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IBRU: ANGER, KNOCKS GREET LIGHT SENTENCE

By NBF News
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Mrs. Cecilia Ibru
In her days as the managing director and chief executive of Oceanic Bank International Plc, Mrs. Cecilia Ibru had stood out as one of the most glamorous businesswomen in corporate Nigeria.

Perhaps, outside the political front, where amazons, like the late Mrs. Margaret Ekpo and Madam Tinubu had left indelible footprints in the sands of time, Ibru was a phenomenon millions of Nigerians, including school children, women in business, budding entrepreneurs and even academic scholars often cited and desired to know more about. This was because she was regarded as a key factor in what was seen as the success story of an institution, which, prior to the 2005 consolidation programme, ranked among the laggards in the Nigerian banking industry.

Those who cherished her daring nerves believed that she took risks that startled her competitors, including the men folk in the financial services sector, even when the signals were glaringly dangerous.

However, while the Amazon, who until August 14, 2009 was regarded as a very delectable personality ruled the nation's banking waves, not many of her fans knew she was also engaging in what could be considered as primitive accumulation of wealth to the detriment of the institution she represented and governed for many years.

Like a tsunami in the banking industry, Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mallam Sanusi Lamido, had, on that day, sacked five bank chief executives, including Mrs. Ibru over the serial abuse of corporate governance principles and granting of unsecured facilities running into several billions of naira to customers in various sectors of the economy.

To compound her woes, Mrs. Ibru, like her colleagues at Union Bank of Nigeria Plc, Intercontinental Bank Plc, Finbank Plc and Afribank Plc, had allocated huge stock of such facilities to institutions, where she had interests, contrary to laid down rules, thus eroding the financial position of the institution. The list of offending institutions was to swell to eight a month later when result of the second batch of audit showed that three more banks failed the stress test conducted by the regulators.

As at the time report of the special investigation team of CBN/NDIC submitted its report on the banks, the affected institutions were said to have accumulated a negative networth of about N1.5 trillion, which left them in very critical financial condition that only a CBN N620billion rescue package could resolve.

'The actions of the Central Bank in removing the managing directors of the eight affected banks had drawn criticism and allegations of regional, religious and even personal agenda,' said Mohammed Abdullahi, apex bank spokesman, pointing out that the decision by a court of competent jurisdiction, and the magnitude of the recovery, has put a lie to all above claims.

Despite coming from one of nation's leading business families, whose network extends from shipping and hotels to oil and media, Mrs. Ibru's fall sent a signal that even the rich and the most powerful in Nigeria's private sector can also cry and may no longer continue to enjoy immunity under the present political dispensation.

Her conviction could be regarded as the second high profile judgment after that of Chief Olabode George, a former chairman of Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), who was jailed for contract splitting and corruption. It also gives an indication as to what Nigerians and other stakeholders in the banking industry should expect in the remaining cases involving other bank chiefs charged along with her.

Given the enormity of offences, the apex bank did not waste time in handing them over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for prosecution and possible recovery of the misappropriated funds. However, considering what many saw as the Nigerian factor, not many believed that the sacked eight senior bankers last year would be prosecuted, let alone jailed.

There were concerns in some quarters that owing to the stupendous wealth of some of the affected bankers, prosecution and conviction maybe difficult to achieve.

One of the bank chiefs was said to have a personal networth of over N620 billion, prior to the global financial meltdown that also affected the Nigerian stock market.

Just over a year later, Cecilia Ibru, the former head of Oceanic Bank, was sentenced last weak to six months in prison for fraud. This came after she agreed in a plea bargain to forfeit about N19I billion ($1.2 billion) worth of assets to the Federal Government or perhaps, the bank she had fleeced its resources while serving as its chief executive officer.

The assets, made up of 94 property are located in various countries, including the United States and Dubai as well as huge stakes in about 100 overseas and Nigerian-listed companies, will be enough to ensure the bank's survival as a company, according to the CBN.

The CBN had hinted that the assets would be managed by the Asset Management Company set up to help recapitalise the rescued banks and allow Oceanic Bank repay the N100 billion rescue package given last year.

However, Nigerians have been reacting to the sentence handed down to Mrs. Ibru by Justice Dan Abutu.

In his reaction, former boss of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, stated: 'I am pleased that one of the executives of the banks has a conviction. This was the work of the Central Bank. But I want to see public officers, public servants, being held accountable and being forced to return money they had taken.'

