Human Rights Watch and Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency are hailing the conviction and jailing of Nigerian “big man” James Ibori. A British court has sentenced the former governor of Delta state to jail for thirteen years for money laundering and associated crimes. Ibori pled guilty to numerous counts. The judge said that if he had fought the case, “he would be looking at twenty-four years but will get a discount for pleading guilty,” according to the press. Already in jail in the UK is his wife, his sister, his mistress, and his London solicitor, all convicted of related crimes.
Ibori was a particularly squalid representation of big man politics. He and his wife acquired a criminal record while living in the UK before he went into Nigerian politics. It would have disqualified him from office in Nigeria. To hide it, he resorted to a forged birth certificate. He was elected governor of oil-rich Delta state in 1999 and re-elected in 2003 in polls that reflected the rigging too characteristic of Nigerian elections. He became part of the inner circle of the ruling People’s Democratic Party and was a close associate of President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Umaru Yar’Adua.
It is hard to know how much Ibori actually stole from the federal and state governments. According to the press, a British police inspector estimates that Ibori stole $250 million. His guilty pleas involved more than $79 million.
Such was Ibori’s political clout that EFCC efforts to prosecute him under Nigerian law went aground. One judge in Delta state threw out all one hundred and seventy charges brought against him by the EFCC. But the EFCC charges never did go away entirely, and after his gubernatorial term concluded, he no longer enjoyed immunity from criminal prosecution. Eventually he fled to Dubai. The British and Nigerian governments then cooperated in securing Ibori’s extradition to London, where he was tried and convicted.
While flying high, Ibori acquired the big man toys. According to the BBC, the British government has confiscated a house in north London valued at 2.2 million British pounds, a mansion in Sandton (in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg) valued at 3.2 million British pounds, a Bentley, and a Maybach that he subsequently shipped to South Africa. Meanwhile, most of the population of Delta state remained desperately poor with collapsing health and educational services, as the press points out.
Most hopeful about this episode is the close cooperation between the British and Nigerian authorities in bringing Ibori to justice and the tenacity of the EFCC and the Metropolitan police. Friends of Africa can only hope that Human Rights Watch is right in its assessment that Ibori’s conviction and jailing is a “landmark in the global fight against corruption,” and that it is a harbinger of similar efforts in the future.