James Ibori, former governor of Delta State, bags 13 years’ imprisonment in the United Kingdom years after escaping from the long arms of the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary in Nigeria
James Ibori, former governor of Delta State, who once dined with kings and princes, mingled with aristocrats and academic eggheads, would by now be donning a prisoner’s attire in one of the many prisons in the United Kingdom, UK. The former governor, who was untouchable before the Nigerian judicial system, was cut to size when confronted by the British system. Last week, Ibori was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment at the Southwark Crown Court, London, on a 10-count charge of money laundering and fraud. This brings to an end his seven years’ game with the law enforcement agencies in Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, UAE, and the UK.
At the Southwark Crown Court, where Ibori was sentenced, the charges levelled against him by the prosecution team were quite astounding. Perhaps, that was why Ibori, having seen the writing on the wall, had pleaded guilty in February. Ibori was said to have embezzled about £200 million (N50.4 billion) from the public till. With the ill-gotten wealth, he was said to have bought a house in Hampstead, North London, for £2.2 million (N554 million); another apartment in Shaftesbury, Dorset, for £311,000 (N78.5 million); and a mansion in South Africa for £3.2 million (N807 million). His taste for ostentatious lifestyle did not end there. The prosecution also revealed that he purchased a fleet of eye-popping cars at a staggering amount of money. He acquired a Bentley for £120,000 (N30.3 million), a Mercedes Mayback for €407,000 (N123 million), which was shipped directly to his mansion in South Africa. He also purchased a fleet of armoured Range Rovers valued at £600,000 (N151.5 million). He was also said to have salted away large amounts of money in many foreign accounts. This money also includes a £23 million (N5.8 billion) proceed from the sale of Delta State’s stocks in VMobile, a mobile network service provider.
Sasha Wass, prosecuting Queens Counsel, while making a catalogue of Ibori’s criminal activities, described the former governor as a common thief who lived the life of a millionaire. Wass revealed to the court that Ibori had made his four-month-old son a director in one of his companies he had used as a conduit to launder stolen funds. She noted that Ibori had “systematically and deliberately defrauded his people during his tenure as governor of the oil-rich Delta State.” Not done with her argument, she concluded that the magnitude of fraud Ibori perpetrated would never be known. Wass also listed Ibori’s many bank accounts, which he allegedly used to launder the stolen funds. “Six in Barclays, two in Citi Bank and several in the Channel Islands.” She also revealed to the court that Ibori’s contest of the governorship election, less than 10 years after he was jailed by a British court, was a violation of Section 181 (1) and 182 of the Nigerian constitution.
Ibori, in 1991, was convicted of stealing from a hardware store where he worked in London. His then girl friend, Nkoyo, who later became his wife, was equally found guilty. She had been his accomplice as she had walked through the till he was manning without paying for the selected goods. They both pleaded guilty at Isleworth Crown Court and were fined. Just a year after, Ibori was once again convicted for possession of a stolen credit card, which had £1,000 (N252,000) spent on it. He was again fined in a UK court.
Ibori’s counsels, overwhelmed by the mountain of evidence against their client, put up a spirited defence in an attempt to secure a light sentence. His lawyers told the court that the former governor had been instrumental in securing the release of hostages in the Niger Delta region. They also got John Fashanu, the Nigerian born international footballer to testify in favour of Ibori; the star footballer praised the former governor for his contribution to the development of sports in the region. Fashanu added that the former governor had built nine mini-sports stadia and three Olympic-size stadia in his state. But all this apparently had little impact on Judge Anthony Pitts, who after the lawyers’ submission raised further suspicion that Ibori’s ill-gotten wealth might have been underestimated. “In light of other matters, perhaps that is a ludicrously low figure and the figure may be in excess of £200 million (N50.4 billion), it is difficult to tell. The confiscation proceedings may shed some further light on the enormity of the sums involved,” he said before slamming him with 13 years’ imprisonment.
Ibori was as displeased with the sentence as his many supporters who had thronged the court premises protesting his trial. Perhaps he had thought he would have got a lighter sentence after admitting guilty in February.
Sue Patten, head of Crown Prosecution Service, CPS, Central Fraud Group, in a statement after the sentencing shed some light on the amount of resources that was put into the investigation of the case. She revealed that it took an elite team seven years of determined work with assistance from the relevant agencies of several countries to bring the case to a fruitful conclusion. Perhaps that was why she described the case as the most complex case the group had dealt with in 35 years. She remarked that the case generated 151 folders, the equivalent of 60,000 pages of evidence. “The case we assembled was on a large scale and in several prosecutions. We issued over 70 letters of request to other countries to help us unravel the complex and sophisticated network of nominee companies and foreign bank accounts that Ibori used to cover up his ownership of the stolen money,” she said. She also added that “a combined sentences of 43 years imprisonment have now been imposed on Ibori and those convicted for assisting him, including his sister, his mistress, his wife, his lawyer and other.”
