in his native Lebanon.
Although the Kenny Anthony government has quietly gone out of its way to accommodate a visiting Chagoury (and his pampered pooches, on one famous occasion), he has in the toughest of times made no financial contributions to the local economy, at any rate that were publicly acknowledged and placed in the hands of the accountant general, en-route to the Consolidated Fund.
The notorious businessman hardly ever meets with journalists, unlike his buddy Bill Clinton. Uncharacteristically, however, he had once sat down to be interviewed by a reporter named Robin Urevich.
“On a cool day in 2008,” she later wrote, “I headed up a gently winding road in Beverly Hills, where Chagoury’s Moorish-style villa sprawls across the top of a steep canyon. The home once belonged to entertainer Danny Thomas. Richard Nixon, Raquel Welch and Michael Caine have all lived in the neighborhood.”
After the reporter had written to him for an interview and made several follow-up calls, Chagoury invited her to meet him. “We’ll see if we get along,” he told Urevich, who recalled his home was “packed with art, antiques and crystal chandeliers and offers a staggering view across West Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean.”
She described Chagoury following their first meeting as “a stout man, dressed in a navy blue sport coat, with buttons that strain against his barrel chest. His fingernails are buffed and manicured, and he has a full head of salt-and-pepper hair.”
The two had barely settled down when Chagoury proffered a proposal: “Do your story but don’t sell your work to the media outlet. Do it for me.”
Urevich claims he offered her cash and full control of her product. The reporter “politely turned down the offer, even though he made it several times during the interview.” He also told her he “detests his reputation as Abacha’s middleman” . . . he was “not in that business” and had worked hard as a teenager, building a conglomorate called “The Chagoury Group that employs 20,000 people in Nigeria telecommunications and other sectors.”
Chagoury described himself as an industrialist who did not have time to do all that people say he has done. “Looking me straight in the eye,” the journalist recalled, “Chagoury said he never had to make a crooked deal. He was absolutely sure of himself, even though he had offered me a bribe of sorts just minutes earlier.”
There is enough on Gilbert Chagoury, on the Internet and elsewhere including the world’s most respected media outlets to fill the shelves of our Central Library. But don’t go looking even for his name in the booklet specially printed for the purposes of the 2015 Independence Awards Investiture Ceremony.
For although it provides inspiring information about fellow Saint Lucia Cross recipient Dr. Martin Didier (for distinguished and outstanding service in the health sector), Jade Mountain’s Nick Troubetzkoy (Saint Lucia Medal of Honour (Gold) for outstanding contribution to the tourism industry) and others honored last Sunday, there is nothing to be found on the recipient of the Saint Lucia Cross for “distinguished and outstanding service of national importance to Saint Lucia.” (Is this a new category? Who was the previous recipient?)
Not a word, not a word, not a word!
As I say, the investiture booklet that features an artist’s rendering of what appears to be a stairway to heaven makes no mention of Gilbert Chagoury, the nature of whose services “of national importance to Saint Lucia” we can only speculate.
Then again, perhaps already I’ve devoted too much space to this particular “irrevelant detail!”