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Custody issues and nativity of Ibori’s ‘foreign wealth’

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James Onanefe Ibori

For some time now, Nigeria has been receiving help from abroad based on the repatriation of illegally exported monies by former leaders, especially the late head of state, General Sani Abacha.

Whenever it appears the global economic downturn would hit the country so badly due to price volatility in the international petroleum market, one benevolent country or another would excavate some of Nigeria’s wealth buried in foreign vaults by Abacha.

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The windfall, which the so-called Abacha loot represents, has been a source of reprieve for Nigeria’s troubled economy, especially the execution of the federal budget.

A fortnight ago, the authorities of the United Kingdom announced its decision to ‘deport’ some 4.2million pounds (6.2million?), being the illicit fund imported to the country by a former governor of Delta State, Chief James Onanefe Ibori.

Coming at a time of excruciating financial challenges, the Federal Government is convinced 4.2million pounds sterling could help it cover great mileage in its infrastructure development programme. Yet, the people and government of Delta State are raising the red flag of resource ownership and control, arguing that the money rightly belongs to them.

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Appearing on Channels Television programme, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, declared that the money belongs to the Federal Government, because “all the processes associated with the recovery were consummated by the federal government.”

Perhaps, in allusion to former Delta State governor, Emmanuel uduaghan’s claim at the height of Ibori’s corruption trial that no money was missing, the AGF asserted that “the Federal Government is, indeed, the victim of the crime and not sub-national.”

It is obvious that the Ibori ‘loot’ has rekindled the traditional dichotomy between northern and Southern Nigeria, which finds expression on issues of corruption and unmerited benefits.

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The Federal Government stance exerts the impression that South-South governors are more self-serving than occupying an office as servants of their people. With that frame of mind, the FG seems to be asking for the guarantee that the funds would not be looted afresh if repatriated to the Delta State.

That line of thought could actually have informed the call by a former Kaduna State governor, Mr. James Magaji, that the FG should withhold the 4.2million British pounds instead of handing it over to the Delta State Government.

Magaji maintained that sending back the money to Delta State would amount to encouraging corruption, thereby ridiculing the country’s anti-corruption fight.

He stated: “The money did not belong to Delta State, because it was long lost. And there was no record anywhere that the authorities in Delta ever lodged a criminal complaint with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) after Ibori left office.

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“I support the FG’s plan to invest the Ibori loot of 4.2m pounds and other expected stolen funds to be repatriated to the country. There is no guarantee that the money if returned to Delta State, would not go the same way as before or worse still, find its way back to the culprit.”

Criminal ‘Conception’
CHIEF James Onanefe Ibori was governor of Delta State from 1999 through 2007, when his cousin, Dr. Uduaghan, succeeded him. Shortly after he left office, there was an attempt to prosecute for alleged misappropriation of government funds in the course of eight years’ tenure as governor.

However, given his political misunderstanding with former President Olusegun Obasanjo, his people alleged that their son was being haunted by the roles he played in the emergence of Obasanjo’s successor, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.

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Due to a combination of geopolitics and partisan interests, especially given the visibility of Ibori in the Presidency, the charges were quashed at the Federal High Court. But when he traveled to the United Kingdom, where he had resided before becoming governor, Ibori was apprehended and a search on his apartment, following earlier arrests of his aides and wife, revealed a stash of cash and other articles ostentation.

On April 17, 2012, a Southwark Crown Court sentenced the former governor to 13 years imprisonment, as well as ordered the confiscation of his assets and properties in the UK.

Nine years after, although Ibori unsuccessfully appealed against his conviction, the UK authorities and Nigeria’s Federal Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the modalities of repatriating the sum of 4.2million confiscated from Ibori.

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Custody/Ownership Contention
NO sooner was the MoU signed than the voices of division began to rent the air, over not only who owns the loot, but also who should take custody of the illicit largesse.

The Federal Government, through the AGF, Malami, said there was no issue as to who should hold custody and superintend over the use of the 4.2milion pounds, stressing that Nigeria was the ultimate victim of the crime committed by Ibori.

