James Ibori As Yar’adua’s God Father

James Ibori, the former governor of Delta State accused of a series of financial crimes at home and abroad, is President Umaru Yar’Adua’s most visible friend, a situation which has insulated him from the government’s zero-tolerance for corruption.

He is Nigeria’s most powerful politician–apart from the President. Or its most corrupt, who should be made to pay for his alleged sins. Or both. Or neither. Of the four options, only the last seems wholly unlikely in the case of James Onanefe Ibori, former governor of Delta State.

Since leaving office in 2007, after his two terms as governor, Ibori has found another career as a powerbroker. And in his new calling, Ibori has done well, perhaps better than he did as governor. In Aso Rock Villa, seat of the Presidency, and within the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, the former governor looms large. He is one of the closest persons to President Umaru Yar’Adua.

To the army of favour and fortune seekers around Yar’Adua, Ibori is the power grid to which they must be connected. Aside the fact that Yar’Adua and Ibori were governors at the same time, the former Delta State governor is reputed to have been the biggest financier of Yar’Adua’s election in 2007.

It is an investment that has yielded a smorgasbord of dividends: influence, protection, patronage and power. Many of the key appointments made by Yar’Adua were not without Ibori’s approval. Mr. Mike Okiro, the recently retired Inspector-General of Police, and his successor, Ogbonnaya Onovo, required the former Delta State governor’s assent to get the job. Mrs. Farida Waziri, Chairman, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, also owes her appointment to Ibori and his former governor friends. So does Mr. Michael Aondoakaa, Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, AGF.

David Edebvie, Principal Private Secretary to the President, was Ibori’s commissioner of finance between 1999 and 2004. Edebvie’s name has crept up in the ongoing London trial of three of Ibori’s aides for the sale of the shares of Econet Wireless Nigeria, EWN, a telecoms company now known as Zain Networks. Edebvie also worked in the Yar’Adua/Jonathan Campaign Organisation.

Another beneficiary of Ibori’s political muscle is Tokunbo Enaboifo, who was appointed Executive Director, Finance and Administration, Nigeria-São Tomé and Principe Joint Development Authority, JDA. Unlike the others, Enaboifo did not last long in office, quitting for “personal reasons” after the news of his conviction, for attempted bank fraud in the US, hit the streets last March.

Enaboifo, who was first indicted, fled the US for Nigeria, where he started hanging around Ibori, with whom he had been friends. Whatever regrets Enaboifo may have over his forced exit from the JDA is tempered by the continued relevance of Ibori in Aso Rock. That relevance has remained unaffected by the fact that he is alleged to have been twice convicted in London, where he remains a subject of investigation by the London Metropolitan Police as well as facing a raft of corruption charges before a federal high court in Asaba. Ibori’s prosecution began at the Federal High Court, Kaduna, in 2007. That, however, did not discourage the government from putting him on the country’s official delegation to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

For an administration that claims to abhor corruption, the choice of Ibori as a member of delegation to the games drew criticisms. That, however, did not bother the government, which has continued to treat Ibori like royalty. There are suspicions, with sufficient foundation, that the Yar’Adua administration is determined to shield Ibori from prosecution. On 10 September, Aondoakaa, the AGF, told reporters in Abuja that the EFCC had cleared Ibori and two other former governors, Arc.Victor Attah and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, of Akwa Ibom and Lagos states respectively, over the sale of their states’ shares in EWN. In 2007, a petition alleging corruption in the sale of the states’ shares was sent to the EFCC for investigation. Though the agency has not concluded its investigations, Aondoakaa claimed the former governors had been cleared of alleged stealing of $38million from the investments of the three states. He explained that he was informed of their clearance of any wrongdoing by the EFCC after he received a request from British authorities to provide information on the transaction. The AGF explained that the EFCC investigated alleged money laundering in the shares sale and ordered Access Bank, bankers to African Development Funds Incorporated, ADFI, brokers of the transaction, to halt it pending the conclusion of investigations. “Later, the EFCC wrote the bank that the issue had been cleared,” Aondoakaa claimed.

He also alleged that it was Nuhu Ribadu, former EFCC Chairman, that rekindled the interest of the British authorities in the matter in a bid to embarrass Nigeria. Ribadu replied that Aondoakaa lied against him to remain in the good books of the government and that he only responded to the questions of the British authorities, which interviewed him as the EFCC Chairman when the alleged crime took place. Ribadu added that the British Police, which have requested that Ibori be released for prosecution, raided the office of Ibori’s lawyers and found documents hinting at money laundering.

