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The tragic life of James Ibori

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Nigeria scored a top mark in international notoriety this week when former Delta State Governor James Onanefe Ibori pleaded guilty in a London court to money laundering charges and other offences related to fraud. It is not often that we find one of our high

profile politicians held, tried and convicted in a foreign land. More tellingly, it is not often that we find an ostentatious politician step out to admit early in his corruption trial that he was guilty as charged. This is why we must pity Ibori who, we must be frank here, did what many previous governors did but ended with his nose bloodied and his reputation shredded.

Ibori must take the blame for digging and falling into his own grave. Unlike his peers, he did not cover sufficiently the imprint of his fraudulent activities. That oversight helped the Metropolitan Police to pin him down to an early guilty plea. What this shows is that there are dedicated anti-crime organisations across the world willing and able to tread on high profile cases in Nigeria which our own lily-livered anti-corruption agency - the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) - found too hot to handle.

Given the way our empty-headed politicians brag and drop names indiscriminately when they are in trouble, Ibori would never have pleaded guilty to corruption charges in Nigeria or allowed himself to be humiliated in the manner he was treated in London. Look at the way he was compelled to carry his name tag, that notorious timbre board that serves as an emblem of crime suspects in some western countries. In Nigeria, Ibori would have used his contacts - legal and illegal - to reach and influence those whose responsibility it is to prosecute criminals. He would have used his connections to free himself and go about like an innocent man because in Nigeria, there are two sets of laws - one for the commoners and the other for the untouchables who are always above the law.

In London, the charges against Ibori were phenomenal because the evidence was unimpeachable. In the end, Ibori needed no one to whisper into his ears that the game was up. Perhaps it was the realisation of the futility of fighting the charges against him that compelled the man to enter an early guilty plea on Monday this week. That guilty plea astounded many people, including Ibori's diminishing team of supporters.

At the peak of his power, Ibori used his good relationship with former President Umaru Yar'Adua to his personal advantage. He presented himself as the irreproachable deal broker who fixed all manner of problems for his friends and his political associates. He was, in essence, the magician who held the key to every problem.

There is one important lesson to be drawn from Ibori's tragic history. When you are in the spotlight as a politician, everybody loves to do business with you. You receive warm and cold kisses from all manner of beautiful women in the false belief that your world has only just started to experience the good things of life. Unfortunately, the moment you begin to experience difficulties, the moment your name becomes associated with criminal activities, everyone starts to avoid you because your downfall has started. Your glitzy lifestyle can no longer be sustained.

The mystery that is Ibori has unravelled and imploded in a calamitous way. The man is human after all. We all make mistakes, don't we? Some human errors have fatal consequences. Others have less damaging outcomes. Ibori's first grave mistake was his decision to go on self-exile to Dubai. It was a dumb decision to run to a country in which your pursuer could request your extradition on the basis of an existing treaty. Basic research would have revealed to Ibori that the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates have extradition treaty which 'allows extradition to be requested for any offence which attracts a maximum penalty of at least 12 months in both the UK and the UAE.'

Ibori is an enigma. Still, in his home town of Oghara in Delta State, his kith and kin don't want to hear that their idol is guilty of fraud or that he committed any crime. They perceive him as a folk hero. For example, when a group of security officials visited Oghara to arrest Ibori in April 2010, they were confronted by angry youths who slowed down their movement with roadblocks. In fact, one man told the Daily Sun (25 April 2010) in a defiant tone: 'No matter what happens, Ibori is our son. We cannot fold our arms and watch him being disgraced for reasons that border on political vendetta... Ibori is our hero and we are very proud of him. If not for Ibori, Oghara would not have known development. Come to Oghara and see what I'm talking about... Oghara people are ready to die for Ibori and we mean it.'

Sentiments such as these show why we sustain and justify corrupt practices. This kind of twisted logic is common across communities in Nigeria. When former Bayelsa State Governor D.S.P. Alamieyeseigha fled from police custody in London nearly six years ago and returned to his state, he was accorded a gallant reception in Yenagoa. People organised special church services to mark his safe return from London. Yet, the people who hailed their former governor were the direct victims of the man's corrupt practices.

Both Alamieyeseigha and Ibori exemplify the ironies of our society. A state governor could raid his state's treasury unruffled. Many of us will not consider that as evidence of corruption on the basis that the governor used a fraction of the illegally acquired wealth to develop a community. However, no one will point out that it is illegal for a governor to use public money to advance his personal interests.

Ibori would have been protected, even if temporarily, if he had remained in hiding in his village in Delta State, where he would be guaranteed protection by the youths. By running to Dubai, he made it easier for his hunters to seek his extradition to the UK. Sometimes a criminal who seeks to evade the law could find himself or herself cast in a security net intended for their capture. Ibori ran and ran and ran but found no permanent hiding place either in Nigeria or in Dubai. In the end, the law has caught up with him and he must prepare for his conviction in mid-April this year.

By pleading guilty just as his trial got underway, Ibori intentionally or unintentionally handed to the prosecutors the signal to destroy his character in the courtroom. On Monday (27 February 2012), the prosecution used unflattering language to describe Ibori as a criminally-oriented former governor of Delta State who plundered the resources and revenue of his state. In fact, the prosecution described Ibori as a 'thief in government house' and a man who swindled his way into the high office of governor by tendering a fictitious date of birth and denying knowledge of any previous criminal record associated with his name.

Prosecuting Counsel Sasha Wass told the court in London that, for the period Ibori reigned as governor: '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.' Not only did the prosecution expose Ibori's previous scams, he also pronounced him a mastermind of numerous cases of fraud against the Nigerian state and the people of Delta State.

Before he fell, before he was caught in his hideout in Dubai and extradited to London, Ibori lived life on the fast lane. He was a flamboyant politician at the time. Unfortunately, people who rise swiftly through dubious means also go down fast through legal means. Here was a man who once governed a state, a man who symbolised authority, a man who dinned, danced, drank and toasted champagne with the rich and famous tumbling from his former exalted office.

In his current detention cell, Ibori must have played several times on his head that imaginary tape about his life before now. How he must have wished his predicaments could be converted into dreams. Unfortunately, dreams don't always come true. No one, not even his most trusted friends or his eccentric mistress, could have convinced Ibori that his life would end this way. Why would a man who enjoyed many privileges be so greedy as to engage in unparalleled money laundering activities? It is not difficult to figure out why.

Our politicians believe they can steal and empty the treasury and run to overseas countries to stash away their ill-acquired wealth. Sometimes they manage to beat the law. Look at Joshua Dariye, former governor of Plateau State. Look at D.S.P.. Alamieyeseigha, former governor of Bayelsa State who stunned Metropolitan Police officers by staging an incredible escape from custody in London through shark-infested creeks.

Ibori is either unlucky or he is simply inept. If he had all the money to buy his freedom, why is he now stuck in a London jail awaiting conviction? Dariye and Alamieyeseigha must be laughing at Ibori's stupid and sloppy ways.

By successfully prosecuting James Ibori in a law court, the Metropolitan Police must be beating its drums in celebration that, at long last, an anti-crime agency with guts has caught a big fish in Nigeria's sea of corrupt politicians. Will our politicians ever learn?

  By Levi Obijiofor