The return of James Ibori, former governor of Delta State, from the United Kingdom, has raised concerns about his post-prison and political life.
The former governor, who last December left a London prison where he spent five and half years, flew into Nigeria last Saturday morning.
He was driven straight to the office of the Director General of the State Security Service, SSS, Lawal Daura, with whom he held talks before proceeding to his home town, Oghara, where he received a huge crowd of relatives and political associates.
Mr. Ibori’s visit to the SSS instead of the EFCC immediately raised questions. What could the Buhari administration be doing with a member of the opposition PDP who had just concluded a jail term for corruption?
Mr. Daura’s refusal to disclose the reasons fueled those speculations. The DG merely confirmed he met with the former governor.
“He (Ibori) met me for a short debriefing session and way forward; also, to welcome him back to his fatherland. We are also meeting soon to discuss issues of interest affecting the nation,” the chief spymaster said.
Mr. Ibori’s spokesperson, Tony Eluemunor, told PREMIUM TIMES he was not aware of what his principal discussed with Mr. Daura. He however ruled out politics.
But government sources have however told PREMIUM TIMES one of the main national issues Mr. Daura referred to was the tension in the Niger Delta region from where Mr. Ibori hails.
Renewed tension in the oil-rich region has in the recent past given the Nigerian government sleepless nights.
The region has been on the boil since last year with restive youth blowing up pipelines and other oil and gas installations thereby threatening the nation’s major source of revenue.
A new militant group, the Niger Delta Avengers, which declared its goal to cripple Nigeria’s economy, has claimed responsibility for several attacks that directly cut oil production and revenue for the government.
The Nigerian government’s effort to contain the hostilities failed. Peace talks initiated by the Nigerian government suffered setbacks.
Revenue to a government plummeted as production decreased from about 2. 2 million barrel per day to about 1.3m bpd. At some point, Angola surpassed Nigeria as the largest producer of oil in Sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria also had the falling prices of oil in the international market to contend with.
In November, as part of the moves aimed at resolving renewed militancy, the Niger Delta leaders led by a former Federal Commissioner for Information, Edwin Clark, met with President Muhammadu Buhari at the Presidential Villa during which they presented a 16-point demand.
Some of the demands presented by the leaders of the region where Mr. Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan comes from, were the need for the enforcement of zero gas flaring deadline, immediate relocation of the administrative and operational headquarters of the International Oil Companies to the Niger Delta, resolution of a number of pending laws and justice issues regarding some aggrieved groups and individuals.
They also asked for the restructuring and funding of the Niger Delta Development Authority, the approval of the maritime university in Delta State and award of pipeline surveillance contracts to the communities.
Mr. Buhari had earlier announced an interventionist programme by his administration to launch a $10 billion infrastructural investment programme in the oil-bearing region. This is besides implementing the UNEP clean-up programme in Ogoni, Rivers State and retaining the Amnesty Programme for former former militants.
Last month, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo began an official tour of the region with a visit first to Delta State during which he assured that the maritime university had come to stay.
According to his itinerary, the vice president is billed to visit other parts of the region, comprising Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, Cross River, Edo and Rivers States, all of which make up the South-South geo-political zone.
Peacemaker for a troubled region?
The jubilation and excitement that greeted Mr. Ibori’s release last December and eventual return to Nigeria could have convinced the ruling All Progressive Congress-led federal administration that he could be a figure to work with to ensure peace in the region and ultimately allow money flow into the troubled national economy.
Since the former governor’s return, his political associates have been thronging his country home in Oghara in Ethiope West Local Government Area of the state to pay him their respect. Among them was the incumbent governor of the state, Ifeanyi Okowa, who served as commissioner in his government.
Mr. Ibori, an Urhobo, the largest single ethnic group in Delta State, ranks among the most influential political leaders in the oil-bearing region. He is seen in the class of the late governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who was known as the “Governor General” of the Ijaw nation.
Mr. Alamieyeiseigha, who was also convicted for corruption, died in October 2015. He was also a member of the PDP.
