Additional reports by Chikezie OMEJE and Yekeen AKINWALE
FREELANCE consultant and journalism trainer, Ruona Meyer, has said she took all necessary steps, including giving a 72-hour ultimatum, before going public with her observations about Olufunke Phillips’ criminal records.
Meyer had on Friday, March 15, revealed that Phillips, who describes herself as a digital strategist and social commentator, faced cocaine smuggling charges in 2009 and, according to the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) in a statement published two years later, had jumped bail.
The two had entered into business relations, under the name ‘The Beverage Space’, until Meyer did a background check and found out about the questionable past of her former partner.
In a phone interview with The ICIR, Meyer described as a lie the allegation that she did not do anything when she discovered the truth in 2016, before her latest public disclosure.
“First of all, I did my own independent research and discovered that indeed Phillip’s documents are public. So it’s not as if I went somewhere to unearth something very drastic. I mean in 2009, a case has been brought up against her by the federal government,” she said.
“Then 2011, the NDLEA went on the record in a newspaper that was published to say she was among people that fled. So immediately, I contacted people who were in court. That was when I discovered that court dockets are actually online in Nigeria. The case is there for anyone or journalists who want to see.”
She said she, soon after, brought the information to Phillips’ attention in a WhatsApp chat, and Phillips described the criminal charge as “the work of her enemies” without providing evidence of her acquittal or conviction and the time served.
“I told her she needed to give herself up to the law. This was all in the chat. Be that as it may, I cannot do business with you.”
Meyer then told Phillips they needed to terminate the partnership and make sure she didn’t have anything to do with the business as people, especially contacts of Meyer they already met, would assume they still work together.
She then proceeded to block her on e-mail and social media platforms, delete pictures of them together, bring down the company’s website, and pay off the contributors. She also handed over the information she had to a senior lawyer, whom she encouraged to approach the authorities at his discretion.
Recently, Meyer who has been living in Germany before Beverage Space was formed later discovered that Phillips still continues with the business idea and is running it on a much larger scale, only slightly changing the name (from The Beverage Space to The Beverage Room). The Beverage Room was officially launched in 2017. Having a lot at stake if she is suspected of keeping a business partnership with a fugitive, Meyer messaged Phillips on Facebook and gave her 72 hours to take down the platform and disclaim her.
“But she did not [comply],” Meyer said.
Why go public at all?
Meyer considers the case particularly delicate because it involves drugs. Proving one’s innocence once a relationship has been established with a drug suspect, she said, is more difficult than in cases of murder for instance, and she could easily pass for an accomplice.
“Everybody knows that drugs move through people and places,” she told The ICIR. “It doesn’t matter if I’m abroad then I could have been her money launderer, that’s what somebody would say.”
“You see the way these drugs are able to rub off on people, for instance, the people they claim she was working with as a volunteer or whatever. You know it rubbed off on them. So because of that, I didn’t want to be linked in any way.
“In Germany where I am, it would only be a matter of time. All they need to say was that in my thirties, 10 years ago or three years ago, it doesn’t matter even after I’m dead, I was associated with a drug dealer. You see the way I know my country Nigeria, it’s the way I know my country Germany too. They won’t tolerate it. They will ask me what did you do as somebody who knows that someone else broke a law. Did you disclaim yourself publicly? So I had to do what I had to do because there is another type of standard here.”
She explained that she was also being careful because of the huge amount of cocaine found in Phillips’ possession.
“You cannot joke with someone who is associated with 3.1kg of cocaine,” she said. “Common, I weighed 1.5kg at birth and I’m a twin. Both of us weighed 1.5kg. Two babies’ worth of powder is not a joke. I am not a criminal but common sense will tell you that anybody that is given the weight of two babies in powder is not a newcomer, is not a small person [in drug business].”
Heading to court?
Yes, Meyer replied to the question of whether she intends to institute a court case against Phillips. “There is only one problem: it appears she has gone into hiding.” But Meyer insisted she would go ahead nonetheless.” If not for anything, but to set a precedent and also to undo my slight mistake which was, not going public earlier,” she said.
If she is still unable to trace her, she added, she may resort to serving her the court processes on newspaper pages.
“I am not going to wait for her for that long. Because already it will take some time to even get the case to court because paperwork has to be done by the court. I need to sort this fast because I don’t ever want it to be that there will be one day and I cannot defend myself. And then something will come up. And that’s part of why I am doing this,” she said.
Since her disclaimer, Meyer said, she has received reports from many individuals who told her they had thought all along that she was still a silent partner in the company. With litigation, she hopes to compel Phillips to delete her company’s Facebook group and pull down the website.
“No matter what the outcome of the court is, we’ll go to court also for the same reason I did the disclaimer. So that the record shows we went to the full length of the law, to legally dissociate myself. And that’s what I am going to do.”
Threats from strangers
Meyer told The ICIR she has been threatened by persons whose identity she doesn’t know since her disclosure two weeks ago. Her brothers have, for example, received strange calls from people who drop the calls immediately they answered.
“I have also had people come up to me and say, ‘Ruona, where are you exactly?’ I said I was in Germany. They said are you on a visit because these people know I shuttle to and fro. And I said no, I am actually back home here. And they said, ‘Ruona, you know what, just stay there’. And these are people I know that they don’t joke,” she recounted.
She added that the threats do not bother her, “not yet anyway”, and she has resolved not to live in fear of whoever the people are.
Not ready to speak now, replies Phillips
Phillips, in a reply sent to The ICIR’s inquiry on Wednesday, has said she is not prepared to present her side of the story but would get in touch when this changes.
“Thanks for your email. I am not talking on this matter,” she wrote. “When I am ready, I will let you know.”
According to a 2011 media report, Phillips was among over 26 suspected drugs barons and traffickers who were standing trial at the Federal High Court in Lagos, and then jumped bail after they were released from Ikoyi and Kirikiri maximum prisons.
Ahmadu Giade, then NDLEA chairman, had vowed to ensure their re-arrest and declared them and their sureties wanted for prosecution, but nothing has happened since then.
Phillips was a volunteer in Sanwo-Olu’s campaign team – Media Aide explains
When contacted for his reaction the Media Aide to the Governor-elect of Lagos State, Gboyega Akosile described Olufunke Phillips as one of over 5000 volunteers that worked for Babajide Sanwo-Olu during the election campaign.
Akosile told The ICIR in a telephone conversation that the office of the governor-elect was not ” carrying any liability for anybody.”
He said that the campaign team which Phillips was a part as a volunteer has since been disbanded after the election was won.
“Funke worked as a volunteer and if you watch the media trend very well, about a week ago when the campaign ended we disbanded the entire campaign team,” Akosile said, adding, “So we are not carrying any liability for anybody.”
“There are over 5000 volunteers and every one of them came because they believed in the vision of the man. It wasn’t like there was a proper engagement or employment, no. This is a political season, it is a norm everywhere in the world, people just volunteer.”
“It might even interest you that Mr. Sanwolu does not know many of them, they just donated their time and talents.”
UPDATE: In the previous publication, The ICIR reported that Meyer and Phillips did not answer messages sent to them. We later discovered that the messages were not received by the two sources. We regret the lapse.