After what the British authorities have described as one of the longest, most complex and expensive operations mounted by the Scotland Yard in recent years, James Ibori, former Delta State governor, appears to have been fully caught by the proverbial long arm of the law
It is a classic case of one man’s saint being another man’s criminal. In Nigeria, he was set free and given a clean bill of health. As far as the Nigerian judicial system was concerned, James Onanefe Ibori, former governor of Delta State, had no case to answer.
But not so for the United Kingdom, UK, judicial system. As far as the prosecution in the UK is concerned, Ibori is one man who should be brought to justice. And that is exactly what has happened. Come Monday, April 16 and Tuesday April 17, this year, Ibori will stand in full embrace of the long arms of the law as Justice Christopher Hardy of the Southwark Crown Court reads out his sentence.
The former Delta State governor has been accused by the British police of stealing about $250 million (approximately N38.75 billion at the exchange rate of $1 to N155) over the eight years that he was governor. With the money stolen, Ibori was said to have bought some luxury London homes and a fleet of armoured Range Rovers. At one time, he was said to have spent £15,000 in a two-day stay at London’s The Lanesborough Hotel and owned several other properties in Britain.
Confronted with these charges, Ibori initially pleaded not guilty but by last week Monday, the former Delta State governor dramatically changed his plea and admitted guilt of 10-count charges of money laundering and conspiracy to defraud. Ibori admitted that he was guilty on one count of conspiracy to launder money, five counts of money laundering and one count of obtaining a property transfer by deception and the theft of more than £25 million (approximately N6.125 billion at the exchange rate of £1 to N245) while he was still a governor. The former governor also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud, conspiracy to make false instruments and one count of money laundering linked to a $37 million share fraud in the sale of Delta State’s stocks in Vmobile, a mobile network service provider.
The former governor’s plea attracted a devastating tongue-lash from Sasha Wass, prosecuting Queens Counsel, who said Ibori “was never the legitimate governor and there was effectively a thief in government house. As the pretender of that public office, he was able to plunder Delta State’s wealth and hand out patronage.” The prosecuting counsel also added that Ibori “tricked” his way into the position of Delta State governor by claiming he is 53 years old as opposed to his real age which is 49.
Wass’s reference to Ibori’s controversial age was no doubt intended to draw attention to the man’s apparently dubious past. Why would he add to his age whereas the conventional practice in Nigeria is to reduce the figure? The answer, says the British prosecutor, is traceable to Ibori’s past involvement in crime and efforts to cover his tracks. In 1991, while working in a hardware store in the London suburb of Neasden, Ibori was caught allowing Nkoyo, his then girlfriend who later became his wife, walk through the till he was manning without paying for goods picked. They were both arrested and tried. They both pleaded guilty at Isleworth Crown Court and were fined. The prosecution in that trial told a judge that Ibori was then earning around £15,000 a year.
Just one year after, Ibori was once again convicted for possession of a stolen credit card, which had £1,000 spent on it, and was again fined in a UK court.
Perhaps tired of his serial conviction in the UK, Ibori then returned to Nigeria intending to become a political operator in 1993. The country was then about tilting towards political crisis as Ibrahim Babangida, military president, had scheduled elections to return Nigeria to democracy in June 1993. The election was annulled but Ibori who had joined the political campaign had learnt some lessons and made some powerful connections.
By the time the late General Sani Abacha took over the reins of power, Ibori was said to be a “consultant” to the administration, a designation that meant that he had some unspecified role in security for the ruthless administration that was better known for its penchant for assassinating its opponents. Whatever the role was, it fetched Ibori some good money. So much was the money that in the mid-1990s, he was questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, FBI, in the United States, US, about how he came into the possession of millions of dollars that he transferred to accounts in the US. The FBI suspected the money came from advance fee fraud, the infamous Nigerian ‘419’ scam, but he was able to prove the money came from his work with Abacha.
Perhaps to stave off further investigation from the US authorities, Ibori once again shifted his interest back to the UK. There, he decided to use his newfound wealth to buy properties. But there was yet a snag: His previous criminal records. To evade his past, Ibori therefore got a new passport with a false date of birth, which indicated that he was born on August 4, 1958. With that document, he was able to take mortgage on a property in Abbey Road, London, in 1999. That same birth certificate was presented in the run-up to his election as governor of Delta State in 1999. Everything thereafter seemed perfect except that there was an oversight he never really took care of until the team of prosecutors led by Wass pointed it out to him. His newly chosen date of birth made him just one month younger than his only surviving sister, Christine Ibori-Ibie. They are both of the same mother and therefore the date he chose for his birth was, in fact, medically impossible.