The AGF argued that the law breached by the ‘looter’ is a Federal Law (the Money Laundering Act) and that the federal government is the party that has been fully involved in the processes that culminated in Ibori’s conviction, confiscation of his properties, and the proposed repatriation of the £4.2m.

But Ibori’s kinsmen countered, pointing out that their son had estates and investments in UK, which were not the proceeds of any crime, arguing that Ibori was convicted in error.

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In a statement, the Oghara Development Union (ODU), Lagos branch, claimed that there was no doubt that the amount forfeited by James Ibori and his associates totaled 6.2million pounds and not 4.2million ponds as being bandied in the media.

According to Sunday Agbofodoh, the General Secretary of ODU, it should be noted that Ibori is from Oghara town, Ethiope West Local Government Area, in the oil-rich Delta State.

Apart from asserting that Ibori is innocent of the charges levied against him, ODU declared that the forfeited assets were not bought with illicit funds, even as they enjoined the FG to also demand the interest on the £6.2 million since 2012 because the money would not have sat idly in the bank without attracting interest.

Advancing reasons to show that Ibori was a man of means before becoming governor, ODU stated: “The London Police filed in court a paper which showed that one of Ibori’s companies, Mer Engineering, was earning over $7 million annually.

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“It is on record that Ibori was a successful businessman before he became a governor in May 1999, involved in oil logistics and trading. One of his companies, MER Engineering (Nig Ltd), was established in 1992, seven years before he became governor. He was publisher of a national newspaper called Diet, now called Daily Independent.

“Also, Ibori had a consultancy job with the federal government, with a tripartite agreement between him, the FG, and the law firm Washington Christian of USA from which he earned between US$ 3 million to US$ 5 million annually, after successfully reaching the specified goals.

“His bank statements with the Bank of Austria, the Citibank, Barclays Bank, and the Meryl Lynch for those years will also show that he had a substantial wealth of his own before he held public office for the first time in May 1999.”

Planned Expenditure
IN apparent disdain to arguments by ODU, the FG outlined how it intends to expend the recovered looted funds, noting that it would enhance work on the Second Niger Bridge, Abuja-Kano road, and the Lagos-Ibadan road.

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But, piqued by FG’s attempt to dispossess Delta State of the money, the state government said it would amount to grave injustice to appropriate the loot, noting that when states take a foreign loan, they are usually made to repay.

Delta State Commissioner for Information, Ehiedu Aniagwu, said the injustice to the government and people of Delta, would be challenged at the Supreme Court, noting however that Delta State will only allow the FG to take a percentage of the funds as a cost for the recovery.

Also, legal practitioners including Femi Falana and Chukwudi Enebeli, expressed the view that the looted funds belong to Delta State, even as they encouraged the state to approach the court.

Outlining three reasons why FG should have no claim to the loot, Enebeli said: “The victim of Ibori’s fraud was for all intents and purposes the Delta State Government and its citizens. The stolen monies belonged exclusively to the people of Delta State; it is they who were affected by the act of the ex-Governor of Delta State.

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“Secondly, Delta State Government is the trustee of the state’s residents is entitled to the funds to hold same in trust for the people of Delta State. This point is made more poignant against the backdrop of the fact that the ex-governor has never served in any federal capacity.

“Lastly, natural justice of the case requires that the people of Delta State be afforded exclusive access to the monies by forwarding same to the Delta State Government immediately.”

He further contended that the earlier the Delta State Government acts the better, more so as “the Honourable Attorney General of the Federation had stated that over £100 million pounds allegedly stolen by the ex-Governor are still being expected.”

On his part, Falana (SAN) disagreed with Malami, saying that the £4.2m does not belong to the Federal Government, and recalled that after all, when the money confiscated from Governor Joshua Dariye in the United Kingdom was recovered by the Federal Government, repatriated to Nigeria and returned to the Plateau State Government.

As things stand, the matter would be resolved at the apex court. But until that is done, the conversation should turn to the ability of citizens to hold their leaders to account, as well as, how to acquire necessary tools to monitor the government’s income and expenditure.
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