Former civilian governor of Delta State, James Onanefe Ibori, is again in the eye of the global media storm though, this time, in an indirect way. Omon-Julius Onabu takes a look at the arguments about how to appropriate certain recovered monies stashed away in the UK by the ex-governor and his associates, which the British Government recently agreed to repatriate to Nigeria, soon
Upon the restoration of democracy in Nigeria on May 29, 1999, James Onanefe Ibori, an economist and politician, took office as the elected governor of the oil-rich Delta State, supervising the affairs of the state for eight years, that is, the statutory maximum two terms.
However, more than 13 years after completing his tenure of office as governor, Ibori has continued to be in the news albeit notoriously or vicariously, specifically, because of the unending controversy his allegedly looted funds in foreign land had created.
This recurring echo from the past is in spite of the fact the businessman, who is excessively loved or admired by his own people in Nigeria regardless, had since served out a 13-year jail term that a United Kingdom court slammed him in 2012 for financial fraud totalling $50 million.
The said money, British and international investigators revealed, included “a $37 million or £23 million fraud from the sale of the Delta State’s shares” in Nigerian privatised GSM company known as Vmobile.
Very recently, precisely on March 9, 2021, the government of the United Kingdom (UK) expressed its readiness to begin to return to Nigeria in coming weeks, the sum of £4.2 million of the recovered “Ibori loot”, consequent upon a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the two countries on that day.
British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing and Nigeria’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, signed the MoU for the UK and Nigeria, respectively. According to the British high commissioner, the money was recovered from the former Delta governor’s family members and business associates in the UK.
However, the attorney general of Nigeria stated categorically that Delta State was not in the calculation of the Federal Government of Nigeria on how to appropriate the expected recovered funds from Britain.
Presenting a picture of the said money being part of proceeds from a deal between the federal government and the UK government, Malami said the decision not to return the £4.2 million to Delta State was based on the resolution of the Buhari administration.
He said the issue of the looted money was based on “federal law” and not “state law”. Put differently, the attorney general stated that the money would not be given to the Delta State, because the said financial fraud was a federal crime.
“Whether Delta State will benefit (from the recovered money) is a function of local law”, the AGF said, adding that such was the federal government’s position.
“In consonance with existing framework or model engaged in the management of previous recoveries, the Federal Executive Council, under the able leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, has directed that the instant repatriated funds should be deployed towards the completion of the following legacy projects: The 2nd Niger Bridge, Abuja-Kano expressway under the coordination of the Nigeria Social Investment Authority (NSIA), to ensure integrity of the process,” Malami said.
He also claimed that his view or position of the federal government was supported by the terms of the said MoU between UK and Nigeria, including a condition that the money must be tied to certain specific federal projects.
Nevertheless, the statement by Malami, on behalf of the federal government, instantly sparked a new wave of reactions from different directions. The Delta State Government simply cried blue murder! The position of the state government that the funds belonged to Delta State was emphatically expressed by some officials of the government that spoke to THISDAY in Asaba.
According to the Commissioner for Information, Charles Aniagwu and the chief press secretary to the governor, Olisa Ifeajika, Delta State Government did not expect the federal government to carry through its threatened plan to use the £4.2 million recovered by the United Kingdom from Ibori and associates, to execute projects outside Delta State.
Speaking to THISDAY in Asaba, they argued that since the federal government merely made a statement of intention regarding what and where it might use the said money, it would be premature to begin to talk about going to court to challenge the federal government’s decision, that is, its stated cause of action credited to the AGF or to consider the roundtable option for now.
Nonetheless, they stressed that it would amount to monumental injustice and blatant impunity on the part of the federal government to divert the money to projects not located within Delta State. They said the state government would only consider a court action in the unlikely situation that the federal government refused to hearken to the voice of reason from various stakeholders across the country.
“Delta State Government believes that the federal government erred by proposing that the money allegedly recovered from ex-governor James Ibori, and which is being returned to Nigeria by the UK, would be used for projects outside the state. We believe and hope that the federal government will listen to the voice of reason from numerous individuals, including legal luminaries and other stakeholders, and to do the needful by rescinding its plan to use the money for projects not connected to Delta at all,” Aniagwu said.
In the same vein, the chief press secretary said it would be understandable if Malami or the federal government had suggested that the recovered money be used to fund federal projects in Delta State. He said such a proposal would make sense if the federal government said it was concerned about judicious appropriation or application of the recovered funds.
“For instance, there are many federal roads in the state that are in very deplorable condition; so, one may be talking about committing the money to the reconstruction and rehabilitation of some of these federal roads that are very bad. We have the Asaba-Illah Road, Agbor-Umutu-Abraka road, roads like the Warri-Sapele-Benin road, Sapele-Eku Road.