However, the day after Aondoakaa made his claims, the EFCC stung him with a denial of such. In a statement signed by Femi Babafemi, the agency’s spokesman, the EFCC said: “The commission wishes to state emphatically that it has not at any time or in any correspondence with the persons referred to in the media reports or any other person, cleared them of complicity in all matters relating to them which are in court or still under investigations.”

The denial forced the AGF to claim that he was quoted out of context. Tinubu also denied benefitting personally from the transaction. In an advertorial published in major dailies, the former Lagos State governor said: “The Econet investment was to act as a catalyst for economic growth and to provide employment for Nigerians, particularly when the new company would encourage more direct foreign investment. It was a straightforward institutional investment, with neither myself nor any of my officials directly involved except, of course, the commisioner for finance who, by virtue of his office, sat on the board of Econet to represent Lagos State.” He challenged anybody with evidence to come forward with such.

Observers reckon that the inclusion of Tinubu’s name by the AGF was a clever way of deflecting suspicion from his main goal: protection of Ibori. Aondoakaa, however, insisted that the government is not protecting Ibori. Speaking with journalists in Benin, the AGF said those alleging that the former governor and others accused of corruption are being shielded from prosecution are blackmailing the government.

Last Monday in Abuja, Aondoakaa said the Federal Government would not accede to the request of the London Metropolitan Police to hand Ibori over for trial in Britain because doing so would amount to conceding the nation’s sovereignity to foreign powers. “The extradition of James Ibori to stand trial in Britain, as requested by the London Metropolitan Police, will not be granted automatic approval…If Ibori is handed over to the UK Police, based on the request we received, then all Nigerians stand the risk of being whisked away by foreign forces at will,” Aondoakaa said.

Four days before Aondoakaa announced Nigeria’s decision to snub Britain’s request for Ibori’s extradition, the former Delta State governor came out to defend himself against the allegations that are swirling around him. At a press conference in Lagos, Ibori alleged that his problems were caused by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who used Ribadu to “package me as the face of corruption and brand me as the greatest obstacle to Nigeria’s development”. Ibori traced his problem to teaming up with other governors to oppose Obasanjo’s re-election bid in 2003. “When I met him soon after the convention, he told me that he learned that I had put forward the view that he was unsaleable, unmarketable and unelectable. He then vowed that he was going to make sure that I was unsaleable, unmarketable and unelectable,” Ibori said of Obasanjo. He also alleged that the former president was angered by the campaign for greater resource control, in which he (Ibori) featured prominently while he was governor.

The former governor accused Ribadu of moving against him because he turned down his request for assistance in his bid become the Inspector-General of Police. “He vowed to deal with me and he started by politicising and personalising everything about me,” Ibori said of Ribadu. The former governor added that Ribadu’s claim that he offered him $15million bribe was false. The former EFCC boss, however, described Ibori’s claims as concocted. In a statement issued from his base in London, Ribadu said: “First, he lied that I solicited his assistance to become the Inspector-General of Police. I had it on record, while in office as the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) that James Ibori was a double convict. First, as a police officer and also as an anti-corruption campaigner, who was committed to doing his part to rid Nigeria of rogues. How could I have been seeking the assistance of a convicted felon for the highest police position in the country? If I wanted to be IG, he would be the last person I will consider to help me.” Ribadu said Ibori is desperate to escape justice, a reason for lying that he was “framed”.

“As he told the lie, and as I write this, the $15 million remains as an exhibit deposited with the Central Bank of Nigeria,” Ribadu added. Two days after the former EFCC boss fired his riposte, Ibori launched another fulminating attack on Ribadu.He alleged that Ribadu approached him and some other people to unseat President Yar’Adua through the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal. Ibori also alleged that Ribadu worked for Obasanjo’s aborted third term bid by distributing funds to National Assembly members to support the bid. Again, Ibori claimed that Ribadu sought financial assistance from suspects, for the purpose of establishing a football club for the EFCC. The monies raised from such sources, added Ibori, were never used for the purpose for which they were obtained.

Ibori’s claims have attracted a little more than derision from the elders of the Niger Delta region, who spoke through First Republic Information Minister, Chief Edwin Clark. The elders said Ibori had lied.“Ibori has no reason to accuse anybody for his travail. If he did not commit a crime, will Obasanjo manufacture offences against him?” Clark asked, saying there was nothing to suggest that Ibori’s agitation for increased derivation and opposition to the former president’s third term was responsible for his anger against the former governor. “There is nothing to show that Ibori was against Obasanjo for the third term. After the third term, he and Obasanjo were hobnobbing; they were meeting together from time to time,” Clark declared.

