• Ex-governor unlikely to return home till next year
Agha Ibiam in London, Sylvester Idowu in Warri and Omon-Julius Onabu in Asaba with agency report
There was wild jubilation in Delta State and especially in Oghara, the hometown of a former governor of the Delta State, Chief James Onanefe Ibori, who regained his freedom yesterday after a British court ordered his immediate release, having served five and a half years of his 13-year prison sentence.
On getting news of his release, hundreds of indigenes of Oghara trooped out en mass singing solidarity songs and marching along the major streets of the otherwise sleepy town since his departure.
Indeed, Oghara, the administrative headquarters of Ethiope West Local Government Area in Delta State erupted into ecstatic celebrations with acrobatic displays by youths, women and motorcyclists, creating a carnival-like atmosphere.
The order for Ibori’s release came despite attempts by the British Home Secretary to detain him in prison, pending the ruling on a prolonged asset forfeiture case brought against him by the British government.
He was due for release on Tuesday, having agreed to be deported after serving less than half of his 13-year sentence.
When THISDAY spoke to Ibori’s representative yesterday, it was gathered that the former governor would be released to his home in London, but was unlikely to return to Nigeria soon.
THISDAY learnt that he was mandated to report to the London police periodically for the time being.
However, it emerged that the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, did not intend to deport Ibori to Nigeria until he handed over £18 million of “proceeds of crime”, reported the BBC.
But ruling against the Home Office, a High Court judge said yesterday that attempts to detain him were “quite extraordinary”.
Ordering Ibori to be immediately freed from prison, Mrs. Justice Juliet May said: “You don’t hold someone just because it is convenient to do so and without plans to deport them.”
A Home Office application that Ibori be electronically tagged and subject to strict curfew conditions was also rejected after the judge accepted arguments that the Home Secretary was attempting to misuse her immigration and deportation powers.
The Home Office’s barrister said the government was concerned that Ibori might “frustrate confiscation proceedings” and wanted him kept in jail or subjected to strict controls on his movement.
Ibori was jailed for fraud totalling nearly £50 million in April 2012.
Confirming the order for his release from prison yesterday, a statement by Ibori’s media aide Mr. Tony Eluemunor, said: “At 12.20 p.m. on Wednesday, December 21, 2016, Her Honour, Mrs. Justice Juliet May, Queen’s Counsel, dropped her verdict: She ordered the immediate release of Chief James Onanefe Ibori.
“With that, Ibori’s lawyers won a major victory against the British Home Office at the Royal Court of Justice, Queens Court 1, London, by successfully challenging the decision not to release Ibori who was due for freedom on Tuesday, December 20, after serving his sentence.
“In a curious move, the British Home Office, instead of releasing Ibori on December 20, informed him that he would be detained on the grounds that his confiscation hearing had not been concluded.
“So, in court, Ibori’s lawyers exposed the injustice in the indefinite detention the Home Office had planned for Ibori. They told the judge that there were no grounds in law under which Ibori could be detained and that his detention for one extra day by the Home Office was unlawful.”
Eluemunor stated that there was high drama in the British High Court, as senior lawyers for the UK’s Home Office failed in their last minute bid to prevent Ibori’s release.
“The apparent decision to block Ibori’s release and detain him appeared to have come from the highest echelons of the UK Government – the Home Secretary – who was accused in today’s hearing of acting unlawfully and misusing her powers.
“Sian Davies, the Crown Prosecution lawyer did not object to Ibori’s release and return to Nigeria, yet at the last minute the Home Office stepped in. There is clear discord between the two arms of the British government,” he added.
Ibori’s team was led by Ian McDonald, QC, the leading QC on immigration.
Eluemunor said that the visibly irritated judge could not understand the Home Secretary’s position and at times was critical of the move to detain Ibori any further.
“Mrs. Justice May rejected the Home Secretary’s requests for conditions to be imposed and ordered Ibori’s immediate release.
“Ivan Krolic, who also attended, explained that Ibori’s confiscation proceedings collapsed in 2013, after the prosecution was unable to establish any theft from the Delta State and any benefit for Ibori from anywhere.
“A three-week hearing which heard live evidence was abandoned by the prosecutors – Wass, QC, and Shutzer-Weissman. Both prosecutors have since been dismissed from the case for gross misconduct.
“Krolic further explained that British police officers in the case led by DC McDonald, have again been referred to the Independent Public Complaints Commission and now face a thorough investigation into their corrupt activities in this case.
“The CPS has confirmed officers in the case were corrupt. It has since disclosed substantial material evidencing the graft.
“Ibori and others have long maintained that this prosecution was politically motivated. But it was funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) whose senior employee was also the jury foreperson in one of the earlier trials,” the statement added.
The Ibori case has been plagued by British police corruption, exceptional prosecutorial misconduct and fundamental non-disclosure.
A multitude of appeals have now been launched or are in the process of being launched, Eluemunor said.
Urhoboland, Oghara Erupt
On getting wind of the order for Ibori’s release, his kinsmen in Oghara thronged the major drinking bars in celebration of a man who had brought enormous development to the community as governor of Delta State.
