Thief who would be President

The rise and fall of disgraced politician James Ibori story lifts the lid on the web of intrigue that lies at the heart of Nigeria’s political establishment

Ambitious, greedy and dishonest – judging by today’s warped standards James Ibori was destined to go far in life. In a country like Nigeria, where it is said you can go to bed a pauper and wake up a millionaire, he exceeded all expectations and ended up with the presidency in his sights. 

Born in 1958 in Delta State, the heartland of Nigeria’s embryonic oil industry, Ibori began life as an ordinary Joe, graduating from the University of Benin with a degree in economics and taking his first job with Mobil. When he joined the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation in Warri, Delta’s main city, it looked as if he would settle for being an oil industry functionary. 

Instead he moved to the UK in the 1980s and took a job as a humble cashier at a branch of Wickes hardware store in London. When he was convicted in 1991 for allowing his wife to pass through the till without paying for her goods, it could have been dismissed as an unfortunate lapse of character. But just a year later he was fined for being in possession of a stolen American Express credit card that he had used to fraudulently withdraw $1,590. 

Ibori returned home soon afterwards and settled upon the well-trodden Nigerian path to money making – politics. He could not have chosen a better time. It was 1993, the year of long awaited return-to-civilian rule elections and he joined the local government campaign of a friend. Although the elections were infamously annulled, he had picked up invaluable contacts along the way. Possessed of charm and swagger in a volatile nation on the cusp of change, it seemed that the sky was the limit for James Onanefe Ibori.   

And so it proved. When military hard man Sani Abacha staged a palace coup later that year, Ibori immediately offered his services.  His entry on to the bigger political stage did not go unnoticed. The FBI was soon investigating the provenance of $1m that he had transferred to accounts in the US. It suspected the money came from a Nigerian ‘advance fee’ scam, but Ibori insisted it was linked to consultancy work he was carrying out for Abacha.  He was ordered to return $600,000 as part of a settlement to avoid civil litigation.

In 1996, Ibori established Diet, a newspaper funded by Abacha to help him in his campaign to transform himself into a civilian president. It has also been claimed that Ibori was close to  Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, Abacha’s unsavoury security chief who oversaw the regime’s ruthless crackdown on dissent. In any event, Ibori was by now well ensconced with the northern elite who, thanks to the dispensation handed down by Nigeria’s former British colonisers, held the balance of power in the country.

When Abacha suddenly died in 1998, Ibori swiftly hitched himself to prominent northern politician, Atiku Abubakar, who was made vice-president a year later on behalf of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in elections that ushered in Nigeria’s first civilian government in 15 years.

No longer just a political fixer but well connected on the national power grid, Ibori was himself elected governor of Delta State on behalf of the PDP. But to stand as governor, he had to swear an affidavit that he had no previous convictions. He also used a false birth date he had already made up to fraudulently acquire a mortgage on an apartment opposite the Beatles’ famous recording studio in Abbey Rd, London, in 1998. Soon after he was elected to office, Ibori paid off the mortgage in cash.

Ibori was re-elected in 2003 for a final four-year term. When Atiku fell out with President Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibori changed horses and swung behind Obasanjo’s controversial bid to force changes to the constitution so he could stand for a third term. This failed but Ibori put his weight behind Obasanjo’s chosen successor, an obscure, quietly spoken governor from the far north, Umaru Yar’Adua.

It was rumoured that Ibori helped finance Yar’Ardua’s election campaign in the hope of being made vice-president, since the pressure was on for the post to be filled by a politician from the marginalised Niger Delta region.  Obasanjo perhaps recognised too much of himself in the brash and opinionated Ibori and the mild-mannered Goodluck Jonathan from Bayelsa State was chosen instead

Nevertheless, Ibori enjoyed enormous political influence and was said to be the power behind the throne at Aso Rock, the seat of the presidency. Generous with his money and patronage, he had many acolytes and it would not have been far fetched for him to believe that one day he could be president.  No wonder he took to calling himself the Odigboigbo of Africa, roughly translated ‘lord and master’. 

Against this backdrop, allegations from both home and abroad that he was mired in corruption were but a minor irritant. When the Economic and Financial Crimes Commssion indicted him on a raft of graft charges, the Yar’Adua  government continued to treat him like royalty and included him on the official delegation to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  

The prosecution of the case was transferred at Ibori’s request from the Federal High Court in Kaduna to Asaba, the Delta State capital, before a handpicked judge. When he was cleared of all charges in 2009 Ibori went from the court to give the Founder’s Day lecture at his alma mater on his pet subject of ‘fairer resource control’ of the nation’s oil wealth.

The Attorney General and minister of Justice at the time, Michael Aondoakaa, reckoned to be an Ibori protége, also snubbed a request from the Metropolitan Police to hand the former governor over for trial in Britain, saying,  ‘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.’  

But the political tide was beginning to turn. Towards the end of 2009 Yar’Adua fell ill and would die in office in May the following year. He was succeeded by Jonathan, who upset the apple cart by indicating that he would not be stepping aside come the 2011 presidential election for one of the PDP’s preferred candidates. This put him at loggerheads with Ibori.

In 2010, Jonathan sent the country’s anti-corruption police to arrest him on further corruption charges, but they were beaten back by armed thugs who were guarding his home. Ibori travelled to Dubai to cool off but his luck had finally run out. 

In a UK court Ibori pleaded guilty to the corruption he had been cleared of Nigeria. Among the charges was that he siphoned off the profits of the sale of state-owned shares in telecoms company, V Mobile. His co-conspirators included Victor Attah, former governor of Akwa Ibom State,  and David Edevbie, Ibori’s one time commissioner for finance who went on to become a principal secretary to Yar’Adua.

The court also heard that while governor Ibori had awarded contracts to his associates, including his sister and his mistress. ‘He personally awarded and signed these inflated contracts to his people, and the profits came directly to himself to fund his lavish lifestyle,’ prosecutor Sasha Wass QC stated.

Furthermore, she said Ibori had ‘tricked’ his way into becoming governor by giving a false date of birth and claiming he had no criminal record. ‘He was never the legitimate governor and there was effectively a thief in government house. As the pretender of that public office, he was able to plunder Delta state’s wealth and hand out patronage,’ she added.

Back in Delta State, currently administered by Emmanuel Uduaghan, Ibori’s cousin, not a word has appeared about the case on the governent’s official website. All in all, the story of a petty thief who was within a hair’s breath of the presidency has opened up a real can of worms for Nigeria. 



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