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THE NORMALIZATION OF IMPUNITY

PHOTO: CHIEF JAMES IBORI.
PHOTO: CHIEF JAMES IBORI.
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Last week, a twelve-person jury at the Southwark Crown Court in London convicted two Nigerian women on charges of facilitating extensive money laundering activities by former Governor James Onanefe Ibori of Delta State. One of the convicts, Christine Ibie-Ibori, is a sister of the embattled former governor, the other, Udoamaka Okoronkwo (nee Onuigbo), his former mistress. A third woman, Adebimpe Pogoson, the former governor’s erstwhile assistant, was acquitted.

Then just yesterday, Judge Christopher Hardy sentenced both convicted women to five-year jail terms – the stiffest possible punishment for their crimes.

Judge Hardy did something else that was both unusual and more devastating. He castigated Nigeria’s judiciary for working to protect big-time looters from the sanctions of the law. Nigeria has a few courageous and bold judges, but too many occupants of the country’s bench – on the evidence of their bizarre judgments – seem all too ready to sell their bench to the highest bidder. Judge Hardy deserves commendation for delivering his well-aimed punch at the soft, seedy underbelly of Nigeria’s corrupt, craven judges.

The two women’s convictions testify eloquently to a society – in this case, the British – that takes its laws seriously. At one point during the trial, some of the accused women – especially the notorious Udoamaka – appeared to think it was child’s play. One day, she taunted Nigerians who’d come to the court to observe the trial. She cast several poses, flaunting her backside as if she were at a strip joint, not a courtroom.

In finding the duo guilty, the British sent a clear message that those who break their laws must count, if count, on getting due grief.

By contrast, Nigerian officials and courts telegraph the message that crime pays. And the bolder the Nigerian criminal, the greater the dividend he or she may reap.

Here’s a pertinent tidbit about the London convictions. In making their case against Ibori’s associates, British prosecutors used a few documents forwarded to them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Yet, the EFCC’s case against Ibori – the principal accused in the British as well as Nigerian legs – came to a futile end.

Three years ago, the EFCC charged Mr. Ibori with 170 counts of money laundering and abuse of office. Unlike the British case, which was prosecuted with professional rigor, the one in Nigeria went through a familiar rigmarole.

Like other Nigerian public officials accused of corruption, Ibori vociferously professed his innocence. Even so, he didn’t trust that his profession of innocence would impress Justice Shuiabu, a Kaduna high court judge with a reputation for being irreproachable – a man who holds himself, and his office, so highly that he would not sell himself. So Ibori persuaded a federal appeal court to declare that he should be tried in the state where his alleged crimes were committed. There was strategic calculation in that appeal.

In a series of curiosities, the Delta State government, headed by Emmanuel Uduaghan, Ibori’s maternal cousin, bought and donated a building to serve as the high court in Asaba. Former Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa, who did a poor job of hiding his partiality to Ibori, assigned the prosecution of the corruption case to a lawyer who had earlier written a memo to the effect that there was no case against the former governor. Marcel Awokulehin, a hitherto little known judge, was asked to preside over the case.

It was a perfect stage for farce. Rather than a trial, the proceedings resembled a defense bonanza; the prosecutor, judge and defense counsel often seemed indistinguishable.

Few were surprised when, after what struck many as a mock ritual, Justice Awokulehin ruled that he couldn’t find a single indictment that stuck on Ibori. If the good people of Delta ever imagined that one kobo of their funds developed wings during the eight years that Ibori ran their affairs, well, they were grievously mistaken – and gravely ungrateful to Ibori.

Here, then, is a mystifying angle to the whole drama. If a jury in England could conclude that Ibori’s associates helped him to launder funds, why was Mr. Awokulehin unable to see that Ibori engaged in any hanky panky with public funds?

One answer, of course, is that Ibori’s case was – by design – prosecuted incompetently. There was little doubt that then "President" Umaru Yar’Adua, the PDP hierarchy, and Ibori’s cohorts (including Aondoakaa) were invested in the collapse of the government’s case.

Even so, it’s one thing for government officials, who may have come into office via rigging and who may themselves be interested in illicitly amassing wealth, to wish to free one of their own with soiled hands. It’s quite another thing when “ordinary” Nigerians, the victims of graft, step up to defend or champion their dispossessors.

A lot of the so-called supporters are, of course, hired hands. Yet, all too often we also witness such veneration of villainy from people and sectors of society you’d expect to possess sterner moral insight.

Nigeria is in danger, I fear, of becoming a space where impunity and other forms of shady conduct are regarded as normal. If one listens to the lyrics of some popular songs or pays attention to everyday conversation, one begins to grasp the increasing sentiment that wealth is an ultimate value, and its acquisition even by foul, fraudulent means is deemed heroic.

The sheer number of scandals over the last twenty years or so years is stupefying. There’s the still unaddressed question of what happened to more than $12 billion in additional revenues that Nigeria earned from oil sales during the first Gulf War. There’s the scandal of June 12, 1993, when a stellar election was annulled for reasons that nobody has articulated. There are the scandals of the Sani Abacha years, including billions of dollars taken away from the Central Bank, the debt buy back scam, and deals in which the dictator, his family and friends imported toxic fuel into Nigeria.

Then there are the Obasanjo-era scandals and scams, including Obasanjo’s Transcorp shares, the contract for the Abuja stadium, the billions of dollars wasted on so-called power projects, the shadowy process through which oil blocs were handed out, the absence of accountability in his management of Nigeria’s oil sector, and Pentascope. Then there are the Siemens and Halliburton scandals whose stench touched a huge number of Nigerian officials.

In nations where public officials are held to count, those implicated in scandals of such scope and enormity would be spending long spells in jails. In Nigeria, by contrast, the perpetrators of these grave schemes are labeled "prominent" Nigerians, tagged "stake holders" (or, in my translation, "steak holders"), garlanded with national honors, and called "chieftains".

Today, Ibrahim Babangida is angling to become president of Nigeria. This, despite the fact that he has not explained the mystery of the legendary wealth he accumulated whilst reducing Nigeria to a pauperized state. Olusegun Obasanjo is back to his strutting ways, presiding over secret caucuses on the affairs of Nigeria. Yet, this was a man who, in the eight years of his presidency, worked zealously to destroy Nigeria – including his protection, if not outright encouragement, of hoodlums who in 2004 used Anambra State as the theatre for a three-day spree of arson. Does anybody seriously picture Obasanjo giving Mr. Goodluck Jonathan wonderful ideas to positively transform the lives of Nigerians?

Enlightened Nigerians ought to insist that people like Babangida and Obasanjo be compelled to answer for their questionable actions in government, that they be docked if found to have committed crimes. If those who become presidents, governors and ministers in Nigeria don’t believe themselves to be too exalted to steal, to rig elections, or to collude with foreign corporations and local businesses to fleece their country, then we must insist that they belong in jail.

It’s an anomaly that Nigeria has not unmasked one beneficiary from the Halliburton bribe scandals – even though American courts have sentenced Halliburton executives to jail, and imposed stiff fines on the company for paying off “top” Nigerians. Siemens executives have similarly been sanctioned for their illegal bribing of Nigerian officials, but none of the Nigerians who took their lucre has been named.

Unless Nigerians establish the principle that a thief is a thief, regardless of his rank, and susceptible to the punishment set out in the criminal code, we run the risk of nurturing a generation of citizens who embrace the idea that it’s noble to steal everything in sight – and much that isn’t.

Okey Ndibe is at [email protected]

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