The celebration was not limited to Oghara, as Urhoboland in Delta Central zone made up of eight local governments, and other parts of Delta State where his Urhobo kinsmen as well as political associates reside, also joined in the celebrations.
In Ughelli North and South Local Government Areas as well as Udu, Uvwie and Warri Local Government Areas of the state, the release of Ibori dominated discussions over bottles of drinks.
THISDAY learnt that most of the people were celebrating based on the rumoured homecoming of the erstwhile governor before Christmas Day on Sunday or before the New Year since the town had been spruced up and houses and streets were readied for Ibori’s anticipated return before the end of the year.
Practically all of Ibori’s associates were of the view that the former governor was a victim of political persecution rather than for corruption or money laundering for which he was jailed in the United Kingdom.
Some of them believed that Ibori’s return to the country would stir up the political atmosphere not only in Delta State but the Niger Delta region and Nigeria as a whole.
A prominent indigene of Oghara and former commissioner under ex-Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan’s administration, Chief Ben Igbakpa described the court order as a welcome development not only for the people of Oghara but Delta State as a whole.
“No matter the circumstances, every journey, every venture, every persecution, every cry, and even our lives have a beginning and an end. To God alone be the Glory.
“In all our celebrations let’s sit and think about our individual culpability in what led to this punishment that a single man had to carry the cross of a generation.
“We can’t move forward effectively without a robust understanding of yesterday and the need to be counted as tested and trusted. This gives us food for thought as we kick off the celebrations on this historic day.
“Conscience is an open wound that can only be healed by truth alone. God bless Delta State,” he said.
For Senator Igboyota Amori, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chieftain in the state and confidant of Ibori, his release was a welcome development.
“On Ibori’s release today, it’s celebrations everywhere in Oghara, Mosogar, Jesse, the whole of Urhoboland, Delta State and Nigeria.
“Nigerians in the UK and all over the world are at this moment celebrating the hero of our time, the resource control guru, the liberator of the oppressed who paid the supreme price for the sake of his people.
“Our joy knows no bound as Deltans and Nigerians and in fact the entire Urhobo nation await his triumphant return to his fatherland.
“Like Mandela, Awolowo, Obasanjo and many others of his type, Ibori remains our hero,” he told THISDAY.
Another chieftain of the PDP in the state and Urhobo leader, Chief Sunny Onuesoke, said this was the greatest thing that has happened to the state.
He declared: Chief Ibori’s release is the greatest thing that has ever happened within the political terrain of Delta State since the creation of the state.”
Senator James Manager, also a close ally of Ibori said: “Glory be to God,” in his reaction to news of Ibori’s release.
Also, former governorship aspirants, Dr. Festus Okubor, Hon. Ejaife Odebala as well as media and social commentator, Mr. Willy Bozimo, said with Ibori’s anticipated return he would fill a void in the politics of the Delta State and thereby unite the state.
Okubor, who was also a commissioner in the state, noted that the former governor could not be abandoned, as he did not abandon his own even while serving his jail term in Britain, adding that Ibori even reached out to the militants in the Niger Delta following the recent resurgence of militancy in the oil-rich region.
Okubor, who waxed lyrical in showering encomiums on his leadership style, said of Ibori on his Facebook page: “Odidigboigbo of the Universe, you are a classical man; kind, pragmatic, robust, astute and urgent chief. You touched the lives of men innumerably and positively affected destinies on God’s behalf. You made some cry for joy; you made others smile for their temporal success of hounding you. As you always insisted, your calling is to make society better and give joy and happiness to man.
“They thought your friends and lovers will cry; they believed we will despair, they wished the flock will scatter but we knew better.
“We knew that God cannot forsake a good man. We saw clearly that God for His reason alone has ordained a wilderness experience for your refilling for His greater use for the salvation of Nigeria.
“Moses went through the same, separated from his people for saving their good. We never feared, we never floundered, we never got distressed…”
Similarly, Odebala, who is the incumbent chairman of Sapelle Local Government Area in the state, told THISDAY on phone that God had freed Ibori because he ruled his people with passion and a good heart, adding: “The political atmosphere in the state will not remain the same with the release of Chief James Onanefe Ibori.”
Bozimo, who described Ibori as “the wonder kid of Oghara”, added: “We wait for an illustrious son who fell on evil days, hoping his return would provide a formidable leader in Delta State who will move us in the right direction.”
For Charles Eyimofe Pemu, an Itsekiri leader, Ibori should be given a second chance because he had showed sagacity as a politician despite his travails, saying he could come back reinvigorated as a leader of his people.
Pemu, who described Ibori as the best politician to emerge from the South-south geopolitical zone, noted: “Though he is not a saint, he remains the best politician in the South-south region; only that he played his politics in ‘Maradona’ style, but should we dump him? No!
“The northerners and westerners will not do so. Why should we dump our political lion? We need him to teach us some of the moves and how to rule; that is why he must return.
“Note that a former armed robber can become a defender of his people because he understands how to make use of the gun.”