JAILING OF JAMES IBORI
Nigeria's battle against public corruption received a new fillip in far away London, on April 17, when a former governor of Delta State, Mr. James Onanefe Ibori, was jailed for 13 years by the Southwark Crown Court 9 for fraud, money laundering and corruption amounting to $250 million (N37.5 billion).
The former governor, who had been undergoing trial in the United Kingdom (UK), had on February 27, pleaded guilty to 10 charges of corruption preferred against him.
Judge Anthony Pitts, who handed down the sentence, ordered that proceeds of Ibori's corruption be repatriated to Delta State from where it was stolen. The former governor, who got a 13-year sentence instead of 24 because he pleaded guilty on the first day of a scheduled, three-month jury trial, will, however, spend only four years and nine months in prison.
This final resolution of the epic corruption case against Ibori, which had been on since 2007 with him already spending two years in detention in UK and Dubai, is a boost to Nigeria's campaign against corruption by public office holders.
The bringing of the former governor to justice has sent the unequivocal message that corrupt public officials will be punished, sooner or later; if not in Nigeria, in other countries which strictly enforce laws against corruption and money laundering.
The jailing of Ibori, however, raises salient questions on the preparedness of our judicial system to bring corrupt public officers to book. Ibori had all the 170 charges brought against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) dismissed by Justice Marcel Awokulehin of Asaba High Court in 2009. He ruled that they lacked merit and that a prima facie case could not be established against Ibori. It is a noteworthy indictment of the Nigerian judiciary that a British court was able to irrefutably establish the guilt of the former governor, and successfully boxed him into such a tight corner that he unreservedly pleaded his guilt. This is a dent on our judiciary, and the much-touted campaign against corruption by succeeding administrations in the country.
The sentencing of Ibori in London is, however, being questioned in some quarters. The view has been expressed that the man's trial and sentencing in Britain over charges that had been dismissed by a Nigerian court for lacking merit, are contrary to the legal principle of autre acquit, which says that an accused person may not be tried for the same offence over which he has been acquitted by another court. Dismissal of charges may, however, not always have universal application, especially with regard to crimes committed in other countries.
Ibori's sentencing in UK is an indictment of not only Nigeria's judicial system, but also the nation's entire political establishment and governance infrastructure. It is a disgrace to Nigeria, for instance, that a man who had been convicted at least twice in Britain, first by the Crown Court at Isleworth, for stealing, on January 25, 1991, and, again by the Clerkenwell Magistrates Court, for possession of stolen goods, on February 2, 1992, was cleared to contest elections, and rose to the position of state governor in Nigeria. This happened in spite of efforts of whistleblowers, who alerted the nation to Ibori's ex-convict status.
One useful lesson our judiciary ought to learn from the resolution of the Ibori saga is that it should not allow technicalities to circumscribe adjudication of serious cases. Public corruption is a serious matter. It has been a serious drawback to national development in Nigeria over the decades. Unconscionable public officers use their positions to divert public funds to private uses, leaving the population grappling with poverty and under-development. There is a thinly veiled collusion between the judiciary and criminals in high political offices, leading to discharge of high profile cases for dubious lack of diligent prosecution.
The jailing of Ibori based on the preponderance of evidence against him, and his plea of guilt, is a watershed in Nigeria's fight against corruption. It exposes our lack of seriousness in the fight against corruption. Certainly, if Ibori had been convicted in Nigeria, he would have got away with a ridiculously light sentence. This is why corruption is waxing stronger in the country.
It is good, therefore, that a British court has demonstrated that corruption cannot be fought with a slap on the wrist. The law has taken its course. What is left is for our legal system to take a cue from the Ibori case and deal appropriately with other corruption cases pending in the courts.
The decision of the British court to return Delta State's stolen funds to the state is in order. Great care, however, should be taken to ensure that the funds do not go the way of other returned stolen funds that cannot be accounted for. Let the money be committed to projects that will have positive impact on the lives of the people of Delta state.