James Ibori: Nigerians’ Collective Shame

by Abiodun Ladepo

As I watched the end of James Ibori’s money laundering trial in London, UK, I knew that Nigerians could only manage a constricted sigh of relief. Yes, Ibori was headed for prison – 13 years; yes, Ibori would regurgitate some of the billions he has stolen; and yes, Ibori and his cohorts would be shamed – if they are capable of shame. But Nigerians should be more ashamed of themselves for living in a country and in an era where not only were such mind-boggling thieving permitted, culprits could not be prosecuted even when caught!

Where is former attorney-general, Michael Aondoakaa, the man who, at the behest of James Ibori, frustrated Nuhu Ribadu out of office and truncated the otherwise laudable role the EFCC played in attacking corruption? When he Aondoakaa was eventually sacked, it was rumored that he might be arrested and tried for corruption. That never happened. How on earth could such a country, imbued with world-class talents in every facet of human endeavor, have had an entity like Aodoakaa as attorney-general? Where is Mike Okiro today, the former inspector-general of Police who gullibly re-assigned Nuhu Ribadu? Aondoakaa it was, who swore up and down Nigeria, and even flew to the U.K. (as “prosecutor”) to defend Ibori against British “persecution”. How does he feel today when Ibori admitted that Ribadu and the EFCC were right about charging him for corruption? In some societies, Aondoakaa would be found hanging tomorrow morning for the shame that he brought on the entire judicial system of Nigeria as its head. Mike Okiro, entrusted with the primary job of preventing ALL crimes, the apprehension of ALL criminals, and the just dispensation of the professional development of all officers in the Police force, should also be found dead tomorrow morning, having shot himself in the head for the shameful desecration of that exalted office. These two accidents of humanity, in the absence of a healthy president (Yar’Adua was terminally ill at the time we now know) colluded to derail Nigeria’s march towards the cleansing and sanitization of its public offices. They colluded to cause Nigeria’s retrogression into the dark abyss of blatant corruption. How do men like these continue to walk the face of this earth after such professional humiliation?

Gone into those hopeful years are the days we celebrated the arrest (by our own law enforcement agencies, particularly the EFCC) and successful prosecution of the “big men” in our society. Oh, I recall with fervor the day former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, was literally dragged into and out of the court by men he led only months before, thoroughly prosecuted for embezzlement and related charges, convicted, and made to forfeit some of the stolen money and properties. Balogun also went to jail to boot. Gone into oblivion are the days when former governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyesiegha, was bundled, impeached and chased around the world until he forfeited some of his loot.

Today, the EFCC is a shadow of the one that Nuhu Ribadu led; which is why we have to rely on the British authorities to help nail Ibori. It is difficult to keep track of Ibori’s catalogue of extra-ordinary stealing, but one example is so ordinary that even the fish in my aquarium understands (sorry, I have no pet dog): In 2001, Ibori used a point-man, Henry Imasekha, to obtain a N2.2 billion loan from the now defunct New Nigerian Bank (NNB) and used the money to purchase a 10 percent shares in the Econet Wireless Network (EWN), now Zain Network. To most casual observers, that is such an innocuous transaction, transparent to the general public and seemingly harmless. The government can even claim to have engaged in the deal in the larger interests of making the State richer, right? But when the government of Delta State, under Ibori, quickly bought the shares from Imasekha for N2.5 billion, allowing Imasekha (read Ibori) to instantly make a N300 million profit, you begin to see how the politician gets rich and the State gets fleeced. Then you ask yourself: Didn’t such a thing happen under Governor Rashidi Ladoja of Oyo State when he started to sell (on the eve of his departure from office) government shares bought under the governorship of Lam Adesina? Didn’t Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti State also use a point-man to steal from his people?

It turns out that it is the simplest form of corruption by government officials in Nigeria, dating back to pre-independence. Yet, the general population feigns surprise when a man like Ibori who was nearly as destitute as I was in 1998, became a governor in 1999 and attempted to buy a $22 million airplane for himself. Within two years of becoming Governor, Ibori paid $4 million in cash for a house in the upscale Hampstead area of north London; bought a mansion in Dorset, bought a Jaguar; bought a Bentley, and bought a Maybach 62 (You could pay over a $1 million for a Maybach 62!) This did not include the slew of properties he owned in Abuja and Lagos. In one single money laundering transaction (to which Ibori pleaded guilty in London), he peeled off $37 million in “consulting” fees during the sale of Niger Delta’s shares in V Mobile! In total, Ibori has admitted to stealing about $85 million from the impoverished people of Delta State. His British prosecutor remarked that once they begin confiscation proceedings, Ibori’s theft could really amount to about $360 million!

Ibori, as a sitting governor, owned and operated bank accounts in Switzerland, the U.S., Nigeria, Britain, the Virgin Islands, Gibraltar (Gibraltar?); some in his name, and some in other people’s names, in utter contravention of relevant Nigerian statutes. Remember, former military governor of Lagos State, Buba Marwa, owned a bank account in Kenya, through which Sani Abacha laundered money that he and Marwa used to start the now defunct Albarka Airlines? Kenya? By the way, Marwa, after being arrested and interrogated by the EFCC; and AFTER admitting that he operated the account as a serving Governor (in violation of laws specifically prohibiting governors from doing such) later became Nigeria’s envoy to South Africa.

One of the mind-numbing things about Ibori’s case is that in 1990, while he was a cashier at Wickes DIY, a home improvement store in the U.K., he was caught, along with his wife, Theresa, stealing money from the till. Ibori was convicted and fined £300 (about $520). In 1991, he was also later convicted of credit card fraud and fined £100 (about $170). Yet, he managed to become governor of Delta state; managed to stand with Presidents Obasanjo and Yar Adua; managed to nominate people like Aondoakaa for the post of attorney general; managed to sit with scores of other governors in Nigeria; and managed to help found the ruling PDP in Africa’s most populous Nation.

Ibori is Nigerians’ collective shame. It is a shame on the system that allowed a convicted felon to hold such an esteemed position in a society as sophisticated as ours. It is a shame on a society that allowed all these “imported” and locally bred felons to occupy such exalted positions. And they are still there. We have, in our State and Federal Legislatures, men and women who were rusticated from universities for stealing student union funds; we have men and women who went to jail in the U.K. and the U.S. for credit card frauds and were deported to Nigeria after serving time; we have governors who forged their birth certificates (like Ibori) and forged their university diplomas and certificates. And yes, we have governors whose professional resumes are replete with false claims of accomplishments. In the age of the Internet and dependable data and voice communication, there is no reason why we cannot better vet our public officials. The question is: who will bell the cat?

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