By Imikan Attah
In spite of the petitions filed by Deltans against their former Governor James Onanefe Ibori, the man walked free after half-hearted attempts that were made to prosecute him for corrupt enrichment during his tenure as state governor.
Ibori relocated to Dubai- it was there he was picked up, and later extradited to the UK. Only in the UK was he made to face the full wrath of the law for money laundering, and for fraud. In what was hailed in Britain as a landmark case, Ibori was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2012. He was found guilty of 10 charges of fraud and money laundering committed during his eight years as Governor of Delta State.
As a Nigerian State Governor, James Ibori went to England repeatedly and lodged large cash sums in multiple accounts in various British banks. No questions asked. Certainly now, it is the very least the British government can do, to return the money to the rightful coffers. And they have now decided to do just that. On March 9, 2021, the British High Commissioner Catriona Laing announced that £4.2m recovered from Ibori would be repatriated to Nigeria “in the next few days”. This is not really the shocking part of the news. Periodically, Nigeria gets notifications of repatriated loot that had been stashed away in foreign banks by a former head of state or by a few state governors. What is confounding is the federal government announcing that it would retain the funds and utilise them for building projects in other parts of Nigeria ( not in Delta ). Pressed further, Nigeria’s Attorney General and Justice Minister, Abubakar Malami expressly stated that the money would not be returned to Delta State.
On March 10, the House of Representatives in a motion urged the Federal Ministry of Finance to stop forthwith the appropriation and/ or disbursement of the recovered loot for now.
It is indefensible that the federal government would want to retain the money meant for Delta State. The claims of having cooperated with the UK in the trial of Ibori are only spurious at best. In any case, ought not they to have so done? Nigerians in Delta State were the people being plundered.
Rather, in Nigeria, Ibori was briefly picked up on 170 unsubstantiated charges against him, ALL of which were dismissed. Furthermore, the Nigerian courts granted Ibori a court order stopping the London Metropolitan police from coming to Delta State to gather evidence in 2007- and the federal government did nothing to challenge and possibly reverse that order. Ibori’s accomplices, his wife Nkoyo (Teresa), sister Christy Idie (nee Ibori), and girlfriend Udoamaka Okoronkwo were minor celebrities in Nigeria, hailed and featured in soft-sell magazines. In England, all three were sentenced, in a separate trial in 2010 to 5 years imprisonment each, for their roles in the Ibori money laundering saga.
Ibori’s arrest in 2010 in Dubai was on a British arrest warrant, not on a Nigerian one. Ibori travelled to Dubai from Nigeria a free man. He was arrested in Dubai later when he was negotiating to buy himself a private jet, valued at between 20 and 30 million pounds. It was at the request of the British authorities that Ibori was extradited to Britain.
Later in sentencing Ibori at Southwark Crown Court in London, Judge Anthony Pitts, the trial judge had said, “during those two terms, you turned yourself in very short order into a multimillionaire through corruption.” The British police had accused Ibori of 10 charges of fraud and money laundering committed during his 8 years as governor of Delta. James Ibori had pleaded guilty. After sentencing, Ibori was jailed and later released on parole in 2016. His forfeited millions were also to be returned.
Money so returned has always been received and repatriated to the state governments concerned. Plateau and Bayelsa States, had in the past, received their erstwhile looted funds, after repatriation to Nigeria. Under no circumstances should these repatriated funds of Delta State now be captured by the federal government.
If monies are looted or stolen from individuals or corporate bodies, by natural justice, such recovered monies are returned to the owners. Not One Pound of this money in question should be found missing but must be credited to the Delta State government and receipt ascertained by the Delta State Governor, Dr Ifeanyi Okowa. If the former state Governor had not looted the money, it would have been used by the Delta State people exclusively, under the Governor’s custodianship, and not by the federal government.
The Nigerian federal government retaining the repatriated Delta loot is antithetical to the campaign for anti-corruption. In fact, it would only smack of corruption- something former President Goodluck Jonathan said was “common stealing.”
But this misappropriation by the federal government would not be mere stealing. It would constitute a government policy, promoting inequalities. It will make for a huge power imbalance; cause unrest, and the action will bring about a subsequent reaction over the denial of natural justice. It will also set a bad precedent if allowed to stand.
It is very important for the Nigerian federal government to be conscious of the effect of any such action on Nigeria’s corruption perception index (CPI). Our CPI will fall further than it is already doing, what with funds getting looted, and then is recovered and sent back- only to be captured by other sections of government.
It is worthy of mention that the James Ibori case was one of the biggest money laundering cases ever, in Britain. Consequently, it behooves the British government to monitor the movement of the funds until they are returned to the Delta State government- the legitimate owners. The British government has got to be especially careful now and take its due diligence to the final point of recovery if the aims of returning looted funds are to be achieved. The purpose becomes utterly defeated when money looted from A and recovered by B is handed over to C, rather than back to A. Additionally It could constitute an indictment on B.
In particular, Delta State in Nigeria would undergo a double whammy. The most impoverished Deltans would continue to remain short-changed. Firstly the money meant for all the people of Delta is looted and stashed away in British banks, depriving the 5.7 million people of needed funds and infrastructure. Then, the funds are returned- but ‘captured’ by the federal government, thereby permanently depriving the Delta people of their commonwealth.
Attah is a newscaster, biographer, and columnist.
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