Ibori’s conviction however seemed to have touched the raw nerves of the South South Grassroots Coalition, SSGC, who described his sentence in a London court as a “blatant political persecution shrouded as a legal persecution.” In an advertorial titled: Ibori: You’ll Never Walk Alone, placed in one of the dailies last Tuesday, the group alleged that both the Nigerian and British establishments were on the prowl to curtail the epic advancement of Ibori. An allegation they failed to prove in the said advertorial. They also portrayed the former governor as a sacrificial lamb suffering for the sins of his party in silence in the said advertorial. “Some may scuff that as Ibori pleaded guilty, any basis for saying he is a victim of political persecution no longer remains. Sneer and jeer as they may, we know for sure that Ibori elected to bear his cross, instead of helping to wash Nigeria’s dirty linen in a foreign court.” The advertorial also argued that Ibori had saved the nation the embarrassment that would have emanated from a full-blown court trial if he had not admitted guilt. “For instance what salacious copies would have come from the foreign press if Ibori had embraced a three-month trial to dish out details of the monetary aspects of the third term tenure elongation plot, the funding of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, or the details of how the PDP was able to keep airborne a flotilla of seven aeroplanes and several helicopters and other logistics that gave it victory in the 2007 general elections all in a foreign land.” The advertorial which was signed by six persons, one from each of the six states in the South-south region, concluded that Ibori was walking on a righteous path. Hence he would never walk alone.
The SSGC’s view, which holds Ibori as an embodiment of heroism, is however against the flow of current of opinion towards the case. In fact, many people see Ibori as an embarrassment to the nation while his acquittal under the Nigerian judicial system is deemed as an indictment of the nation’s judicial system. In 2009, Ibori was served a clean bill of health by a federal high court sitting in Asaba, Delta State, which discharged and acquitted him of the 170-count charge of corruption preferred against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. The anti-graft agency had arrested him in December 12, 2007 at the Kwara State lodge, Asokoro, Abuja, and charged him to court for corruption. But Marcel Awokulehin, the trial judge, dismissed the case, arguing that the EFCC’s case was unnecessary and inappropriate. Michael Aondoakaa, the then attorney general of the federation, AGF, and minster for justice, had after efforts to prevent the EFCC from charging the former governor to the court in Nigeria, wrote the Southwark Crown Court, insisting that Ibori was never indicted of any criminal charge nor was he under any such investigation.
Ibori’s respite from the arms of the law was short-lived, however. In April 2010, the EFCC under the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan revisited his dossier and reopened his case. A fresh allegation of N40 billion embezzlement was preferred against him. This was unfolding at a time he was no longer a power-broker in the government circle. Under the administration of the late president Umaru Yar’Adua, Ibori had found his way to the heart and ears of the servant leader by bankrolling the late president’s campaign in 2007. It was this generous gesture that conferred on Ibori the clout to influence some juicy positions, including the appointment of Aondoakaa as the AGF. Ibori swiftly reaped his reward for nominating Aondoakaa for AGF, which made it possible for the latter to shield the embattled former governor from the arms of the law. The death of Yar’Adua and the swearing in of Jonathan as president put an end to the arrangement.
Faced with the prospect of another trial, Ibori retreated to Oghara, his hometown, a prelude to his escape from the country to Dubai, UAE. But that action turned out to be his undoing. He was arrested by the International Police, INTERPOL, and was later extradited to the UK, where he was sentenced to 13 years in prison for some of the charges that were dismissed by a law court in Nigeria. This is why Francis Njoku, a legal practitioner, calls for an overhaul of the nation’s judicial system. He rues the fact that the system is susceptible to manipulation and corruption. “It is evident that the judicial system needs a hard look. That is why our system could not sustain just one of the 170-count charge preferred against Ibori. This same person that was given a clean bill of health in Nigeria pleaded guilty in London, even before the trial mechanism was fully activated.
