Sunday, April 20, 2014

Untold stories of Ibori’s undying love for corruption

Published:

The late Haruna Abubakar, a former Deputy President of the Senate, under Senator Evans Enwerem, was the influential Managing Director of the Petroleum Products Marketing Company, (PPMC), during the military dictatorship of the late Gen. Sani Abacha.

In October 1997, Premium Motor Spirit, (PMS), also known as petrol, with a noisome smell was imported into the country and distributed to Lagos, Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Ekiti, Zamfara, Kebbi, Niger and Sokoto State.

Mobil Nigeria Plc and National Oil Plc, two major marketers spilled the bean when the pernicious fuel was still being unloaded by the PPMC at Atlas Cove Jetty, the Apapa Depot of the PPMC, the crude oil and refined  petroleum products marketing arm of the Nigeria National Petroleum Company, (NNPC).

As the news of the noxious smell dribbled through cities to other states where it had been distributed, anxiety led to fear, fear led to trepidation, and before long, the door to profound terror was unlocked.

The Federal Environmental Protection Agency, FEPA, reacted swiftly. It announced that the fuel on sale was substandard; that it was a blend of low grade fuel and By- Gas; that it was toxic; that it was hazardous to health; that it could cause irritation to the respiratory tract, and that it could also cause dizziness.

Even before FEPA came out with its frightening verdict, Mobil and National Oil had jointly stated that the imported PMS was toxic and harmful to the environment. Yet, the PPMC brazenly went ahead to distribute the noisome products.

Following the furore that the noxious fuel generated, Mr. Abubakar, apologised to Nigerians for PPMC’s involvement in the importation of 33,000 tonnes of the damnable fuel from Russia at $20 per tonne, amounting to $660,000 or N54.130million, paid up front.

The substandard fuel was imported by Abbey Court, the Nigerian subsidiary of Winter-Shell and Glencor, of 34 Wigmore Street, Mayfield, London. Apart from the public apology issued by Mr. Abubakar, Abbey Court or Winter-Shell and Glencor did not utter a word. Would that have been accepted in other climes?

Without any modicum of surprise, Winter-Shell and Glencor and Abbey Court were later linked to the Chagouri family – the naturalised Middle eastern family with Lebanese ancestral linage, known for their octopoidal business nexus, essentially in the oil and banking sector.

Mr. Abubakar, whose department raised the Local Purchase Order, LPO, of $660,000 for 33,000 tonnes of PMS to Winter-Shell and Glencor and Abbey Court, through the NNPC, told Nigerians two days after FEPA rang the alarm bells, inspired by warning tips from Mobil and National Oil, that the low substandard fuel was imported from Houston, Texas, in the United States. But the truth is that the fuel was imported from Russia.       

While Mr. Abubakar toyed with the idea of asking the importers for a rebate, the Minister of Petroleum, Dan Etete, denied any knowledge of the presence of such toxic product on our shores, even after it had established that the foul smelling petrol was dubiously cleared with the connivance of officials from PPMC and Societe Generale Du Surveillance, (SGS), its pre-shipment agency.

Apparently jolted by widespread condemnation in the media, Etete, grudgingly, spoke to the press: “We have been talking with the suppliers in Abuja to make sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen again. It is very important and if they agree that what they did is wrong and show remorse, I think it is part of life and part of business.”

At an Editorial Board Meeting on a Monday morning at (now defunct) The Diet Head Office at No. 61, Queen’s Street, Yaba, in Lagos, the editors, individually and collectively, expressed their dismay over the manner Messrs.  Etete and Abubakar handled the toxic fuel import saga.

James Onanefe Ibori, the publisher, walked into the conference room during the editors’ deliberation, pulled a chair and sat down. He had come to assuage the feelings of the editors on perceived paucity of funds in the organisation. He listened intently to the various contributions, including the views that both Etete and Abubakar should have resigned.

Then one of the editors asked: “Why can’t the Head of State fire them for goodness sake?” Mr. Ibori smiled wryly, shook his head very slowly, got up and left the conference room without uttering a word. At that period of our national life, Gen. Sani Abacha was the Head of State while Major Hamza Al-Hamza was his Chief Security Officer, (CSO). Mr. Ibori was then a “Public Policy Consultant” to the Abuja junta.

Mr. Ibori quipped to an editor after their meeting: “Government does not work the way you guys think. Government is a very complex process. Government is a web of intrigues.”

Upon Abcha’s death, on June 8, 1998, Gen. Adulsalami Abubakar became Head of State. He retained most of the ministers who worked with Abacha. Prominent among those Gen. Abdulsalami left in their positions was Chief Anthony Ani.