He then insisted that the demand for a 13 per cent derivation was a collective agitation by the elders and all governors of Niger Delta states at the time. “All the houses he bought in London, was it Obasanjo who told him to buy the Total Oil company in Benin; and the purchase of five million Naira worth of diesel every month from Total, which came to about N300 million; and the shares he bought from Afribank, the five billion naira spent in Afribank, was it Obasanjo who was responsible for that?” he asked rhetorically. Clark also blamed the smooth relationship between Obasanjo and Ibori, which the former is denying, for the emergence of Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, Ibori’s cousin, as governor of Delta State. “There was romance between the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Ibori. Ibori was frequenting Aso Rock almost every day and it was Obasanjo who imposed Ibori’s first cousin, Emmanuel Uduaghan, as governor of Delta State. We said that Uduaghan was going to be made to cover up the misdeeds of Ibori; Obasanjo said no. So I was surprised to hear that Obasanjo was the one who caused his present travail,” he said.

Clark demanded that the former governor should explain his signing of a supplementary budget of N120 billion into law on 14 June, 2004, without taking it through the state legislature. He also alleged that between 2001 to 2004, every supplementary budget never got to the House of Assembly, but was signed into law. The former Information Minister challenged Ibori to account for state’s fund to the tune of $37 million and the state’s shares in Oceanic Bank, whose value he clamed slid from N30 to N3, thereby amounting to a loss of about $15 billion. Clark accused Ibori of an attempt to buy Wilbros, an oil servicing company, with the state’s shares as collateral, and that he bought the National Fertiliser Company of Nigeria, NAFCON, with money from state funds as well as an aircraft.

Until he addressed a press conference in Lagos, Ibori’s assault on Ribadu had been through proxies he planted in government. Leading the pack is Aondoakaa, who began his offensive just after he got into office. The AGF began with an announcement that he was stripping the EFCC and its cousin, the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, of prosecutorial powers. Weeks later, he announced that all prosecutorial powers were derivable from his office. The announcement was widely considered to mean that the Yar’Adua administration was planning to interfere with the workings of the agency. Aondoakaa followed it up with an announcement that the President had approved it as the direction for the new dispensation. The decision to wrest prosecutorial powers from the EFCC drew widespread criticisms, which forced the government to announce that it did not approve of it.

That, however, marked the beginning of a toxic relationship between Ribadu and Aondoakaa, something that degenerated a few weeks later during the hearing of EFCC’s case against Dr. Orji Kalu, former governor of Abia State, who was being tried for money laundering at the Federal High Court, Abuja. When the case was called, lawyers from both the EFCC and the AGF’s office appeared as prosecutors. Salihu Aliyu, Director of Public Prosecution in the Ministry of Justice, represented the AGF, while Adebisi Adeniyi represented the EFCC. The surprised EFCC lawyer said: “I am at loss at the representation of the DPP in this matter because we are counsel on record in this case. This matter was initiated by the EFCC. If the AGF is taking over the case, this is not tidy enough.”

Aliyu, however, denied that the AGF was taking over the case, but said he appeared to clear some “grey areas” reported to the AGF’s office. The DPP said Kalu’s lawyers complained in writing to the AGF that their client was arrested in breach of court order restraining the commission from doing so. He argued that Kalu’s petition was written because of government’s assurance that it would abide by the rule of law and due process and that the arrest had caused it embarrassment. Aondoakaa would later add that he risked being penalised for contempt of court, a claim that appeared suspicious given that the AGF was not a party to the suit and could not have been liable. The incident cast the AGF’s office as the prosecutor and the defendant, puncturing the government’s claim of non-interference. Aondoakaa demanded an apology from Ribadu for the court incident, but the former EFCC boss declined to offer any.The AGF was red-eyed. Ribadu was triumphant and earned plaudits for standing up to the AGF, who was perceived to be working on behalf of those facing charges for graft.

But that was as good as it got. On 11 December 2007, Ribadu’s EFCC arrested Ibori. Two days later, the former governor was arraigned before the Federal High Court in Kaduna, where he and his aides, Ms. Uduamaka Okoronkwo and one Chiedu Ebie were slammed with an arm-long list of alleged corruption offences. On his second appearance before the court, presided over by Justice Mohammed Lawal Shuaibu, Ibori requested that the case be transfered from the court and reassigned. Ibori contended that EFCC’s decision to take him to Kaduna suggested that the agency was looking for a favourable forum to prosecute him and that the court may be susceptible to bias during the trial. The court dismissed the application, saying: “Considering the absence of any justifiable reason or reasons that the trial judge in this matter should rescue himself from further participation in this case, the application is hereby dismissed.” The court also rejected Ibori’s argument that the court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the matter as well as his contention that EFCC’s filing of the case was not proper.

