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Ibori: Nigeria’s sad narrative

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Last month, at a London Crown Court, James Ibori, former governor of Delta state (1999-2007), pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering and is due to be sentenced by the court in April. The guilt plea was part of a plea bargain in which the charge of fraud was dropped. Whatever might have been the terms of the plea bargain, it is certain that Ibori will be cooling his heels for some years in prison.

Ibori found himself in London after being extradited to UK from Dubai, where he ran to when Nigeria was becoming "too hot" for him with the demise of Yar'adua and the emergence of President Goodluck Jonathan in whose close circle Ibori wasn't a particularly welcome party. Still, even with the fact of his being not in Jonathan's good  books, the chances were that if he had remained in Nigeria, he would have been walking the streets today a free man, holding his head high, being awarded traditional titles and honourary degrees by palaces and universities across the country.

Ibori knew the country and its ways and weakness, and exploited them to the full. His whole saga is a sad narrative of all that is bad about our society and its politics, its judicial system, its values and the pretences we put up as a crusade against corruption.

Ibori is a three-time convict - twice in the UK and once here in Nigeria. Yet he became a governor who served for two terms. His fraudulent background, which was never thoroughly checked, was no barrier to his ambitions. He had the right connections and was loaded with money, made largely from his service as one of Abacha's thugs and organizers of the '2 million Man March' in 1996.

When the matter of whether or not he was once convicted by a Nigerian court became a subject of litigation and reached up to the Supreme Court, the learned justices held that, yes, a certain James Ibori was convicted but they could not say if it was actually the James Ibori who was then governor of Delta state. That was, and still remains the lowest point reached by our judiciary.

After he left office in 2007 and lost his immunity, and in spite of countless petitions, records and documents alleging and linking him to theft, fraud and self-enrichment while in office, the EFCC made only a half-hearted attempt at a criminal trial. And it went about it in a way that made it easy for Ibori to escape justice. He was, after all, one of the financiers of Yar'adua's campaign in 2007, a friend and important courtier. He was virtually untouchable.

The EFCC thus chose to approach the Federal High Court not by way of the court's standard procedure of summary trial, by which charges are filed and the accused is called upon to answer to them. It chose, instead, to go by way of filing information, as is the usual practice, in State High Courts, which entitles the accused to challenge the competence of the court by arguing that no offence is disclosed on the face of the proof of evidence provided by the prosecution.

This, plus the fact that the case had been moved from Kaduna to Sapele, Ibori's territory, made it easy for Ibori's lawyers to get the 170-count charge against their client quashed. And instead of going back to the drawing board to file new charges against Ibori, the EFCC chose to appeal the court's judgement, a long and tortuous route that was certain to guarantee that Ibori would not face his trial.

It will also be recalled that when Ibori's sister and mistress were being tried in London and he was implicated in the matter, our then Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Michael Aondoakaa had written to the court in London to say that Nigeria had no case against Ibori.

A conspiracy between two powerful arms of government, the executive and the judiciary, had helped, for many years, to keep Ibori, who the Crown Court prosecutors in London called "a thief in Government House," from paying for his crimes against his people and Nigerians generally. And if circumstances had not so dramatically changed at the time they did, he would have escaped with his $250 million loot, his £12 million private executive jet, his choice properties in UK and Dubai and his fleet of limousines.

It was a slow process, but the long arms of the law have now caught up with Ibori. There are lessons to be drawn from the Ibori case, not the least of which is that those who steal public funds and deprive people of the good life they are entitled to, will pay for it somewhere, somehow, no matter how long it takes.

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