Ibori-Ibie and Udoamaka Okoronkwo, a mistress to Ibori, and Nkoyo have all been sentenced to five-year prison terms in the UK for their roles in assisting Ibori to successfully loot Delta State. The date of birth was however not the only skeleton from the past that had come to haunt Ibori. In the run-up to the April 2003 general elections in which Ibori was seeking re-election for a second term of office, Messrs Goodnews Agbi and Anthony Alabi went to court to challenge his eligibility for the exalted office of a state governor. They argued that he was an ex-convict. In this instance, they were not referring to his conviction in the UK. It was in fact unknown to them at that time.
Instead, Agbi and Alabi were convinced that Ibori the governor is the same as James Onanefe Ibori who was convicted for criminal negligence and theft of building materials at Usman Dam near Bwari in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja in 1995.
The case dragged on for over a year before Justice Hussein Murktar of an Abuja high court handed Ibori a clean bill of health. The judge insisted that the plaintiffs in the matter failed to establish a nexus between the convicted James Onanefe Ibori and the one that was Delta State governor. He even only just stopped short of accusing Justice Awwal Yusuf, the trial judge that convicted Ibori in 1995, of senility. “Although the surname, the middle name and the first name of the convict on the record proceedings in CR-81-95 are the same with that of Delta State governor, such coincidental circumstances may not be enough to conclude that Governor James Onanefe Ibori is the same person convicted in the charge. This is more so when the memory of the principal witness of the plaintiffs, Justice Yusuf, has been seriously faulted, even in events that recently happened,” the judge ruled.
That was not the only instance where Ibori succeeded in planting a question mark on the integrity of the judiciary. Even his current travail in the UK is in itself a major indictment of the Nigerian judiciary. Convinced that Ibori had dipped his hands into the public till while serving as governor in Delta State, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, arrested him on December 12, 2007 at the Kwara State lodge in Asokoro, Abuja. He was slammed with a 170-count charge of corruption. To make matters worse, Nuhu Ribadu, then chairman of the EFCC, further alleged that Ibori tried to bribe him with a cash gift of $15 million which he (Ribadu) said he had deposited with the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, as evidence.
Considering the weight of such evidence, an average observer believed Ibori was in serious trouble. As it turned out, he once again had the better side of the system. To start with, he aligned himself with the political campaign of the late president Umaru Yar’adua and literally bankrolled the late president’s campaign in 2007. With that, he was able to ingratiate himself with the new government.
While he was supposed to be standing trial, Ibori became a power broker in the Presidency and in the process influenced the appointment of Michael Aondoakaa as attorney general of the federation, AGF, and minister for justice. He also allegedly influenced the appointment of David Edevbri, a man who served as his commissioner for finance in Delta State, as principal private secretary to the late president. Other appointments that reportedly had the imprimatur of Ibori at that time included those of Mike Okiro and Ogbonnaya Onovo, former inspectors-general of police, as well as Farida Waziri, former chairman, EFCC, among others.
With these strategic appointments, Ibori then moved further to deal a killer blow on his corruption trial. First to be dealt with was Ribadu. The anti-corruption boss was removed from office under the guise of being sent on a course at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, NIPSS, Kuru, near Jos, Plateau State. He was demoted and later retired from the police.
By December 17, 2009, a federal high court sitting in Asaba, Delta State, discharged and acquitted Ibori of all the 170-count charge of corruption brought against him by the EFCC. Marcel Awokulehin, the trial judge, dismissed the case, arguing that the EFCC’s case was unnecessary and inappropriate. With that decision, attention then shifted to the UK courts where due to corruption allegations his assets valued at $35 million had been frozen in August 2007. But Aondoakaa was there to defend the former governor. The former AGF not only frustrated efforts of the EFCC in prosecuting Ibori, he also went as far as writing the Southwark Crown Court clearing Ibori and absolving him of any criminal prosecution in Nigeria.
This was the state of affairs until April 2010 when the President Goodluck Jonathan-led administration reopened Ibori’s trial. At this point, a fresh allegation of embezzlement of N40 billion was pressed against him. This was happening at a time Ibori was no longer in control of the levers of power and he therefore fled from Abuja to Lagos and later to the creeks of Oghara, his homeland. It was from there he sneaked out of the country only to resurface in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, UAE.
As it turned out, his adventure into Dubai was an error. He was arrested by the International Police, INTERPOL, and subsequently extradited to the UK where he has finally pleaded guilty to the same charges that were dismissed by a law court in Nigeria.
Reacting to the latest development on Ibori, Wilson Uwujaren, acting head of media and publicity, EFCC, said the agency received the news with joy. And it had every reason to. Ibori’s investigation not only stretched the agency, even the British police authorities described it as “one of the longest, most complex and expensive operations mounted by Scotland Yard in recent years.”
