Ibori's case

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Below is a story we came across in our research on Anti-corruption, good governance, and positive citizenship. – Centre for Leadership and Social Enterprise Development

It is universally acknowledged that corruption is Nigeria’s number one social disease. We may not agree on how best to fight the menace, but we all agree that it is an epidemic that afflicts everyone, everywhere, especially those in some positions of authority. This is particularly true of the public service, where, within the past month alone, allegations of corruption ripped the Nigeria Stock Exchange and the police pension scheme. The House of Representatives probe into the management of subsidy funds also revealed stunning evidence of widespread corruption in the country. Hardly a day passes that Nigerian newspapers do not carry stories about fraud in some governmental or commercial institutions.

Today, corruption is largely responsible for deficits in infrastructure, education, health care, and other social services. It adversely affects not just the growth of our minds and bodies. It also affects our body politic and values. Our democracy is faltering because the rituals of democratic renewal are fraught with corrupt practices. Our economy may show potential for growth because of growing oil revenue, but corruption and insecurity are in the way of actual growth.

Unfortunately, those who are in the best position to curb corruption are the ones mostly afflicted by it—politicians, public servants, judges, and security agents. Like goats, which steal and eat where they own nothing, these public officials have domesticated the habit of looting the public treasury or accepting bribes with impunity. True, some of them have been charged to court but many escape with their loot as a result of botched prosecution or judicial collusion. In some cases, even the police can’t catch the thief.

That’s why today, there are many political goats eating free from public treasuries throughout the country. Only a handful of them have been made scapegoats. They include former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun; former Bayelsa State governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha; former Edo State governor, Lucky Igbinendion; and former South-West Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, Bode George. Like the Biblical scapegoat (Leviticus, Chapter 16) that was allowed to escape into the wilderness after the priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people on its head, these political scapegoats were made to carry the burden of corruption convictions.

It is against the above context that we should appraise the recent sentencing and imprisonment of the most recent political scapegoat, the immediate past former governor of Delta State, James Onanefe Ibori. Having pleaded guilty to defrauding his state of billions of naira, he was sent into the wilderness of Wandsworth prison in southwest London, where he will share time with his former lawyer, Bhadresh Gohil, for his part in the money laundering saga.

Ibori’s sentencing and imprisonment in a foreign court have far-reaching implications for Nigeria. First, it consolidates corruption as Nigeria’s brand by providing international observers with a close look at the extent of corruption through the fraudulent activities of just one man. It is in this sense that Ibori’s case provides a metaphorical scapegoat of Nigerian corrupt officials.

Second, Ibori’s case provides a sad commentary on our political system. Nigeria is brandished to the world as a place where, according to British prosecutor, Sasha Wass, a “common thief” became a state governor. This should mortify the PDP stalwarts who selected him twice to be a candidate for state governor despite serious doubts expressed about his character and life history. Remember Chief Great Ogboru’s petition about Ibori’s criminal conviction in Abuja in 1995? Our courts tossed the case up and down until Ibori was eventually acquitted of all charges by the Supreme Court.

But Ibori’s criminal past can no longer be concealed. Not only was it revealed that he is a two-time convict in the UK, we also learnt that he obtained a new passport with a new date of birth in order to conceal his convictions. That in itself is an indictment on our Passport Offices, where a man can become a woman for a fee. Ibori exploited institutional loopholes to the fullest, and came to represent all that is wrong with our institutions.

Third, Ibori’s case demonstrates Nigeria’s lack of political, judicial, and social will to fight corruption. Everyone knew that Ibori was spending the people’s money but the PDP powerbrokers looked away because he helped to bankroll some of the party’s activities. When the wheel of justice finally caught up with him, a Nigerian judge acquitted him of all charges. When fresh charges were later brought against him, his people rose to his defence and the security services could not track him down until he escaped from the country. But what the Nigerian police and judicial system could not do, the Interpol and a British court did. As Ibori languishes in jail, indulgent PDP stalwarts, corrupt judges, inefficient security agents, and complicit Deltans should reflect hard on their failings.

Ibori’s case illustrates a Yoruba adage: Ojó gbogbo ni t’olè; ojóò kan ni t’oní nkan (It takes just one moment to catch a chronic thief). Deltans now have a chance to benefit from the loot to be recovered from Ibori. They should have a say in how the recovered funds are spent and for what purposes. Otherwise, they may find their way back into Ibori’s coffers or go into some unknown dungeon like all the loot returned so far to the Federal Government by foreign governments and the anti-graft agencies.

Given the attempts by the government of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to shield Ibori from prosecution, President Goodluck Jonathan should be credited for reopening his case. But whether he is really serious about fighting corruption beyond token gestures, or getting rid of a potential rival, is another matter. It may well depend on how he handles the recommendation of the Oronsaye Committee that the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission be scrapped in the name of rationalising  government parastatals.

In the light of Nigeria’s membership of the United National Convention Against Corruption and in view of the endemic nature of corruption in our society, Jonathan would do well to ignore this recommendation. Instead, he should strengthen the anti-graft agencies and reform the judicial system, if he means to keep the promises he made in his declaration speech that he will have “zero tolerance for corruption” and in his inauguration speech that: “The bane of corruption shall be met by an overwhelming force”.



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