The story of the release of a former Governor of Delta State, James Ibori, after serving his time in a London prison, is one of intense drama and intrigues, writes Omon-Julius Onabu
Like a bout of liquid from a burst high-pressure pipe, his release from a London prison in the United Kingdom provoked a strong dramatic reaction in Nigeria and in even in the United Kingdom. From his kith and kin in Oghara and across the state and beyond, the emotional outburst was both ecstatic and phenomenal, albeit expectedly. Although the expression of heroic approval of the recent decision of the London court was not altogether spontaneous, the widespread open celebration of the verdict in parts of the state, by citizens who the Law determined Chief James Onanefe Ibori had grievously sinned against, was simply overwhelming.
Despite the fact that circumstances that led to his incarceration border on the political actor stealing heavily from their commonwealth, the people were determined to give Ibori an unprecedented reception once he stepped into shores of Nigeria again. This disposition was much evident following the Wednesday, December 21, 2016 announcement of Ibori’s release from prison amid legal fireworks in London between the appellate court that authorized his release and the Home Office that was obviously determined to keep the man in prison as long as it could with legal niceties.
Oghara, which is the administrative headquarters of Ethiope West Local Government Area, was clearly in a happy mood as ecstatic celebration with acrobatic display by youths and women as well as motorcyclists created an atmosphere of a carnival. There was also general feasting with many people, particularly youths, enjoyed free booze. Even prayers and songs of thanksgiving were everywhere offered to God even by politicians not known for religious ceremonies. Everyone simply went religious and philosophical.
Most of the people were celebrating apparently based on the rumoured homecoming of the erstwhile governor before the Yuletide on Sunday and the before the New Year. The town has for a couple of weeks been wearing a colorful looks and houses and streets were readied for Ibori’s anticipated return before the end of the year.
His influence on Politics from Prison
The selection of a governorship candidate by the Delta State chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the April 2015 gubernatorial election practically placed the party, which had held sway in the state since 1999, on a precipice. Although a serving senator, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa, appeared to tower head and shoulders over all the other aspirants to the coveted ticket, certain political intrigues and subterranean horse-trading had treated to displace Okowa with names like Mr. Tony Obuh being thrown up as the “anointed” candidate of the then incumbent governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan.
However, following the widely reported intervention of Ibori, who was said to have met with some members of his political family in his London prison, the then governor was allegedly asked to jettison the idea of imposing Obuh, a then recently retired senior civil servant in the state in favour of an Okowa candidacy. Nonetheless, Uduaghan’s late effort to rally support for another aspirant and a member of the formidable Ibori political family, Chief David Edevbie, whom he believed might be more appealing to Ibori, eventually did not succeed in stopping Okowa.
It is, therefore, not surprising that some of these associates 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. To former governorship aspirants, Dr. Festus Okubor and Hon Ejaife Odebala as well as media and social commentator, Mr Willy Bozimo, Ibori would provide that lacking link in the politics of the state and thereby unite or lead the state positively towards the future.
His Behind-the-Scene Effort against Militancy
Close associates of the former governor claimed that Ibori’s personal mediation went a long way in brokering the reduction in upsurge in militancy in the oil-rich region. According to Okubor, Ibori even while in prison in London had used his overarching political influence to appeal to the various militant groups even though they were not personally known to him.
Okubor said while saluting his political hero on the occasion of his release from the London prison, “You enquired after how the ordinary man was coping with the recession. You called the creeks, pleading and begging for the national economy to be spared; you begged for the environmental impact of blowing pipelines to be avoided at all and every cost. You didn’t know who to call but you called all you knew to save the region from total destruction.”
Bozimo, aka ‘Willy Bee’, who described Ibori as “the wonder kid of Oghara”, said “We wait for an illustrious son, who fell on evil days, hoping his return would provide a formidable leader in Delta State, who moves us in the right direction.”
Similarly, Odebala, who is a legal practitioner and incumbent chairman of Sapelle Local government Area of the state, told THISDAY on phone that God had freed Ibroi because he ruled his people with passion and a good heart, saying “the political atmosphere in the state will not remain the same with the release of Chief James Onanefe Ibori.”
Ibori: A Villain or Hero?
Practically all Ibori’s associates believe that that former governor was a victim of political persecution as against genuine prosecution for corruption or money laundering for which he was jailed in the United Kingdom. Perhaps, this represents the greatest evidence that Ibori’s towering political father-figure is far from being diminished. As a matter of fact, his fabled uncommon political sagacity did not ebb even in the heat of his legal travails, first in Nigeria and ultimately in the UK.
