By Musikilu Mojeed
After about five years of playing cat and mouse with Nigerian and British authorities, the former governor of Delta State, James Ibori, capitulated Monday, pleading guilty in a London court to 10 counts of money laundering and conspiracy to defraud. Before Judge Anthony Pitts, Mr. Ibori admitted stealing $250million as alleged by the prosecution.
The Metropolitan Police accused Mr. Ibori of spending some of the stolen money buying six houses in London – paying £2.2m in cash for one Hampstead mansion – and putting his children in expensive British private schools.
In a short submission, Crown Prosecution Service lawyer, Sasha Wass, QC, said the prosecution was discontinuing Mr. Ibori’s trial because the former governor had “accepted the entirety of the prosecution’s case as it has always been set out.”
A thief in government house
Wass told the court Mr Ibori, 53, “tricked” his way into becoming Delta state governor, by giving a false date of birth and claiming he had no criminal record, the BBC reports.
“He was never the legitimate governor and there was effectively a thief in government house. As the pretender of that public office, he was able to plunder Delta state’s wealth and hand out patronage.”
The officer in charge of the investigation, Paul Whatmore, said, “The vast sums of money involved were used to fund Mr Ibori’s lavish lifestyle.
“We will now be actively seeking the confiscation of all of his stolen assets so they can be repatriated for the benefit of the people of Delta State.”
Mr. Whatmore was further quoted as saying the money Mr. Ibori stole should have been used to pay for sanitation, power supplies and healthcare for some of the poorest people in the world.
Mr. Ibori is due to be sentenced on April 16 and faces up to 10 years in UK prison.
The former governor’s guilty plea has drawn him closer to jail and capped years of high-wired legal and political intrigues surrounding his monumental theft of public funds and the scheme to evade justice. Mr. Ibori had fled to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, after the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) tried to put him on trial here for stealing funds belonging to Delta State, where he was governor for eight years.
But the Met Police, which had also hunted him for years, was able to get him extradited to London in spite of his pronlonged antics. On arrival in the city where he had lived and worked, but has battled hard to avoid in the past five years, Mr. Ibori was taken to a West London police station where he had been in custody.
A long trial
Both the Met and the EFCC launched their separate bids to prosecute Mr. Ibori, believed to have stolen N40 billion of Delta State funds, shortly after he left office as governor in 2007.
Although he had then become one of the most powerful figures in Nigeria at the time, after bankrolling the election of late President Umaru Yar’Adua, the EFCC, then headed by Nuhu Ribadu, arrested and charged him to court. His arrest without presidential approval reportedly irked Mr. Yar’Adua, who tactically removed Mr. Ribadu from his post by asking him to proceed on course at the Nigerian Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies.
Fleeting sense of invincibility
Mr. Ribadu out of the way, Mr. Ibori bounced back to reckoning after a Federal High Court, fraudulently and specifically set up in Asaba to try him, ruled that he had no case to answer. He called the shot in the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, had unhindered access to the president and is believed to be largely instrumental, along with other former and incumbent governors, to the appointment of Mrs. Farida Waziri as chair of the EFCC.
While the former governor walked free in Nigeria and loomed large in the polity, the Met remained focused, exploring every possible avenue to get him to face justice for the monumental corruption he is believed to have committed. But one man was a clog in the wheel – Michael Aondoakaa – who was Nigeria’s justice minister and through whom the Met must route their request for documentary evidence of Mr. Ibori’s corruption.
The former minister refused to cooperate with investigators, preferring instead to package a letter for the former governor’s lawyer indicating that the former governor “has not been tried and/or convicted by any court of law in Nigeria for any offence relating to money laundering or any other offences in connection with his acts and activities whilst in office as Governor of Delta State between 29th May, 1999 and 29th May, 2007.”
Because of Mr. Aondoakaa’s antagonism of the Met officers and lack of critical evidence, it was difficult to prosecute Mr. Ibori in the UK.
While Nigeria prevaricated over Mr. Ibori, treating him as a hero of a kind, the United States, the United Kingdom and other western countries seethed with anger over the matter. At a point, the US withdrew its support for the EFCC and had a serious diplomatic standoff with the government of Nigeria over the matter. In anger, Washington ordered its ambassador never to relate with Mrs Waziri and her EFCC until there is progress in the Ibori matter.
Matters got to a head in March 2009 when the US ambassador to Nigeria, Robin Sanders, walked Mrs. Waziri out of a lunch meeting hosted by the then foreign affairs minister, Ojo Maduekwe. And when Goodluck Jonathan visited Washington in 2009 shortly after he became President following the death of Mr. Yar’Adua, he was told point blank that he had to do something to bring Mr. Ibori to book.
The former governor himself was deeply troubled by America’s uncompromising position on his case. In a desperate bid to impress the US and get some reprieve, Mr, Ibori approached the US embassy in Nigeria through a proxy, offering to surrender a huge chunk of his stolen billions to a trust fund that could finance development projects.
According to a September 24, 2009 leaked U.S. diplomatic cable made available by WikiLeaks, Mr. Ibori, broached the deal with the embassy in Abuja that would have seen him give up between 20 and 50 percent of his loot in return for promises by foreign governments not to prosecute him.
The former governor, the cable said, approached the embassy through a U.S. businessman and reputed lobbyist in the Washington, DC area, who estimated Mr. Ibori’s stolen wealth to be about $3billion (N450 billion). Of course, the embassy declined the former governor’s offer.
Not wanting to incur American’s wrath, Mr. Jonathan ordered Mrs. Waziri to launch a fresh offensive against Mr. Ibori, who, in any case, was a prominent member of the cabal that tried to block Mr. Jonathan from ascending to the position of acting president even while Mr. Yar’Adua was lying critically ill at a Saudi hospital and was no longer able to govern.
The EFCC then declared Mr. Ibori wanted for allegedly mismanaging N528 million shares of Delta State with Oceanic Bank. But when the commission moved to arrest him, Mr. Ibori went into hiding and later fled to Dubai where Interpol, following an alert by the Metropolitan Police, arrested him.
A lost battle
In Dubai, Mr. Ibori fought fiercely against his extradition to the UK, claiming that he fled Nigeria to avoid political persecution. Mr. Babafemi, the EFCC spokesperson, said his commission had to rush some critical documents to Dubai to support the claim by the Met that Mr. Ibori was a fugitive running from the law. The extradition process succeeded. Even after the court in Dubai ruled in favour of his extradition, Mr. Ibori tried more legal tricks to block the process. At a point, he got a temporary relief, as he was conditionally released for medical treatment. The Dubai authorities however seized his travel documents, which made it impossible for him to flee the UAE.
With his capitulation Monday, the trial of what has come to be known as the Ibori clan has come full circle. On June 8, 2010, Christine Ibori-Ibie, the only surviving sister of the former governor and Udoamaka Okoronkwo-Onuigbo, an associate, were each sentenced to five years imprisonment by Judge Christopher Hardy of a Southwark London Crown Court. The sentence followed the June 1 and 2, 2010 court rulings that found Ms. Ibori-Ibie and Ms. Okoronkwo-Onuigbo guilty of charges of money laundering and mortgage fraud.
Later on November 23, Mr. Ibori’s wife, Theresa, got a five-year jail term from a London jury after she was also found guilty on a two-count charge of money laundering. Also slammed with a 7-year jail sentence on a similar charge of money laundering was Mr. Ibori’s attorney, Bhadresh Gohil, who was on trial with the former governor’s wife.
Editor’s Note: A part of this article was published in NEXT 11 months ago. It was updated for this republication.