“They could say, because we want the money to be judiciously utilised, let’s use the money for rehabilitation of these roads instead of the state government sourcing funds to fix these very rundown but important federal roads,” Ifeajika stated, adding: “Otherwise, that (excluding Delta State) would be the height of injustice and impunity.”
Moreover, the Delta State Government has dismissed as preposterous, the claim by Malami that the said money did not belong to Delta State, because the negotiations and eventual signing of the MoU was a bilateral affair between the British government and its Nigerian counterpart. It said since it was international matters, only the national government could be involved.
On this, the information commissioner said, “In matters like this, Delta State couldn’t have gone into negotiations with the British Government. Such things are done national-government-to-national government, within the ambit of international law and diplomacy. Moreover, the UK government, which is returning the money, was not equivocal as where the money is from. So, they know that it doesn’t belong to the Federal Government of Nigeria but to Delta State.”
Ifeajika, who observed that, the former governor was not an employee of the federal government and as such, could not have misappropriated or diverted the money in question from federal funds, further buttressed Aniagwu’s view.
“After all, Ibori was not a federal government worker; he didn’t serve as a federal minister.”
Many others, including individuals and groups had also reacted to the stand of the federal government on the recovered Ibori loot as expressed by AGF Malami. They include the fiery elder statesman and former information minister, Edwin Kiagbodo Clark; renowned Nigerian lawyer, Femi Falana as well as the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU), which is the sociocultural organisation of Urhobo ethnic nationality worldwide. James Onanefe Ibori is of Urhobo ethnic extraction.
From all indications, if there was any Nigerian alive today that could speak authoritatively to any vexed issue in Delta State, and Niger Delta in general, that person is Chief E.K. Clark. Not only has he been involved in agitation for true federalism through resource control and restructuring of the country, Clark was evidently in the forefront of the clamour to recover funds from Delta State.
Clark is the leader of Delta Elders and Stakeholders Forum, a very outspoken group, which fiercely fought against the emergence of Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan as successor to governor Ibori on the ground that such an arrangement might provide ample room for the fraud allegedly perpetrated by Ibori to be covered or swept under the carpet. And, Clark with others in his elders’ forum, like Godwin Ogbetuo, apparently did not beat a retreat till the news that Ibori was extradited from Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the UK to face charges of fraud against Delta State as governor.
Clark has also consistently called for a return of all Delta State monies recovered to the state for use in the development of the state. The national Ijaw leader and patron of the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), who is also a lawyer, has joined in condemning the statement credited to Malami that the federal government would use the £4.2 million Ibori loot as the Buhari administration deemed fit.
As matter of fact, the elder statesman warned the federal government to be prepared to go to meet the state’s stakeholders and elders in court unless it jettisoned the idea of not returning the said money to Delta State.
Several other social groups and individuals have also been protesting the reported plan by the federal government to withhold the recovered Ibori loot from Delta State.
For instance, Ighoyota Amori, who is the former governor’s kinsman and served as a commissioner in the Ibori administration, stressed that the persistent attack on Ibori was because he has remained “the voice of Urhobo Nation”, stressing that, “Ibori is not the problem of Nigeria”.
Interestingly, a legal luminary in Nigeria, Femi Falana, appears to be in the forefront of the legal fireworks that have been ignited by Malami, calling on the federal government to discard the argument that the £4.2 million should not be returned to the source state.
The human rights lawyer faulted Malami’s position as being at variance with the position of the country’s law and even from precedents on such matters.
Specifically, Falana noted that funds stolen from the Bayelsa State Government by the late governor Alamieyeseigha, a contemporary of Ibori, were returned to the Bayelsa State Government. Similarly, recovered funds diverted or laundered by Joshua Dariye, former governor of Plateau State, were returned to Plateau State conviction of Dariye.
Falana, therefore, argued that holding on to the recovered Ibori loot by the Federal Government of Nigeria was not only unjust but also ran foul of Section 162 of the country’s constitution.
Falana further said the MoU signed by the British High Commissioner to Nigeria and the AGF, Malami, “cannot supersede the Constitution, which has prohibited any form of discrimination in the country” but which the proposed action of the central government in Nigeria portends.
So much has been the interest generated by the Malami claim on the recovered Ibori loot that a leading online publishing organisation, The Cable, has begun an opinion survey on the subject, with the simple question, “Should Ibori loot be returned to FG or Delta State?”
And, at the last count, about 60 per cent of respondents voted for the £4.2 million to be returned to Delta State Government while about 40 per cent of the respondents were in support of the federal government deciding on what to do with the recovered Delta State funds.
Nonetheless, it must be said that while some of arguments about who gets the money – Delta State or Federal Government – are simply based on political or primordial sentiments, others are simply childish or mischievous.
Piix: Delta State Governor, Ifeanyi Okowa and one of his predecessors, James Ibori.jpg