Specifically, they believed that the former governor still has a lot to contribute not only to the unity and growth of Delta State but Niger-Delta as a whole considering his leadership role in the fight for true federalism and resource control implementation in the region. His political associates 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.
Okubor, Odebala and Bozimo also think Ibori would provide that lacking link in the politics of the state and thereby unite or lead the state positively towards the future.
In the opinion of Mr. Charles Eyimofe Pemu, an Itsekiri leader, Ibori should be given a second chance because he had proved himself a dogged fighter 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, said “Though he is not a saint, he remains the best politician in the South-south region, only, that he played the politics in a “Maradona” style but should we dump him? No! The Northerner and the Westerner will not do so. Why should we dump our political lion? We need him to teach us some of the moves and not 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.”
The Fear of Lingering Legal Battles
Amid the excitement that greeted his release from prison and the prospect of his immediate homecoming, it soon dawned on relations, political associates, supporters and admirers of Ibori that it might yet be a long night contrary to the belief apparently orchestrated by certain ardent supporters that his release was unconditional.
Prior to his imprisonment in April 2012, Ibori had pleaded guilty to a 10-count charge of fraud and money-laundering committed during his eight-year tenure as elected governor of Delta State, an oil-rich but generally impoverished federating unit of Nigeria like most other states in the country.
Addressing Ibori during his sentencing at Southwark Crown Court in London, Judge Anthony Pitts said, “During those two terms (as governor) you turned yourself in very short order indeed into a multi-millionaire through corruption.” He went on: “The figure may be in excess of 200 million pounds, it is difficult to tell. The confiscation proceedings may shed some further light on the enormity of the sums involved.” He said it was one of the biggest money-laundering cases seen and that the 50 million pounds Ibori had admitted to stealing may be a “ludicrously low” fraction of his total loot.
Similarly, Prosecutor Sasha Wass stressed that Ibori engaged in a wide variety of frauds. The single biggest scam involved siphoning off $37 million in fake consultancy fees during the sale of Delta State’s stake in mobile telecoms company V-Mobile. The court heard that Ibori used his stolen fortune to acquire six foreign properties worth 6.9 million pounds in total, a fleet of luxury cars including a Bentley and a Maybach 62, and that he tried to buy a $20 million private jet.
The Struggle Continues…
During his sentencing trial, Ibori’s defence counsel, Mr Nicholas Purnell, argued that his crimes could be mitigated by his reported achievements as governor, particularly the construction of vital infrastructure across the state. To buttress that argument, Purnell had called former Wimbledon footballer and respected Nigerian sports ambassador, Mr John Fashanu, as a character witness. Fashanu praised Ibori for the construction of three Olympic and FIFA-registered stadia in the Delta State as well as an 18-hole golf course and a shooting range.
Although this line of argument failed to change the outcome of the trial in 2012, it would appear that many are set to persuade those who have picked holes with the superfluous praise for a man they believed have unpardonably fleeced his people and should not be celebrated to agree that his famed performance in office should sufficiently mitigate his equally ‘celebrated’ iniquities.
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. Ruling against the Home Office, a High Court judge said 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.” Thus, 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.
Conversely, the Home Office’s counsel 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.
Rethinking the Political Future
Apparently, the battle over the forfeiture of the controversial £18 million “proceeds of crime” stands between Ibori and homecoming and opportunity for his supporters and admirers to fully roll out the drums. In the meantime, what appears to be the most bizarre projection concerns the possibility of the former governor pitching tent with the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
The calculation is that Ibori could allow key members of his political family like Okowa and Uduaghan as harbingers into the APC to prepare the ground for a “soft landing” for him especially in the light of the anti-corruption posture of the Buhari government. Besides, it is also rumoured that the ex-governor might be made to face another round of trial back home in Nigeria.
The expectation is that with old allies like Atiku Abubakar and Bola Ahmed Tinubu added to the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari was a key player in the government of the late Sani Abacha in which Ibori served as presidential adviser. After all, practically nothing is impossible in politics when the stakes are very high.
Practically all Ibori’s associates believe that that former governor was a victim of political persecution as against genuine prosecution for corruption or money laundering for which he was jailed in the United Kingdom. Perhaps, this represents the greatest evidence that Ibori’s towering political father-figure is far from being diminished. As a matter of fact, his fabled uncommon political sagacity did not ebb even in the heat of his legal travails, first in Nigeria and ultimately in the UK