Former Governor James Onanefe Ibori of Delta State today entered a guilty plea at his money laundering trial at a Southwark Crown Court in London, the UK.
Mr. Ibori’s admission of guilt closed the chapter on arguably the most dramatic judicial and political saga involving a Nigerian public official in recent years.
Today’s development came as a stunning finale to one of the most phenomenal money laundering and fraud cases spanning seven years of an intensive manhunt. That drama ended as the once powerful former governor, who loved to be flattered with his flamboyant nickname of Odidigborigbo of Africa, avoided an exhaustive and revealing trial by deciding to admit to his massive money laundering activities during his two-term run as governor.
A source with the Crown Prosecution Services in the UK told SaharaReporters that, with today’s plea, Mr. Ibori faces up to 10 years in a UK prison at his sentencing. The former governor will be sentenced after the completion of the trial of his accomplice and financial advisor, Elias Preko, a Ghanaian national. Mr. Ibori, a graduate of the University of Benin, today’s admission of guilt ends afull circle of a life of crime that began with petty theft in the early 1990s when he lived as a poor immigrant in London and developed into a full-fledged, big-time career in money laundering and other complex financial crimes during his governorship of one of Nigeria’s richest oil-producing states.
Diplomatic sources as well as international crime investigators believe that Mr. Ibori stole close to $3 billion from the coffers of Delta State. Over the years, SaharaReporters chronicled Mr. Ibori’s life in crime, beginning with our exposure of the details of the former governor’s early small-time crimes in the early 1990s when he and his then girlfriend and future wife, Theresa Nkoyo, began stealing building materials at a Wikes shop in London where Theresa worked. A UK court tried and fined him for burglary and possession of stolen credit cards.
Ibori returned to Nigeria during the regime of dreaded dictator Sani Abacha. In Nigeria, Mr. Ibori took up his life of crime, spearheading the looting a building construction site in Abuja. Then, after craftily changing his date of birth, Mr. Ibori was recruited by Mr. Abacha’s chief security officer, Al Mustapha, whose involvement in the regime’s network of criminal activities recently earned him a death sentence for the assassination of Kudirat Abiola, wife of then president-elect M.K.O. Abiola. Security sources told SaharaReporters that Mr. Ibori became a deadly member of Mr. Abacha’s extensive machinery of repression that included killer squads that went after leading opponents of the regime. Mr. Ibori is believed to have led the group of assassins that killed Alfred Rewane, a prominent businessman and financier of pro-democracy groups opposed to Mr. Abacha.
As Nigeria returned to some form of democracy in the post-Abacha era, Mr. Ibori was able to parlay the monumental wealth he accumulated from the dictator’s regime into remaking himself as a political star in the corrupt conclave of Nigerian politics, pitching his tent with the most corrupt of all the parties, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Successfully covering up his conviction for stealing building materials in Abuja as well as his petty crime convictions in the UK, Mr. Ibori sought and won the mandate of the PDP as the party’s governorship candidate in 1999.
Once elected as governor of one of Nigeria’s richest states in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, Mr. Ibori began looting the treasury of the state with the aid of his wife, a mistress, his younger sister, well-heeled lawyers in London, and his cousin, Emmanuel Uduaghan, who was crowned gubernatorial successor before Ibori ran out of luck. By the time Ibori was done with the treasury of Delta State, he had become one of the richest Nigerians, owning an airline company, using criminal schemes to buy over the national fertilizer company, acquiring mansions in different parts of Nigeria as well as choice real estate in London, the United Arab Emirate, and the U.S.
Also, by the end of his reign as governor, Mr. Ibori was so politically powerful and financially rich that he almost singlehandedly financed the presidential campaign of deceased Nigerian ruler Umaru Yar’adua, helping to spearhead the rigging that swept the man into the Nigerian presidency.
A grateful Yar’adua shielded Mr. Ibori from any serious prosecution for corruption. On his part, Mr. Ibori had used massive cash gifts to top members of Nigeria’s judiciary, including Supreme Court justices Niki Tobi, Alfa Belgore and Aloysius Katsina-Alu, to cultivate an extremely cozy relationship with critical players in the nation’s judiciary. With many senior judges on his payroll, he found it easy to manipulate the judiciary. When opposition opponents accused him of being convicted for the theft of building materials, Mr. Ibori easily slipped away. Despite glaring evidence that he was involved in business scams, corruption and stealing, Nigerian judges, from the magistrate level all the way to the Supreme Court, thwarted the course of justice and let Ibori walk free. Several judges ruled that he was not the same James Onanefe Ibori named in the conviction.
Famously known as the “Sheikh,” Mr. Ibori became the darling of hustlers and a man that seemed larger than life, inspiring fear in many of his critics in Delta State. Many politicians and Nigerians regarded Ibori as possessing power over life and death. He had bankers at his beck and call and he had his own newspaper. As governor, he was reputed to have a killer squad to snuff life out of his opponents. He famously summoned former Inspector General of Police Mike Okiro to his country home. On one occasion, during his detention on money laundering charges, former IG Okiro sent the only functioning police helicopter to ferry him from Kaduna Prison to Abuja because he complained of headache.