“It is pertinent to state at this juncture that the subject matter of the 129-count charge against the accused applicants relate to money laundering as contained in the Money Laundering Prohibition Act of 2003 and 2004. Money laundering, which is specie of economic and financial crime, is exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court and it is within the jurisdiction of this court to hear and determine the matter of the 129 count of charge. “Section 19 (1) of the Federal High Court Act specifically states that the court shall have and exercise jurisdiction throughout the federation. It is also the position of Section 249 of the 1999 Constitution establishing one Federal High Court. The provision of Section 152 (2) of the Constitution also confers additional jurisdiction and power on the court.

“The applicant did not refer to the provision of any law on how a charge should be filed before the Federal High Court. By virtue of section 33 off the Federal High Court Act, all criminal cases before the court shall be tried summarily,” Justice Shuaibu said. However, through some legal hoop-jumping attributed to Aondoakaa, Ibori’s case was eventually transferred to Asaba, Delta State, and assigned to a handpicked judge. Before Ibori’s arrest, Aondoakaa had fought Ribadu over the former, who had been investigated in London for money laundering by the London Metropolitan Police. The dispute between the two arose from Ribadu’s decision to hand over documents on Ibori’s investigation by the EFCC to the London Metropolitan Police. Two separate teams from London had visited Nigeria for assistance on the case. After their visit, a prosecutor in the UK Fraud Prosecution Service, David Williams, wrote to the AGF’s office to request supplementary information.

The request, unsurprisingly, did not sit well with Aondoakaa, who replied that it was disrespectful for a lower officer of the British prosecution agency to request such information, which had not been obtained from his office in the first place. Aondoakaa took the matter to a meeting of the Federal Executive Council. That, for Ribadu, was lights out. It was at the meeting that the seeds of his removal from the EFCC, demotion from the Police and eventual dismissal were sown. The next phase of the onslaught was left in the hands of Okiro, the immediate past Inspector-General of Police. In January 2008, newspapers published reports which hinted that Okiro had been directed to issue a memo to Ribadu asking him to proceed to National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, NIPSS, for a course. It was reported that the proposed course was a way of getting Ribadu out of the EFCC on the prompting of some powerful interests. Okiro told the press that Ribadu must go the NIPSS, but denied that the government wanted to ease him out of his job on account of any prompting.

“He is not being sent on a course for any ulterior motive other than the reasons which he satisfies. He is not being sent to the NIPSS on the prompting of any external body. I am not a politician; I am not succumbing to whims and caprices of politicians as being speculated,” Okiro said. Under Police rules cited by Okiro, Ribadu, then an Assistant Inspector-General of Police, though on secondment to the EFCC, was still subject to police internal administrative rules.

But under Section 11 of the EFCC Act, only the agency can send its officers on course. Okiro’s reliance on police rules was eventually given away as a smokescreen by Aondoakaa, who said: “The IG must have sought and obtained the approval of the President. I do not know the IG to be a frivolous officer. The IG sent seven names for training and it is the President that gave approval for them to go on course.” There could hardly have been prizes for guessing who had nudged the President. Ribadu headed to Kuru, where he was arrested on graduation day for wearing mufti to the ceremony because he had been demoted to an Assistant Commissioner of Police. He explained that he was not sure of which uniform to wear since he had been demoted and the case was in court.

Ribadu had been on Ibori’s case for some time. EFCC investigations into his governorship showed that that in 2001, Henry Imasekha, an Ibori acolyte, took a N2.2 billion loan from the defunct New Nigerian Bank to buy 10 per cent shares in EWN. The loan was secured, according to investigators, without evidence of prior relationship with the bank. Shortly after, the Delta State government under Ibori bought half of Imasekha’s shares for N2.5 billion. EFCC discovered that Imasekha had used the amount to offset the loan, netting a hefty profit of N300 million and retaining 5 per cent of EWN shares. Edevbie, who was commissioner for finance under Ibori between 1999 and 2004 when the transaction took place, has offered to resign his appointment as Yar’Adua’s private secretary and head to London to clear his name.

Ibori, Edebvie’s benefactor, is also in the spotlight over an allegation that he used Delta State’s shares in Oceanic International Bank, one of the five banks whose chief executives were recently removed, as collateral for a private loan. The Central Bank Governor, Mr. Lamido Sanusi, recently said he may recommend Ibori for prosecution.

One major reason Ibori has a firm grip on the President is his closeness to Turai, Yar’Adua’s wife. Thus, whatever Ibori wants, as long as he convinces Turai, she puts pressure on her husband to ensure that it gets done.

