Mention the name James Onanefe Ibori and many different emotions and impressions flood the Nigerian mind. The man is seen as a personification of arrogance and avarice. He’s perceived as an embodiment of the worst in the Nigerian “misruling” class. He conjures the image of a man who gets away with anything.
Well, not any more. Wanted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to answer to charges of diverting billions of naira in state funds, Ibori was finally arrested last week – thanks to the doggedness of British law enforcement – in Dubai.
The last Nigerians heard about Ibori before he turned up in Dubai, he was holed up in a fortress in his hometown of Oghara – reportedly protected by heavily armed thugs whose firepower beat back a police contingent sent to arrest him. He proved what Nigerians and foreign watchers of Nigeria know full well: that some Nigerians – especially the biggest criminals – are above the law.
The British are interested in Ibori because they accuse the ex-governor of using UK financial institutions to launder his loot. As I write, a jury at the Southwark Crown Court is weighing a verdict in a money laundering trial involving several of Ibori’s associates, including his sister and one of his mistresses. To Nigeria’s shame, the UK has demonstrated by far more seriousness in prosecuting Nigerian looters than the Nigerian state itself.
In Nigeria, Ibori was – until recently – treated like a luminary. While corruption charges were pending against him, he and former Governor Lucky Igbinedion – a convict – were put on Nigeria’s official delegation to the Beijing Olympics. Shortly after, the ruling party elevated him – a man in his mid-forties – to the status of “party elder.”
His eventual money laundering trial in Nigeria was choreographed to fail. Ibori was a major (perhaps the major) financier of Umaru Yar’Adua’s presidential campaigns. Mr. Yar’Adua – using the shameless offices of Michael Aondoakaa, a man who thoroughly debased the post of Nigeria’s attorney general – took every deliberate step to ensure that Ibori was spared the inconvenience of a real trial.
First, all the professionally sound officers who worked assiduously to assemble a dossier on Ibori’s graft were dumped from the EFCC. This punitive redeployment effectively chilled the case against the former governor. The rusticated officers possessed a depth of insight into the methods, nature and scale of Ibori’s money laundering artistry. Then a brand new court was created for Ibori in the Delta capital of Asaba, a town where the prosecutors knew that witnesses, for fear of their safety, dared not testify against the accused ex-governor. Add to the mix the fact that the EFCC’s attorney often acted and spoke, in and out of court, as if he were not a prosecutor but an advocate for the accused.
Yar’Adua, whose attorney general parroted the mantra of “the rule of law” while trafficking in the “ruse of law,” ensured that the system was rigged just so it would declare Ibori blameless.
Yet, in the wake of Ibori’s arrest in Dubai, the EFCC’s Mrs. Farida Waziri amazingly found her voice. Mrs. Waziri, who oversaw the bungling of Ibori’s first prosecution, now says she wants another crack at putting him to trial. She wants the embattled governor sent to her, instead of being extradited to London.
In an ideal world, Ibori should be headed for Nigeria to answer for his alleged crimes. But Nigeria is a haven – a heaven, even – for big time criminals. It’s a place where those who steal billions of naira are decorated with flamboyant chieftaincy titles, declared to be “stake holders,” and garlanded with national honors. There are (doubtless) courageous, principled judges in Nigeria. But too many judges are hopelessly corrupt, all too willing to sell their judgment to the highest bidder. And Nigerian police officers are routinely assigned to guard notorious criminals who should be in custody – or jail.
That’s why – if one gauges from comments on websites – most Nigerians don’t want Ibori in Mrs. Waziri’s incompetent hands. They believe that the odds of putting the man to a credible trial lie in ferrying him to London.
Ibori should never have become a governor in the first place. In the early 1990s, he and his future wife were convicted twice in London for possession of a stolen credit card and theft. This history should have disqualified the man from seeking even to be a typist in a government office. Instead, he became a two-term governor. Any surprise, then, that he is today mired in the mud of corruption?
Nigerians don’t hold a patent on corruption – far from it. The trouble is that the Nigerian state makes little or no serious effort to combat corruption. Graft has been permitted, instead, to fester, to infect every sector of society – the judiciary, media, law enforcement, religious groups, commerce etc. In many other countries, corruption is properly perceived as a kind of blight on the body polity, an unwholesome stain. In Nigeria, by contrast, the corrupt are wont to strut and swagger; they make a fetish of their loot and a spectacle of their thieving selves. They wear their moral deformity as if it were a mark of rare ethical refinement.
There’s never a shortage of groups or individuals to champion the (grandly) corrupt. Thus, a group styled “The Delta State caucus in the House of Representatives” last week made bold to disparage Ibori’s nemeses. At a press conference in Abuja, the group categorized the nabbing of the former governor as “a real breach of the basic fundamental human rights of a Nigerian, a statesman and a leader.”
When a man of Ibori’s antecedents is held up as the face of statesmanship and leadership, what else is there to say about Nigeria’s malaise?
The task before Nigerians is to sustain the heat against the Iboris in our midst. For make no mistake, the haulage of public funds will stop only when more citizens become enlightened, and when these enlightened citizens insist that those who hold public office render account. The brazen privatization of public wealth will cease when – only when – we institute a practice of sending our big name criminals and “‘steak’ holders” to jail.
Rather than asking for another opportunity to fumble the trial of Ibori, Mrs. Waziri should get cracking on the prosecution of Nigeria’s numerous grand looters. If she’s serious, she should begin by naming the Nigerians, including former heads of state, who took bribes from Halliburton executives. Then she should move to arrest them and put them in the dock. She should investigate whether, as recently reported by Saharareporters.com, Mr. Ahmed Modibbo Mohammed, the Executive Secretary of the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), has funneled plum contracts to companies owned by his wife, Aishatu Mohammed. She should vigorously appeal the scandalous judgment that shields former Governor Peter Odili from investigation or prosecution.
A nation that jails or amputates the limbs of petty thieves, but encourages its big thieves to run for the presidency – such a nation is bound to sail from one disaster to another. There are many Iboris in the space called Nigeria. It’s our individual and collective challenge to ensure that there’s neither rest nor hiding place for these plunderers – neither in Abuja nor in Dubai.