Return of James Ibori
Erstwhile governor of Delta State, James Onanefe Ibori, returned to the country the other day on completion of his jail term in a London prison to a hero’s welcome which would seem to have cast Nigeria as a country of villain worshippers.
Ibori, two-time governor, was convicted for laundering huge sums of money from state coffers when he served as helmsman of the oil-rich state between 1999 and 2007. In a most bizarre and ridiculous manner, the judiciary in Nigeria had tried and exonerated him of all criminal charges after he left office. But he met his match when the long-arm of the law caught up with him in the United Kingdom after being extradited from Dubai.
His return, especially the carnival-like reception he has been given, has expectedly elicited extreme emotions in the country. After he was released from prison, photographs of his acolytes and beneficiaries of his legendary generousity, some of whom are elected officials, celebrating with him in a most gaudy and reprehensible manner in London, practically jammed the airwaves. A serving senator gleefully proclaimed that from prison, the convict made governors, senators and other elected officials. Crowds had also assembled in Lagos and Osubi, Warri Airport facilities to receive him. But he wisely made a detour and landed in Benin from where he traveled to his hometown where another massive crowd had spontaneously assembled to give him a heroic reception.
Ibori may truly have had no control over the way he was received but it is important to note that those admirers, supporters or whoever they are did him no favours. It is only in a country bereft of lofty moral principles that a person of Ibori’s status can be so celebrated.
Where exactly did Nigeria get it wrong? Why, in spite of the moral stain of a prison stay, is Ibori still so popular even among ordinary people, whose commonwealth he was convicted for appropriating to himself, and powerful politicians who should be moral role models for the society? What message has this disgraceful narrative sent to the youths of the country? If pro-Ibori citizens assembled to accord him such a flamboyant reception, why didn’t those who represent the correct moral suasion stage a protest?
Would it not be wise for the returnee to keep a low profile, or be allowed to do so, and enter into acts of penance for his crime against the state? Certainly, Ibori’s case has thrown up a challenge to the Nigerian state. He escaped justice in Nigeria but got caught in a foreign land. What manner of judiciary does Nigeria have? What can be said about other highly placed officials who were charged but have been strutting the land free, twitching their noses at the nation’s law enforcement as well as justice system? Why has the Nigerian judiciary not succeeded in convicting many political persons of high worth since the EFCC embarked on its anti-corruption crusade, thereby leaving the anti-corruption crusade open to allegations of favouritism, witch-hunting or selectivity? These are questions that trouble the mind of the average Nigerian.
The import of the wild celebration that greeted Ibori upon his return, however, is that Nigeria is a country of strange and contradictory moral values. Leaders are often judged not on their astuteness or moral probity but on ethnic considerations. Primordial instincts are higher in assessing public officials than edifying values. Accountability hardly counts and double standards abound in evaluative judgments. This is a tragic shortcoming of the Nigerian State.
It is true that Ibori has atoned for his crime by going to jail. Elsewhere in the world, such a person would slip out of public view and live a quiet life both in shame and open penance for his criminal acts.
To some degree, the people of Delta may be excused the celebration of their returnee son on account of their belief that Ibori touched their lives in whatever way. What they may not have reckoned with, however, is how much more he could have done for the people had he behaved better or managed the resources more prudently. And that is the tragedy. Public office, especially that of a chief executive of a state is a trust that ought not to be betrayed. Having examined the level of development the state witnessed during his reign and how much more poorly his successors have performed, Ibori may have become a hero on that scale of comparability, but that does not remove from the fact that he betrayed the sacred trust of the people of Delta, going by his conviction.
If anything, his case should continually remind all Nigerians that there are some other former governors and state officials who were similarly accused but have not gone through any trial let alone being sentenced to jail. Let the word go forth from now that their days of reckoning are at hand.
For Ibori, life is not at its end. Having returned from prison and, hopefully, having learnt some useful lessons, he will do well to take this fall from grace and the continued affection of his people as an opportunity to preach the values of probity and accountability in government.
He should accept full responsibility for his mistakes, embark on acts of redemption and make restitution. With the time he still has on his hands, he could, for example, champion the cause of corruption-free governance in Nigeria.
All public officers should learn from Ibori’s rise and fall. They should understand that nemesis catches up with transgressors whether in the long or short run and change their ways. They should learn that the people must be the focus of the leader’s service; that accumulation of personal wealth at the expense of the people is antithetical to the ideals of true leadership and it is a crime for which payment would be made sooner or later.