Former governor of Delta State James Ibori: One Down, Many Still Standing

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EFCC Officials
EFCC Officials

The conviction of former governor of Delta State, Chief James Ibori, by a London court over the looting of public treasury, according to KUNLE ODEREMI, in this piece, poses a riddle for anti-graft agencies in view of the number of similar cases that have gathered dust on their shelves.

ONE down, while many others are still standing! That was the statement of an observer after a London court convicted former governor of Delta State, Chief James Ibori, on Tuesday for monumental theft.

Rigmarole had characterised his trial for similar offences in Nigerian courts. He escaped abroad and got repatriated from Dubai to London to face the music. Ibori was said to be worth more than 200 billion pounds after leaving office. The court even stated that the former governor stole 250 billion pounds while in office.

Many contend that the fact that it took a London court to convict Ibori over brazen theft of public funds put a question mark on the country and the judiciary in particular. This is because the politician had faced similar charges in Nigerian courts and got “reprieve”. Besides, the land is replete with similar cases involving a number of former public officials. To human rights activist, Mr Yinka Odumakin, the Iborigate calls for a sober reflection on the state of the judiciary as the last hope of the common man. He declared: “We cannot afford to be running a country where the rich gets away with crime against humanity. This is an opportunity for the judiciary to recheck itself and mend its broken walls.”

In the opinion of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), there are many other Iboris gallivanting around and gloating that they are above all. The CLO claims that such people pose a lot of danger to democracy. According to the Human Rights Watch, Ibori’s conviction symbolised that the world had become “smaller for government officials who believe they can loot their country’s resources with impunity. This case was not just about financial transactions in British banks. It was about acknowledging global responsibility for helping to stop the devastating human cost of corruption in Nigeria.”

There are divergent opinions on the slow pace of anti-graft agencies in bringing to justice, former or serving corrupt public officials. The general view is that inadequacies of investigating and prosecuting agencies often lead to serious matters being thrown out by courts. This is often justified on technical grounds, uncoordinated activities of the prosecution and endless adjournments of cases by judges and lack of will of the prosecution to go further on matters before courts of competent jurisdiction.

There are also instances where the prosecution would take certain matters to courts which lack powers to entertain such matters. Some legal luminaries have described this as part of ploys to truncate justice on matters concerning those regarded as the influential and powerful in the political circle and, indeed, the society.

So, the cases are thrown out on technical grounds by judges. Sometimes, there are accusations of compromise by the bench in many instances, with many citing the initial arraignment of Ibori in Nigerian courts as one veritable example of the many inadequacies of Nigeria’s judicial system.

In their capacities, two members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Goodness Agbi and Anthony Alabi, had gone to an Abuja court seeking the nullification of Ibori’s re-election on the claim that the then governor was the same James Onanefe Ibori that was convicted on September 28, 1995 on a two-count charge of negligent and criminal breach of trust by the Bwari Upper Area Court. They had stated that, “Since the conviction for the crime of negligent conduct and breach of trust took place on September 28, 1995, he was disqualified from the 1999 gubernatorial election and he was equally disqualified in 2003 polls,” in their submission approved by late fiery lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi and demanded that his tenure so far then for five years was unconstitutional and illegal. On his part, Ibori had asked the court to strike out the case because the plaintiffs lacked locus standi to initiate it. The case was mired in controversies following claims and counter-claims over bribery after the case had gone through a gamut of arguments on the identity of the said Ibori, since he denied being the one said to have been convicted by the Abuja court.

Ibori is known to feature prominently in very close circles to the corridors of power. Dating back to the military era, he had maintained such connection and acted as a key political facilitator at very auspicious moments. For instance, Ibori like several other main political actors now, was believed to have played a leading role when the military establishment tried to get legitimacy at the height of the popular clamour for the de-annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. He was among the army of civilians that the military hegemony allegedly deployed to checkmate pro-democracy and human rights activists who vehemently stood against the annulment. The military apologists held frequent press conferences in secret locations in Lagos to discredit those publicly agitating against the annulment, describing their action as an affront, in a calculated move to sustain the illegality and gross undermining of the sovereignty of the citizens.

Ibori’s influence in the establishment was also witnessed after the return to civil rule in 1999. He was a leading light in a pressure group, Southern Governors’ Forum, which held its maiden meeting at the Akodo Beach in  Epe, Lagos State, with the then Governor Bola Tinubu as host. The forum became a veritable platform for the governors to orchestrate their campaign for resource control, fiscal federalism, state police, true federation and other core issues in the polity.

Despite their different political affiliations, the governors managed to sustain the agitations until it fizzled out because of lack of sincerity among most of the protagonists of restructuring in the country.

Ibori’s perceived clout and influence equally manifested during the countdown to the 2007 elections. He was believed to have made substantial contributions to the controversial victory of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in that year’s presidential poll, which produced late President Umaru Yar’Adua. Thereafter, the true face of events began to unfold when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) went on his trail over allegations of money laundering when he was governor of Delta State for eight years.

To many, he would have got away with his atrocious acts but for the intervention of the London court. Those views are based on the number of high-profile cases that were pending before the EFCC and other anti-graft organs of government for many years. Even on those cases that had been concluded, a lot of people still raised an eye brow because of the belief that   justice appeared not to have been  done. The public has been shortchanged by the criminals either through the application of plea bargain or incompetent officials handling cases of looting, by leaders entrusted with public funds.

To address the lapses, some have advocated special courts to try all high profile cases relating to financial crimes. Some of the cases involve former bank chief executives, lawmakers, governors, as well as top civil servants.

 

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