Mr. Ani was a former President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, (ICAN). He had badgered many people on his way up as the late Gen. Abacha’s Minister of Finance and de facto number two man of that atrocious regime. Mr. Ani demystified the Central Bank of Nigeria, (CBN), and  pointedly humbled Paul Ogwuma, its governor

Banks and bankers came under his overpowering hammer on the heels of his penchant for fiscal discipline. Not forgetting, of course, the Failed Banks and Debt Recovery Degree which gave birth to the Failed Banks Tribunal which many victims spent upwards of three years in police cells without trial.

On Wednesday, November 11, 1998, Mr. Ani issued a statement in Lagos detailing how he sought and received Gen. Abdulsalami’s approval to assist in tracing $1.5bn unofficially siphoned out of the country by Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo, Abacha’s National Security Adviser, (NSA), with the approval of Abacha. He disclosed that $700m had been realised through his esteemed efforts.

Clearly, Mr. Ani had a presidential ambition and was desperate to clear his name from the wanton looting and mindless financial carnage that characterised the Abacha regime of which he was an influential figure.

The next day, the Chief Press Secretary, (CPS), to Gen. Abdulsalami, Mallam Mohammed Haruna, debunked Ani’s claim that he assisted in the recovery of monies stolen by Mr. Abacha.

Mr. Haruna was unrelentingly forthright: “The recovery of N63.256bn from the Abacha family and property worth millions of naira from Gwarzo is entirely the result of the efforts of present National Security Adviser, Maj-Gen. Abdullahi Mohammed, (retd), because it is out of the security vote. Chief Ani’s account that the Head of State sought his services is not true. It is not true.”

And then the bombshell: “It is not true that all these withdrawals were done behind his back. How can he say he did not know? He it was who wrote a memo to the customs when the customs stopped a Union Bank container which had Travelers’ Cheques. In the memo, he said the customs were doing their job. But in another breath, he said, such should be treated as a CBN matter, meaning that the CBN was aware of such money transfer.”

Mr. Haruna maintained that Ani, just like Abacha and Gwarzo, is equally tainted by controversies bordering on corruption while he held public office. According to Haruna, Ani went away with the files on the Gwarimpa Housing Estate project which he supervised.

Mr. Haruna stressed then that the Gen. Abdulsalami’s government had ordered a probe into the Gwarimpa Housing Project in the Federal Capital Territory, (FCT), Abuja, for which he was the accounting officer. The N5bn was a soft loan from the ministry of finance. Ani supervised the disbursement of the loan, contrary to the established procedure that avails the Minister of Works and Housing the duty and responsibility of supervising the project.

Severely angry by the discordant tunes from Mr. Ani, Gen. Abdulsalami shoved him aside, and instructed the then Secretary of the Federal Government, (SFG), Gidado Idris, to set up a panel to probe the Gwarimpa Project. The Minister of Works and Housing, however, discovered that N2.744bn and another N1.444bn which were recorded to have been paid to the contractors by the ministry of finance did not get to the contractors. Mr. Ani later returned, on his own volition, N10million to the coffers of the federal government, claiming it was a gift given to him by the late Abacha.

The Board of Editors Meeting at the Conference Room on that Monday morning in November 1998, was anchored on corruption and the financial impropriety of public officers. Mr. Ibori, dressed in a black chinos trouser, a deep-blue T-shirt and a fitting black palm sandals, sat at the head of the table.

He had come specifically to brief the editors on his intention to inject more funds into the newspaper and hammered on the need for the paper to be more analytical. “Readers are more interested in analysis that gives them a direction to what is happening in their environment. How I wish The Diet can become the most analytical newspaper in the country,” he told the journalists.

Mr. Ibori was brief and sharp and to the point. Mr. Ibori does not talk much. He has a very sharp mind; he keenly and deeply observes his immediate environment. If he had an idea you were working on a cover story and you came across him on the staircase, he could reel out, two, three or four angles to the story in a few seconds.

After addressing the journalists, he took a cursory look at his black leather strapped wristwatch and said: “I am through, you guys can go ahead with your meeting.” The journalists were unanimous in their condemnation of corruption in government. They specifically mentioned the PPMC, NNPC, Ministry of Petroleum, Ministry of Finance, the CBN, and the police.

It was collectively agreed that editorials, analysis, comments and cover stories were to flow from their robust deliberation. As more journalists at the Conference Room wondered aloud why Mr. Ani and those who actively participated in ravaging the nation’s kitty haven’t been arrested by the police, Mr. Ibori sat upright and riveted the attention of the journalists towards him.