Although it is not clear yet if Mr. Daura made commitment to Mr. Ibori not to pursue any corruption case against him, the belief among some members of the federal administration is that he (Ibori) could influence the Niger Delta militants to lay down their arms against their fatherland.
Mr. Ibori was jailed by the Southwack Crown Court on April 17, 2012 for laundering 50 million pounds believed to have been stolen from the coffers of the oil-rich state while he was governor between 1999 and 2007.
He pleaded guilty to a 10-count charge of money laundering and conspiracy. His wife and mistress were also jailed for their involvement in the offence.
Mr. Ibori’s conviction in the United Kingdom was hailed by many anti-corruption campaigners, especially because a High Court in Asaba, the Delta Sate capital, presided over by Justice Idowu Awokulehin, had earlier struck out 170 corruption charges brought against the former governor by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
The Commission appealed to the Court of Appeal, Benin Division, which on May 15, 2014, ruled that the former governor, who was already in prison, had a case to answer.
The appellate court also ordered that the case be reassigned to another judge of the Federal High Court for continuation of trial.
But before that could be done, Mr. Ibori, who had become a political leper following the demise of former President Umaru Yar’Adua, his political ally, fled Nigeria to Dubai where he was picked up by Interpol and extradited to the United Kingdom.
There was no love lost between the former governor and President Goodluck Jonathan who succeeded Mr. Yar’Adua.
Mr. Ibori’s return last Saturday came as a surprise to many for a number of reasons.
First, he was still pursuing a case in London to establish his innocence in the corruption case for which he was jailed for 13 years, out of which he served about six years, taking into account his pre-trial detention.
Only last week, the former governor was in court to appeal against his conviction on the grounds that British police and lawyers involved in his case were also corrupt.
A police officer involved in the investigation of Mr. Ibori allegedly paid bribes to obtain information from a firm of private detectives working on behalf of the former governor.
At the time, Mr. Ibori had not been arrested but was aware that his finances were being investigated.
Besides, Stephen Kamlish, counsel to Mr. Ibori’s associate, Bhadresh Gohil, also a convicted money launderer, had claimed that documents available to him showed that the police were corrupt.
Secondly, at the time he returned Mr. Ibori was still wanted by the EFCC to answer corruption allegations against him.
The commission had declared the former governor wanted over alleged official corruption and money laundering.
In 2014, two years after Mr. Ibori was jailed in London, the anti-graft agency had vowed in a statement that the former governor would be re-arrested upon the completion of his prison sentence.
“With this judgement, the coast is clear for Ibori to face trial in Nigeria upon the completion of his jail term in London, “the commission had said in a statement.
At the time the former governor known in his political camp as “Odidigborigbo” returned, the anti-graft agency had not withdrawn its statement.
The EFCC spokesperson, Wilson Uwujaren, when contacted by this newspaper on Wednesday, declined to comment.
He said he was yet to be briefed on the matter.
Can Ibori do the job?
A Niger Delta activist, Joseph Evah, said Mr. Ibori is the proper Niger Deltan that can help to bring peace to the trouble region and attract infrastructure because of his experience.
“Ibori can do it and he can join others to bring peace and development to the Nigeria Delta region,” Mr. Evah told PREMIUM TIMES in a telephone interview Wednesday.
“He can play that role because of his experience as governor and his connection. He is a man loved by his people and he meant well for his people, not minding the reason for which he was imprisoned.
“Go and see what he did in Delta. The only bridge linking upland and riverine Ijaw nation was built by Ibori.”
Mr. Evah, who is the coordinator of the Ijaw Monitoring Group, dismissed claims that Mr. Ibori may not have the moral rectitude to engage the government in the quest to develop the Niger Delta region.
But Ledum Mitee, a former President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, MOSOP, said Mr. Ibori’s contact while he was away would determine the role he would play to douse tension in the region.
“I wouldn’t know the contact he maintained while he was away. So, I don’t know whether he can play a part, but every indigene of the Niger Delta region should play a part,” Mr. Mitee told this newspaper Wednesday.
Eric Omare of Ijaw Youths Council, said though Mr. Ibori remains influential in the region, it could not be determined if that alone could make him play that role.