Last week, SaharaReporters – which has emerged as Africa’s Wikileaks – reported that Mr. Jonathan Goodluck was “seeking a deal with the UK and United Arab Emirates (UAE) to allow former Governor James Ibori of Delta State to return to Nigeria.”
My first reaction on reading that report was, “Jonathan, say it ain’t so!” The very thought of Nigeria negotiating with two countries – Britain, where Mr. Ibori is wanted to answer grave money laundering charges, and Dubai, where he fled when Nigerian authorities sought his arrest – struck me as absurd. But therein lay the rub. For, as an attorney friend of mine often reminds me, Nigeria has become an address where the absurd makes sense.
There are other reasons to take the expose by SaharaReporters seriously. One, I had heard the speculation before. During my recent trip to Nigeria, I ran into an acquaintance who has a nose for sniffing up scandals in the halls of government. With confidence, this fellow told me that Mr. Ibori would arrive in Nigeria before the April elections. I wasted no time in expressing my doubts. “The British government, which went to great lengths to secure the rights to Ibori, won’t negotiate away their quarry,” I contended.
The man laughed off my skepticism. “Do you think the British government really cares that Ibori stole Nigeria’s money and put it in their banks? Do you think they would still ask for Ibori if President Jonathan tells them that security reports indicate that Niger Delta militants would unleash fire and brimstone if Ibori is sent to London?”
“But,” I said, changing the grounds of the argument, “Ibori and Jonathan are political foes. Ibori was an insider in Yar’Adua’s administration and made a point of humiliating Jonathan. I believe that was one reason, if not the major one, the EFCC tried to take another look at Ibori after Justice Awokulehin said he couldn’t see even a tiny stain on the man’s clothes.”
“This is politics,” my interlocutor said in an assured, didactic tone. “Jonathan doesn’t need to punish Ibori; all he wants is for Ibori to submit. Ibori is down at the moment and will head to prison if he lands in London. However, if Jonathan manages to get him back to Nigeria, he has a good chance of never going to jail. Even if he’s ever sentenced, it would be the Tafa Balogun way – for a few months. And he can get a doctor’s certificate of sickness and spent the six months in a cozy hospital bed.”
I was not persuaded, but I was hardly in the mood to pursue what seemed to me a ludicrous argument. I merely shrugged and shook my head. The man sensed my resistance. As if to settle the matter with finality, and to underscore his surpassing confidence, he asked me, “How much are you willing to bet?”
By constitution not a betting man, I passed. Still, I stuck to my position. I had seen many acts of impunity, many depraved scenarios and schemes, imaginable and unimaginable, come to pass in Nigeria. Even so, the prospect of Mr. Jonathan championing the cause of Ibori’s release seemed somehow farfetched. That, I thought, would be the ultimate act of self-indictment – tantamount to Mr. Jonathan confessing, before Nigerians and the international community, to being a hypocrite, a fraud, and a political suicide rolled into one. No man or woman, I felt, would debase him or herself so shamelessly.
In the wake of the recent report by Saharareporters, I am no longer sure that the acquaintance I encountered in Lagos was just pursuing some will-o-the-wisp.
Here’s another reason why I can no longer sustain my doubt. It was on December 13, 2010 that the Court of Cessation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ruled that Mr. Ibori could be extradited to the UK. It was the second time that a court in Dubai – part of the UAE – would rule against the former looter-in-chief of Delta State. It was also, as far as the legal process went, the final stop.
Why, then, I wondered had Mr. Ibori not been flown to the UK since mid-December?
SaharaReporters suggested that Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, who is Ibori’s cousin, was behind Mr. Jonathan’s reported move to process the former governor back to Nigeria. According to the website, Mr. Uduaghan insisted on the quid of cousin Ibori’s return to Nigeria for the quo of supporting Jonathan’s presidential ambitions.
Even though Saharareporters has proved that it’s hardly wise to bet against its reports, Nigerians must hope that this one is not true.
As I write, the Jonathan administration has maintained a telling silence. This is one occasion when silence cannot be golden. It behooves Mr. Jonathan to instruct his handlers to issue an unambiguous statement, one, denying the report and, two, affirming that Mr. Ibori should head for the UK to stand trial there.
Ibori elicits sympathy in some quarters because, as his supporters often argue, he is not the only one who stole. That argument contains a helpful fact – that too many Nigerian public officials are cut from the same (immoral) cloth as Ibori – but also makes a perverse leap by implying, a, that Mr. Ibori is being persecuted and, b, that he should be allowed to go his merry way.
We should insist that all traitors of the Nigerian people be held to account, in Nigeria and elsewhere. But since some Nigerian judges are blinder than bats, we ought to welcome any occasion when a foreign jurisdiction indicts a Nigerian official for breaking their money laundering laws. Instead of seeking to spring Mr. Ibori from British justice, we should encourage UK prosecutors to investigate other serving and retired Nigerian officials.
I have heard an even sillier case made for Ibori. It is stated that numerous Nigerian officials from non-oil producing regions have carted away the nation’s resources – and have been permitted to live in their opulent mansions and bask in the splendor of their ill-gotten wealth. Then there’s the argument that goes like this: Since Mr. Ibori hails from the region that produces Nigeria’s wealth, he is entitled to his looting.
It is a pernicious contention. True, the high greed index by too many Nigerian officials, from presidents to local government councilors, has deepened the plague of misery in the oil-producing Niger Delta. If Nigeria is ever to reclaim its much-betrayed, now emaciated promise, then its enlightened citizens, in all sectors, must insist on recovering all identifiable stolen funds.
Still, the fact that most who have bankrupted Nigeria are not from the oil-rich region is no justification for the manner of depredation practiced by the likes of Ibori. If anything, the Iboris of the Niger Delta ought to let their conduct be informed by the memory of their people’s festering destitution. To steal so mindlessly from a people who have been so callously treated by others is to demonstrate an absence of memory and sympathy. It is akin to snatching hope from a panting, writhing people.
Mr. Jonathan’s credentials as a crusader against corruption are meager at best. He is embedded with too many corrupt elements. Yet, if he enlists to help Ibori get away with looting crimes, then he would have removed all doubts about where he stands. He would establish himself, without question, as a warrior for corruption. In that event, both he and Ibori are bound to end up, ultimately, as objects of profound ignominy in the eyes of the world – in the eyes of history.