“As far as I know,” his voice rising, his palms flat on the table. Theatrically, he raised his hands to his chest. With repeated thud to his chest and not looking at anyone in particular, Mr. Ibori declared: “Every Nigerian has a price and that is the plain truth.” 

 In all the eight years Mr. Ibori served as governor of Delta State, he doggedly fought the many battles that confronted him in the political and judicial arena with his unparallel conviction that ‘every Nigerian has a price’ and true to his mantra, he always had his way!

Many Nigerians were nonplused and flummoxed when an Abuja High Court declared, in the celebrated ex-convict case, that although one James Onanefe Ibori with the same first name, the same middle name and the same last name as James Onanefe Ibori who was then the governor of Delta State, was actually convicted on September 28,1995, by judge Avwal Yusuf, at the Upper Area Court, Bwari, in the FCT, there was no concrete proof that the former governor of Delta State was the same person.

When the story broke following a press statement issued by Barrister Andrew Oru, that James Onanefe Ibori was an ex-convict, Ibori sent a petition to the then president Olusegun Obasanjo, who acknowledged the petition and sent it to the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, (CJN) ,Mohammadu Uwais, who was also the chairman of the National Judicial Council, (NJC), for further action.

The CJN sent a copy of the petition to the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory, Justice Lawal Hassan Gummi, to further investigate the matter. The Chief Judge of the FCT, Abuja, conducted an exhaustive investigation into the matter and came out with his finding in February 2003, which he submitted to the CJN.

In the report, the Honourable Justice Lawal Hassan Gummi, concluded thus:

“From all available evidence, it is clear that the Upper Area Court , Bwari, tried and convicted James Onanefe Ibori for negligent conduct and criminal breach of trust on 28/9/95. Such evidence also points to the fact that the present Governor of Delta State was the same James Onanefe Ibori that was so tried and convicted on 28/9/95 for the offences stated.”

Justice Hussein Murktar of the Abuja High Court, whose boss had confirmed Ibori’s prior conviction, admitted the Chief Judge’s investigative report when it was tendered by the late Gani Fawehinmi, (SAN), but bluntly refused Mr. Gani’s plea that the Chief Judge should appear physically in court to verbally confirm his findings.

After over a year of a rather circuitous trial, Justice Hussein Murktar cleared Mr. Ibori of any prior conviction at the Upper Area Court, Bwari, in the FCT. In his judgment, he dismissed Justice  Gummi’s finding, referring to it as “a personal opinion in an administrative inquiry.”

The same thread of judicial reasoning tinctured the James Onanefe Ibori ex-convict case through the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. As is commonplace with Mr. Ibori, each time he contrived to secure a victory at any front in his many battles, be it during the ex-convict case, at the electoral tribunal or at the polls, he hurriedly summoned flamboyant bishops to Asaba, the Delta State capital, for a lavish thanksgiving at the Government House.

Mr. Ibori’s philosophy towards corrupt enrichment has stuck stubbornly to the psyche of many Nigerians, creating in the process, a regiment of rabid fanatical supporters. Until Mr. Ibori pleaded guilty to a 10-count charge of stealing about $250million, over N38.75bn from Delta State, while he was governor for eight years, the Delta State government which he enthroned, repeatedly rose to Mr. Ibori’s defence that no kobo was missing from its kitty.  

Although not surprising, the 10-count charge of stealing, money laundering, conspiring to defraud and obtaining money transfer by fraud to which James Onanefe Ibori pleaded guilty before a Southwark Crown Court, in London, on Monday, February 27, were largely subsumed in the 170-count charge the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, (EFCC), filed against him and which Justice Marcel Awokulehin, sitting at a Federal High Court, in Asaba, dismissed on 17 December 2009.

Until Ibori’s brush with the EFCC, the Federal High Court was one common jurisdiction. But Ibori’s case has now set a legal precedence, for the court ruled that the accused should be tried at the PLACE or LOCUS IN QUO where the OFFENCE was allegedly committed. The court in JAMES ONANEFE IBORI & Ors v. FRN & Ors (2009), 3, NWLR pt 1127, enunciated the principle that the prosecution should not be allowed to “pick, choose, dictate, elect or select which court or judge that should determine a matter in which it is involved.”

