There’s no other way to put it: last week was simply terrible for former Governor James Onanefe Ibori and his wife, Theresa Nkoyo Ibori. In a London court, an enterprising, no-nonsense Crown prosecutor put Mrs. Ibori through a grueling cross-examination. Theresa Ibori is being tried in London for aiding and abetting her husband’s money laundering during the eight years he presided over the affairs of Delta State.
In a clinical, methodical and painstaking performance, the prosecutor, Ms. Sasha Wass, revealed some of the former governor’s financial shenanigans as well as his crazed acquisition of high-priced homes and automobiles in the UK and elsewhere. Then, through merciless, sweltering questioning, she got the former governor’s wife to admit that she and her husband had been convicted of theft in England in the early 1990s. Therein, I propose, lay the really bad news for Mr. Ibori personally – and, even more sadly, for Nigeria as a whole.
Mr. Ibori’s handlers – chief among them, my friend Tony Eluemunor – had made a racket of denying the fact of Ibori’s conviction in the UK for theft and possession of a stolen credit card. They portrayed those who reported or commented on their principal’s criminal past as peddlers of malicious fiction, or worse.
Of course, anybody who wasn’t a certified ostrich knew long ago that Ibori was indeed tried, found guilty and sentenced – along with Theresa, his then girlfriend, now wife. In a sense, then, Mrs. Ibori’s admission in open court that it was her husband who earned a criminal conviction in London, not some faceless namesake somewhere, should be neither here nor there. We knew already, thank you.
Except that it was, as a point of fact, a big, big deal for what it says about Nigeria and the running – or shall we say, more aptly, the ruining – of its affairs.
Nigeria is an Ibori-tized space, and that fact explains why that nation is in a sorry state – and is bound to become an even sorrier, messier address unless an alliance of enlightened citizens rise up to say, Enough!
I have made the point elsewhere, but it bears repeating here. As far as its leadership history is concerned, Nigeria is like a laboratory set aside for some absurd experiment. And that experiment appears to be this: to find out how a nation might turn out if it’s put – from the presidency all the way down to local government councils – in the hands of tested, brainless, unconscionable criminals.
Nigeria’s Ibori-tized philosophy explains why the misruling elite often sets out to recruit proven pirates, rogues and embezzlers to occupy most of the elective and appointive political offices.
Ibori, who’s in Dubai trying to fend off his extradition to the UK to answer money-laundering charges, is of course less cause than effect. His particular story is playing out in London, but he is far from a unique case. How many of the governors in Ibori’s class of 1999 to 2007 can honestly argue that they did not steal in his fashion – or worse? How many of them can stand up to serious, UK-grade scrutiny, not the sloppy, wishy-washy job that Nigeria’s anti-corruption agents do? How many of these ex-governors, or ministers, or commissioners, or local government chairpersons and councilors, can boast that they were not infected with that moral virus that pushes public officials to steal any naira in sight – and much that wasn’t in sight?
For convenience, we might name this virus Iborititis. But Mr. Ibori has no patent to it. He’s simply one among a collection of sick men and women who rig, maim and kill their way to the presidency, governors’ lodges, legislative seats, or local government fiefdoms. Once there, they start to do what they know best, namely, the mindless pocketing of public funds. They don’t seem able to help it, bereft as they are of any visionary compass, puny in mind, men and women powered by an infantile hunger for mansions in such places as the US, the UK, Dubai, Canada, and South Africa, unaware that the beautiful spots they relish, the expensive cars and gadgets they buy up are products of other people’s imagination, creativity, energy and disciplined enterprise.
Check the number of former Nigerian governors who own homes in exquisite, clean neighborhoods in one foreign address or another. And then go visit the home cities where these governors strutted their stuff, the capitals where they puffed up themselves as “executive governors,” and you’d be shocked by the contrast. You’d find, even from the most cursory look, that these ex-governors left their state capitals as veritable blights, eyesores. You’d find refuse-clogged, stench-beset streets. You’d find rutted and gutted roads, open gutters running over with stagnant water, fetid, brackish, and algae-infested.
I suspect that there’s a direct correlation between the grandeur of the homes purchased abroad by former governors and the sordid state in which they left their state capitals.
And make no mistake: the blame’s not to be exclusively borne by the Iboris of our world. Other sectors of Nigeria are implicated in the incessant assault on Nigeria’s best dreams, the relentless abortion of its promise, and the steady abbreviation of its potential.
Think about the numerous judges and justices in Nigeria who – faced with the simple question to determine whether Governor Ibori was the selfsame James Onanefe Ibori convicted of theft of building materials – ended up with the farcical conclusion that he was not the same person! And how about the curious case of Justice Marcel Awokulehin who acquitted Ibori of all corruption counts?
The issue, as one has been at pains to contend, goes beyond Ibori. It goes way beyond him. As a people, Nigerians despise thieves. For evidence, go to any bustling market or bus stop. On a good day, you’re bound to find the charred remains of a pickpocket who’d been garlanded with disused tires, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. We loathe thieves so much that we don’t have the patience to put them through the rigmarole of a court trial. Be caught riffling through somebody’s pocket for loose change to buy a meal, and you can count on instant incineration. No ifs or buts, no commutation, no appeal, no mercy.
Yet, when serving or former government officials flaunt their questionable assets and acquisitions before our faces, what do we do? Some of us become Iboritized theologians. We proclaim the scandal that God had blessed the looter. Some festoon the lootocrats with grandiloquent titles. They hail these certified frauds as “political icons,” applaud mindless looters as administrative geniuses who have “delivered the dividends of democracy” or “totally transformed” their state or nation, or praise them as “governor of the year,” “best performing minister,” or “the founder of modern Nigeria”!
One direct consequence of the recruitment of criminals into “leadership” positions is to perpetuate the culture of impunity and to sustain Nigeria’s deepening crisis of underdevelopment. One inept criminal “leader” anoints and hands over to a fellow criminal, and Nigeria is the worse for it. The ring of looters then organize to look out for one another, the rest of the country be damned.
The US government has made a bundle from fining Halliburton and other companies found guilty of offering bribes to top Nigerian officials. Meanwhile, the Nigerian government’s reaction is to refuse to reveal the names of those who received the bribes. It’s a posture of absolute indifference.
Wait a minute – did one just say indifference? No, it’s not indifference, but, in fact, active prote
ction and encouragement of those who betrayed Nigeria by receiving the bribes. In the midst of a looming general strike by workers who are demanding an adjustment in minimum wages, the government last week announced lavish pensions and other benefits for former rulers – among them, the bribe recipients. Most of these bribe guzzlers are enrolled in rolls of national honor laureates. The German government has censured Siemens for handing out bribes to Nigerian officials. Meanwhile, Nigeria has made it up to poor Siemens by awarding it more (and juicier) contracts!
Iborism will remain ascendant in Nigeria until the country’s real stakeholders – the citizens whose future is as dire as their present is dismal – awake to the viciousness of the looters’ game and, through the wise exercise of their vote, reclaim their nation and begin the arduous task of purging the virus, then reinvigorating and humanizing their lives.