Beyond that, Uwujaren added that, “while the EFCC looks forward to the sentencing of Ibori on April 16, it is however a matter of concern that it took the intervention of the UK criminal justice system for justice to be served in the Ibori case. While all who worry over the effect of corruption on our nation may celebrate the Ibori guilt plea, we must all spare a thought for our judiciary, which needs urgent reform to ensure that those who loot our treasury do not get away with their loot.”
The situation is also particularly worrisome for the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, which recently threatened to start naming corrupt judges, and lawyers who perpetuate corruption in the Nigerian judiciary as part of efforts to sanitise the sector. Akin Oyebode, a professor of law at the University of Lagos, in an interview with the magazine said the problem is not with the Nigerian judiciary as an institution but with some of the men and women who hold briefs as judges and who have been giving Nigeria a bad name. “Nigerian judges who have been compromised have not done well for the country. It’s a sad commentary on the state of affairs in terms of the judiciary. We’ve lost all sense of shame and self-respect which we ought to ascribe to,” Oyebode lamented.
This loss of respect that the judiciary has been subjected to by wealthy Nigerians is not exclusive to the Ibori case. Typical examples can also be found in the Haliburton and Siemens bribery allegation cases where nationals of other countries involved in the case had been prosecuted and jailed by their countries while their Nigerian accomplices are still walking the streets free. This, perhaps, explains why Uwujaren observed that, “sadly, it has taken five years of legal rigmarole and high drama for the former governor to own up to having committed some of the crimes for which Justice Marcel Awokulehin of the federal high court, Asaba, sensationally acquitted him in December 2009. The commission challenged the ruling. That appeal is still pending before the court of appeal, Benin City, Edo State.”
For Uwujaren, the most interesting aspect of the development in London is the fact that Ibori chickened out of a full-blown fraud and money laundering trial by changing his plea. “This was purely a gambit to run away with a lighter sentence, rather than the product of a plea bargain as erroneously reported earlier in sections of the media. For the avoidance of doubt, plea bargain is not recognised in UK criminal justice system,” Uwujaren said.
But Ibori, as at press time last week, claimed that his guilty plea was part of a bargain he had struck with the British authorities. Speaking through Tony Eluemunor, his media assistant, Ibori said the world was made to believe that his plea of guilt was a sudden turnaround instead of the well-deliberated part of a plea-bargaining deal that it was. “Of course, that plea-bargaining deal would only kick in with Ibori’s pleading guilty, which he did this week Monday. After that plea, both the prosecution and the defence counsel were to return on 16th and 17th April to make their needed statements,” the statement read.
“Unfortunately, while Ibori’s lead counsel stayed true to this time-tested legal procedure, the prosecution counsel went rogue and began to make wild and unfounded statements aimed at nothing but self-glorification and Ibori’s demonisation,” Eluemunor added. The Ibori spokesman added that the prosecution lawyers were labouring at damage control, as the publication in several Nigerian newspapers had leaked out the secret that the seven-year investigation against Ibori had not only cost the British taxpayer £14 million but was funded by the Department of Foreign Development. “The prosecution then laboured hard to justify the money spent and stave off another official inquiry into the much investigated London Metropolitan Police that has been accused often of grave misdeeds.”
As far as Uwujaren is concerned, statements like that are simply diversionary. Said he: “Now that Ibori has owned up to his crime, the commission is mindful of the concern in some quarters as to what becomes of his case with the EFCC. For the benefit of stakeholders and lovers of justice, it is interesting to note that the offences for which Ibori faces imminent jail term in London are only a minute aspect of the bouquet of offences committed by the former governor during his eight-year rule of Delta State.”
He added that, “the bulk of the criminal charges against the former governor is still before courts in Nigeria and there are no plans to vacate those charges. Moreover, the former governor didn’t steal alone. There were accomplices and as recent as two weeks ago, some persons who allegedly assisted him to launder stolen funds were questioned by the commission. EFCC is determined to bring all Ibori accomplices to book, no matter how long it takes.”
In the interim, he said the EFCC awaits the sentencing of Ibori and, more importantly, the repatriation of the funds stolen from the treasury of Delta State government. “That will be some just reward to Nigerians for the efforts and resources that have been committed to the corruption and money laundering investigation and trial of James Ibori,” Uwujaren said. In the same vein, the Delta State government is also eagerly waiting for the fund to be repatriated to the state. Chike Ogeah, the state commissioner for information, said that the state government would demand that the loot be returned immediately to the state’s treasury as ordered by the court. Ogeah explained that since the laundered money by Ibori, who ruled the state between 1999 and 2007, rightly belonged to the state government as declared by the court, the government would set machinery in motion to ensure that the assets are retrieved.
For Adebamigbe Omole, chairman, NBA, Ikeja, Lagos branch, the Ibori saga at least presents some ray of hope in the long run. “The take of the NBA on Ibori’s conviction is that many politicians, especially governors, who are in the habit of plundering the people’s wealth, will also face justice someday,” Omole said.