For Lagos-based legal practitioner, Mr. Victor Opara, Mrs. Ibru's conviction is a good omen for justice dispensation in Nigeria. According to him, despite what many saw as the lean jail term given to her, the beauty of the sentence lies in the fact that she was not able to escape justice considering her enormous wealth and connection of the Ibru family in Nigeria and beyond. He contended that the judiciary has proved that the time that the rich can escape punishment was over for good.

He stated: 'Those calling for longer jail term for Mrs. Ibru are mistaken, because a judge cannot sentence an offender arbitrarily. It has to be done within the ambit and provisions of the law.'

He stated that the basis for punishment, in modern society, was reformation and not to destroy an offender.

According to him, the concept of plea bargain, which saw Ibru off the hook, was not new as it is popular in the US. He pointed out that the ex-banker has shown remorse and on the grounds of her failing health could not continue with the case, stressing that the emphasis should now be on retribution and restitution.

Opara said the principles of plea bargain presupposes that an offender will have to forgo ill- gotten wealth to the state or the institution from where it was stolen.

With respect to who should appropriate the N191billion assets forfeited by Mrs. Ibru, he said Oceanic Bank and not the Federal Government should take it.   He, however, counselled Nigeria's anti-graft agencies to see Ibru as an asset that should assist them in fighting crime in the banking industry.

'No matter how you look at it, Mrs. Ibru has contributed to the development of Nigerian banking industry and should be put in a position where she will be better reformed to help EFCC and other agencies to fight crime and expose criminals,' he said.

In his reaction, immediately after the judgment, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Obadiah Mailafia, observed that the judgment by Justice Dan Abutu against Mrs. Ibru sent shockwaves across the banking world. He argued that many had benefited from her largesse, but regretted it was rather unfair that only the bankers are being made to pay for a crime that had spread like a cancerous wound.

However, while the judgment maybe seen as a victory for justice, in a nation ranked as one of the world's most corrupt, some commentators insist it also highlights the inefficiencies in the prosecution of high-profile public sector offenders.

However, according to Apostle Eugene Ogu, a Port Harcourt-based cleric and preacher, the case of Mrs. Ibru represents a frightening revelation of how Nigerian people are being exploited by a privileged few in positions of authority.

He described the sentence as the same old style of fighting corruption in the country through negotiation with corrupt leaders, which has never helped the process of fighting crime and corruption in the country.

Apostle Ogu said: 'What we have been doing all along has been merely to negotiate with criminals and corrupt leaders, but I think we need to fight corruption the way other countries do it, if we want to be serious with anti-graft war in the country.'

He explained that Mrs. Ibru represents just one out of the lot of Nigerians who have been stealing from the nation's common wealth, calling on the government to extend its searchlight to track and flush out criminal elements in the oil and gas sector, civil service, power sector and several other areas of the economy.

According to him, the forthcoming election provides Nigerians another opportunity to elect leaders who are committed to fighting corruption, not those making empty promises to the citizens.

But while commenting on the six-month jail sentence given to the former Oceanic Bank boss, Mr. Abdul Rauf, a stockbroker, contended that it was laughable considering the amount of money involved. He said he was not surprised that the sentence ended the way it did, considering that a high profile politician, Chief Olabode George, got similar bargain before now, warning that such lenient approach to corrupt Nigerians may not take Nigeria far in her quest to fight corruption.

'As far as I am concerned, the jail term does not justify the gravity of crime committed by Mrs. Cecilia Ibru. A better option would have been capital punishment, as implemented in China. Look at the embarrassment the former Inspector General of Police, Mr. Tafa Balogun, faced when he was charged. But my question now is, did he steal N191billion, like Mrs. Ibru and yet he was humiliated more than Ibru? So, is that the right punishment for the offence committed by Ibru?' He argued that with the judgment, what Nigerians are being told is that we should not expect anything different in other cases still outstanding.

According to him, what they are merely telling us is that she has to settle out of court with government and the bank.

With regard to implication of the judgment on the nation's capital market, Rauf explained that while the local investors may be unnerved about the development, foreign investors would certainly feel disappointed because the amount of money involved would have attracted capital punishment or longer jail term in other countries.

'It is also to instill fear in them that their investment may not be guaranteed if those charged as having misappropriated them are treated with kid gloves, leaving investors stranded at the end of the day,' he said.

He argued it was uncertain that Mrs. Ibru would ever serve out the six months jail term given to her.