A Nigerian police officer named Nuhu Ribadu, who served as chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), was to become Ibori’s major nemesis. In 2005, Mr. Ribadu began coordinating a series of local and international investigations against Mr. Ibori. The investigation was tagged “Operation Tureen.”
The investigators looked at several transactions undertaken by Mr. Ibori using a web of sophisticated methods and schemes that involved banks, bureaus de change, multinational corporations as well as a U.S.-based equity firm to launder funds looted from Delta State. The Proceeds of Crime Unit at the London Metropolitan Police played a critical role in the extensive investigation which culminated in an asset freeze order that targeted some $35 million traced to Mr. Ibori. The asset freeze order revealed that Mr. Ibori was about to take delivery of a Bombardier jet from Canada. The delivery had been delayed only because Mr. Ibori demanded that an I-Pod jack be installed on each seat on the plane.
The asset freeze order suffered a temporary setback when Mr. Ibori deployed a team of high-powered lawyers in London to roll it back. Even so, a determined team of UK police officers and lawyers from the Crown Prosecution Services led by Sasha Walsh, would not relent. Instead, they widened their dragnet to take down Mr. Ibori’s sister, Christine Ibie-Ibori, his girlfriend, Udoamaka Okoronkwo (nee Onuigbo), his wife Theresa Nkoyo-Ibori, and one of his London-based lawyers, Bhadresh Gohil
Despite the crumbling of his money laundering machinery in the UK, Mr. Ibori’s was waxing politically stronger in Nigeria. In one demonstration of his invincibility in Nigeria, he insisted that former President Yar’adua remove Mr. Ribadu from chairmanship of the EFCC and also dismantle the top leadership of the anti-corruption agency. Subjected to constant humiliation after his removal from the EFCC, Mr. Ribadu was ultimately hounded into exile. With the consent of an ailing President Yar’adua, Mr. Ibori also installed Farida Waziri as head of the EFCC. He also had the then attorney general of the federal, Michael Aondoakaa, to do his bidding. SaharaReporters exposed the fact that Mr. Aondoakaa wrote several letters to Mr. Ibori’s defense team in London claiming that the Nigerian government had found no evidence of corruption on the part of the former governor. Mr. Aondoakaa also sought to prohibit U.K. prosecutors from using any evidence provided by Mr. Ribadu’s EFCC in the prosecution of Mr. Ibori’s associates undergoing money laundering trials in London.
In another sign of his untouchable status in Nigeria, Mr. Ibori engineered to have his money laundering trial transferred to the Delta State capital of Asaba in a hastily assembled, brand new federal high court. The court sat in a house bought from one of the former governor’s political associates. Mr. Ibori was allowed to choose Justice Marcel Awokulehin, a notoriously corrupt judge, to preside over his charade of a trial. He also chose his prosecutor, a man who in court made a habit of agreeing with any motion that Mr. Ibori’s defense lawyers made. In an outcome that SaharaReporters predicted, the 170 counts of money laundering in Nigeria were made to collapse, with Justice Awokulehin, who received a bribe of $5 million, proclaiming Mr. Ibori’s innocence.
With questions still cast over Mr. Ibori’s trial in Nigeria, his alma mater, the University of Benin, hastily organized a founder’s day lecture to project him as a hero. The former governor also made a round of the Nigeria media to insist on his innocence and to deny that he ever offered Mr. Ribadu a bribe of $15 million in order to stave off prosecution.
As soon as Yar’adua died in 2010, the political calculation changed. The tide turned against Mr. Ibori as then acting President Goodluck Jonathan ramped up political pressure against Mr. Ibori who, as one of the closest confidants of the late ruler, had often ridiculed Mr. Jonathan and prevented him from becoming acting president even as it was clear that Mr. Yar’adua was incapacitated in a Saudi hospital.
To thwart a feeble attempt made to re-arrest him, Mr. Ibori fled to Dubai. However, his run was shortlived when an international dragnet by the UK police caught up with him. UK authorities filed an extradition request in Dubai to snag up the fugitive former governor, wanted in the UK to answer to the use of financial institutions in that country to engage in money laundering.
Mr. Ibori’s relentless fight in a Dubai court to return to Nigeria instead failed. He was eventually flown to the UK in 2010 where he remained in custody till today’s guilty plea. From his UK detention, Mr. Ibori had coordinated and launched a deceptive media campaign. Mr. Ibori’s associates funded some Nigerian-owned blogs that alleged, among other things, that UK police investigators had accepted bribes from his associates; that the prosecution’s case against him was weak; and even that the prosecution was on the verge of abandoning their case.
A source close to Mr. Ibori told SaharaReporters that the former governor’s well-funded propaganda collapsed last week when his well-paid attorneys told him he had a bad case. Feeling utterly, Mr. Ibori came to terms with the fact that he could not maneuver his way out of the legal logjam as he was able to do in his fake Nigerian trial.
A UK-based lawyer told SaharaReporters that, in pleading guilty today, Mr. Ibori hoped to avoid receiving the maximum sentence for his crimes. Even so, the source suggested that the former governor should expect a sentence in the range of 10-12 years.
But that could be only the beginning of his troubles as the London Metropolitan police plan to go after his assets all over the world.