That is a system that has zero tolerance for corruption. But in Nigeria you can bribe your way through the judicial system.” he opined. Akin Oyebode, a professor of law at the University of Lagos, in an earlier interview with the magazine, insisted that the problem was not with the Nigerian judiciary as an institution but with some of the men and women who hold briefs as judges but have been giving the country a bad name. “Nigerian judges who have been compromised have not done well for the country. It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in terms of the judiciary. We have lost all sense of shame and self-respect which we ought to ascribe to,” Oyebode lamented.
But it is not only the cankerworm of bribery that has made the Nigerian judicial system almost incapable of what the Southwark Crown Court in London did with Ibori’s case. There are also many practices adopted by Nigerian lawyers that have helped to grind the wheel of justice in the nation to a halt. These include incessant applications for adjournments and the practice of interlocutory appeal, which necessitates a stay of proceeding of the original case. Both practices can elongate a case, which ordinarily should not be more than three months, over many years. “The reason why some lawyers file interlocutory appeal is to wear out the prosecution and the witnesses. Some of the witnesses may have died, or suffered memory loss, or might not be interested in the case again after many years,” Njoku observed.
If Ibori’s conviction before a London court is an indictment to the nation’s judicial system, the nation’s security agencies can certainly not wash their hands clean. This is because an aspirant to an elective office should normally have been thoroughly screened by the security agents, a process that should ensure that his or her candidacy does not violate the Nigerian Constitution. But in the case of Ibori, his candidacy in 1999 appears to have been an outright violation of Section 181 (1) (e) of the Nigerian Constitution. The section provides that “no person shall be qualified for election to the office of governor of a state if within a period of less than 10 years before the date of election to the office of the governor of a state, he has been convicted and sentenced for an offence involving dishonesty or he has been found guilty of the contravention of the code of conduct.”
His conviction in 1991 and 1992 in the UK was less than the 10 years’ period stipulated by the Constitution that bars a convict from contesting any election. Ibori contested for the office of the governor in 1999 under the banner of PDP and won. In 2003, he stood for re-election and won again. But in the run-up to the April 2003 election, Messrs Goodnews Agbi and Anthony Alabi went to the court, challenging his eligibility for the office of a state governor, arguing that he was an ex-convict.
But if Agbi and Alabi were aware of Ibori’s conviction in the UK, they did not disclose this at the high court before Abuja. Instead, the duo claimed that Ibori the governor was the same 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 was ferociously litigated from the Abuja high court to the Supreme Court with all the judges involved in the case entering various verdicts. However, 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 the governor of Delta State. In fact, Justice Murktar had barely 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 the 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 the events that recently happened,” the judge ruled.
But if the country’s law enforcement agency had had a good database that stored the fingerprint and mugshots of every convict, as is the case in other advanced countries, the case would not have planted a big question mark on the integrity of the nation’s judiciary as it later did.
There are those who believe that Ibori’s earlier conviction in the UK also puts a question mark on the integrity of the nation’s political system and organ. Oladele Solanke, a lawyer and social critic, observes that Ibori’s earlier conviction in the UK in 1991 and 1992 had revealed to the international community that a convicted thief could still be elected as the chief security officer of a state in Nigeria. That was exactly what Ibori demonstrated in 1993 when he returned to Nigeria from UK after his double conviction there. Ibori had aligned himself with the regime of Ibrahim Babangida, military president, and subsequently to that of the late General Sani Abacha. In fact, Ibori was said to have been a consultant to the Abacha administration, a role which seemed to have fetched him a lot of money so much so that in the mid-1990s, he was quizzed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, FBI, in the United States, US, in respect of a huge sum of money he had wired to his account in the US. The FBI had suspected that the fund was the proceed form advance fee fraud, the infamous Nigerian ‘419’ scam, but he was able to prove the money came from his work with Abacha.
When the country was on the threshold of its return to democracy in 1999, Ibori deftly positioned himself aligning with the PDP, leading to his victory at the polls.
Princewill Akpakpan, head of legal unit, Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, submits that a political system that could crown Ibori as a governor is a system that leaves little to cheer. He also criticised the nation’s judicial system as being subject to the manipulation of the political class. “This is why people who steal billions of naira get away with it. Our judicial system should be able to learn from the UK, so that other ex-governors who have stolen would be brought to face justice,” he explained.
Akpakpan seems to have Joshua Dariye, a senator and former governor of Plateau State, and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, former governor of Bayelsa State, in mind. The duo jumped bail in London over money laundering charges. Other former governors who have allegations of gross misconduct hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles include Jolly Nyame, Taraba State; Chimaroke Nnamani, Enugu State; Orji Uzor Kalu, Abia State; Lucky Igbinedion, Edo State; and Boni Haruna, Adamawa State.