The allegation of using shares for collateral is different from the others that have to do with corrupt enrichment through the shares purchase saga. On 20 September, the trial of Ibori’s accomplices resumed at Southwark Crown Court in London. Judge Christopher Hardy rejected the defence lawyer’s request to prevent representatives of the Nigerian media and the public from covering the case. Counsel to Bimpe Pogoson attempted to prevail on the court to ban coverage, but Judge Hardy said he had no authority over the Internet, bloggers and Nigerian newspapers. “No need to exclude Nigerians, this case is about them and their country,” the judge said.

The court also turned down the application to have the case, billed to run for six weeks, sent to Nigeria for trial. The trial involves Mrs Udoamaka Onuigbo Okoronkwo, Mrs Adebimpe Foleyinmi Pogoson and Christine Ibori-Ibie, all charged with conspiracy to defraud Delta State of Nigeria, as well as related money-laundering charges regarding James Ibori’s alleged theft of $140 million from Delta State. Mr. Nsugbe, counsel to Mrs Pogoson, was desperate to have the case against his client dismissed or transfered to Nigeria. His client is accused of laundering illicit funds through her UK bank accounts, as well as with mortgage fraud committed on her apartment at Abbey Road in London. Nsugbe requested that in view of the ongoing legal proceedings against James Ibori in Nigeria, the London trial be dismissed because it would make fair trial impossible for his client. But Andrew Trollope, counsel to Christine Ibie-Ibori, read out the papers received from EFCC, one of which stated that James Ibori defrauded Delta State along with his close associates and relatives via bloated contracts, including the supply of 271 vehicles to the state government and that virtually all the contracts awarded during Ibori’s tenure as governor were to steal huge amounts of money from the state. He also said that Mrs. Pogoson established a company with the intention of siphoning money from Nigeria on behalf of Ibori and lodging such in foreign accounts. Trollope stated that the EFCC had alleged that Pogoson’s company assisted Ibori to buy choice properties in UK and the United States. The lawyer also claimed that prior to being elected governor in 1999, Ibori was poor. Nsugbe, however urged that Udoamaka, with over 107 count charges against her, be returned to Nigeria to stand trial alongside Ibori. Trollope ended his submission, saying in the event of Ibori being discharged and acquitted by Nigerian courts, it would not be proper to continue his trial and those of his accomplices in another country and requested that the proceedings be adjourned and suspended, pending the final verdict of the trials in Nigeria.

The Judge dismissed the appeal for suspension pending the outcome of the trial in Nigeria unless fresh circumstantial evidence, which may negatively affect the trial, is unearthed. Lady Sasha Wass, counsel to Chief Prosecuting Service, CPS, insisted that the trial must continue in London because none of the UK evidence against Udoamaka Onuigbo Okoronkwo is with the Nigerian authorities and that there is no guarantee of fair trial if they are all extradited to Nigeria. Lady Wass also reminded the court that Ibori and Udoamaka had been convivted over stolen credit cards and and theft committed at Wickes Store in London 20 years ago. She also said Ibori and Udoamaka are experienced in criminal activities and that multiple purchase of posh properties, with or without mortgage, is one of the tricks employed to launder money stolen from Nigeria. When asked by the court to specify her demands, she appealed for a continuation of the trial in the UK and described Udoamaka and others as liars for claiming ignorance of the source of Ibori’s wealth. Ibori’s aides are on conditional bail, which demands that they surrender their passports, not to travel within 300 metres of airports and seaports, report at the nearest police station every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and not apply for fresh passports or any international travel documents pending the completion of the trials.

However, Lady Wass’ claim that Ibori was poor before he became governor in 1999 is inaccurate. While he was not the Croesus he now is, Ibori was not exactly a scrounger. His source of money was not the sort to be proud of. In 1996, Ibori established Diet,a newspaper funded by the discredited regime of the late General Sani Abacha, who was then plotting to transmute into a civilian president. Ibori, as reported by TheNEWS in its edition of 22 November 1999, was matey with Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, Abacha’s Chief Security Officer and coordinator of many of the regime’s atrocities. Diet was established to propagate the transistion of Abacha to a civilian president.

Born 4 August 1958 in Oghara, Ethiope-West Local Government Area of Delta State, Ibori attended Baptist High School (now Ogharehi Grammar School) and the University of Benin, UNIBEN, from where he graduated with a third class degree in Economics.

Ibori worked with Mobil Oil Nigeria Limited and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. But some claimed he was sacked. In his resume, Ibori claimed to have served as “consultant to the Federal Government in the area of public policy”.