Mr. Ibori’s mantra, “every Nigerian has a price” continued to manifest itself in erstwhile hallowed and dignified public institutions until he capitulated  and pleaded to stealing the commonwealth of Deltans in London. The appeal filed by the EFCC, since 2009, against Justice Awokulehin’s judgment at the Court of Appeal in Benin has not even been slated for hearing. If not for the doggedness and dignified sense of purpose of the Metropolitan police, the Appeal filed by the EFCC may just have gathered cobwebs in the annals of our nation’s political and judicial history.

Disgraced former Inspector-General of Police, Tafa Balogun, who stole over N17billion from the police and the nation and acquired choice properties in Abuja and Lagos also had the onerous responsibility in determining the political future of Mr. Ibori when the ex-convict saga was snowballing into the former governor’s biggest challenge.

The then president, Olusegun Obasanjo also sent a copy of Mr. Ibori’s petition to Balogun to find out if the police actually arrested, detained, interrogated and prosecuted a James Onanefe Ibori at the Upper Area Court, Bwari,. The veracity of the matter could easily be ascertained through the First Information Report, (FIR),  which the police presented at the court while prosecuting Ibori in Criminal Case No. CR/81/95 in Commissioner of Police v.James Onanefe Ibori.

At the Upper Area Court, Bwari, only the notebook with which the judge usually record cases during trials was available. Evidently, the vital pages where the judge wrote the sentence had been torn. Investigators found out that the damage was recent. The FIR had all disappeared. However, there was evidence in the receipt book that the said James Onanefe Ibori, which the Nigerian judiciary had up to now failed to identify, had actually complied with the ruling of the judge and promptly paid his fine.

It was one of Balogun’s easiest assignments. He exonerated the former governor and recommended to the former president that those who ignited the mischievous rumour should be arrested and tried. The former president ignored Balogun’s recommendation until the Supreme Court, in its wisdom, dismissed the claims and prayers of the plaintiffs, Goodnews Agbi and Anthony Alabi.

Mr. Ibori’s philosophy towards corruption emits an infectious ray that has a magnetic pull when it connects with his supporters. Just like Ibori., his supporters regard any politician who dares to contest for the elective political office occupied by Ibori; or a politician who summons the courage to criticise Ibori’s programmes and projects,  as a mortal enemy.

Mr. Ibori’s supporters interpret his philosophy towards corruption to mean his incredible generosity towards them and any attempt by anyone to antagonize Ibori, especially when it could block their fertile source of financial handouts is seriously resisted.

But one man, the former Chairman of the EFCC, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, widely acclaimed to be forthright, stood Ibori’s mantra that “every Nigerian has a price” on its head in 2005.

Mr. Ribadu told Nigerians when Mr. Ibori turned his awesome media campaign full-blast against him, accusing Ribadu of persecuting him, that the former governor attempted to bribe him with $15million so as to quash ongoing investigation into his expansive network of laundered money and properties acquired with monies stolen from Delta State.

Mr. Ribadu deposited the money with the Central Bank and obtained a receipt. Mr. Ibori has repeatedly denied that he attempted to bribe Ribadu, while Mr. Ribadu has been consistent in his assertion. Until Monday, 27 February, at the Southwark Crown Court, in London, James Onanefe Ibori had never publicly accepted that he is a thief.

He was caught and convicted for shoplifting with his girlfriend, Theresa Nkoyo, (whom he later married), in London in 1990 and fined $300, and again convicted for stealing a credit card and fined $100 in 1991. He has now pleaded guilty to a 10-count charge of stealing over $250million from Delta State, and laundering such monies through cronies, some of whom are now in jail, using about 30 offshore bank accounts.

For those who still have some lingering doubts over whether Ibori stole monies from Delta State or not; or whether Ibori is a convicted serial thief or not; or whether Ibori actually attempted to bribe Ribadu with $15million to ward off his prosecution by the EFCC  or not; or whether Ibori was actually not a fit and proper person to be governor of Delta State or not; or whether Ibori lied on oath about his age in his electoral forms in 1998 and 2003, which, of course, is a criminal offence, having added four years to his natural age to side-track the required minimum age to contest for governorship position or not; the damning statement made by British prosecutor, Ms. Sasha Wass, in the Southwark Crown Court, in London, that “Ibori was a thief in government house…(that) “he was able to plunder Delta State’s wealth”…(and that) “he was able to bleed the public purse”, appears to have totally, patently and completely punctured Ibori’s desperate and ragtag claim that Ribadu, Ibrahim Lamorde and operatives of the EFCC were in 2005, clandestinely suffused in perceived persecution fuelled by deep-seated political vendetta.

Without doubt, the elusive chicken has, indeed, come home to be roasted! What a price to pay.

 

 

  

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