he future work in England turned dark for James Ibori when in 1992, as a cashier in a hardware store, he let his wife leave the store where he worked without paying for the selected items. Twelve months later, he was sentenced to pay a fine of around 300 euros for spending more than 1,150 euros using a stolen credit card. Then, that Nigerian, a young economics graduate, recognized that the English dream had vanished and decided to return to his country, frustrated and ruined.
But the resurrection was quick. Only six years later he returned to London to acquire his first mansion. Today, Britain’s tax authorities attempt to seize property worth £ 117 million (about 135 million euros) of that dependent on dubious ethics. His case exemplifies the predatory capacity of the African elite and the collusion of the West in the plundering of the continent’s public goods.
The story of an unscrupulous careerist with a fine political nose seems inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s novel ‘Bel Ami’ and could have provided the script for an exotic blockbuster to film director James Ivory, with whom he bears such similarity in name. But his case is not fictitious and reveals that there are always second chances for the son of an Urhobo leader, one of the ethnic groups that inhabit southeastern Nigeria, rich in oil.
The situation favored the return from London. The immigrant decided to return to the undermining of the imminent liberalization of the African giant, after years of tight military control. Like other politicians with a vision of the future, he created a party, later integrated into the Popular Democratic Party, one of the great formations that star in the national scene.
Nigeria is, above all, a prize of two million a day of crude oil. The ‘putsch’ of General Sani Abacha ended the dream of elections in the country in 1993. The coup did not stop Ibori’s ambition, which had already been hardened in the political vicissitudes with a refined strategy that consisted, succinctly, in selling themselves to the highest bidder. Apparently, he supported the insurgent and joined an entity destined to implement public policies. His detractors assure that, in reality, he was part of the repressive forces of the new leader, the iron man who crushed all internal criticism.
The regime was an ally of the West, its gendarme in the Gulf of Guinea, and a ruthless dictatorship. The military government was condemned for the execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiva, a defender of human and environmental rights in the southeastern region, the home of Ibori, a territory exploited by oil multinationals, looted and contaminated with impunity.
The luck of that aspiring politician had already definitively changed and he was managing so many funds that the FBI questioned him in 1995 about a transfer to the United States that they assumed was linked to the 419 scam, the scam from Nigeria that circulates through email. The official was able to demonstrate that it was a management linked to the Administration. General Sani Abacha only ruled five years and died of a heart attack in the official residence. Nigerian Justice estimates that the military man and his men embezzled in such a short period of time about 4,000 million dollars (3,265 million euros).
Another stroke of the wheel
Nigeria, finally, was heading down the democratic straight and the insight of our man, James Ibori, prompted him to take another turn. He joined the ranks of Atiku Abubakar, aspiring to the vice-presidency within the candidacy of Olusegun Obasanjo, the man best positioned to achieve power. Shortly before the 1999 elections, he returned to London through the big door. Perhaps due to beatlemania, he acquired a residence on Abbey Road. and used a false passport to avoid the shadow of his past. However, the Nigerian politician made an unforgivable mistake that, years later, uncovered the fraud: in the document, the date of his birth is only one month later than that of his sister.
The elections elevated Obasanjo and made Ibori governor of the Delta State, the epicenter of hydrocarbon exploitation. His salary was about $ 25,000, but surprisingly, his appointment brought him a sudden and inordinate fortune. Not only did he pay off the mortgage on his Abbey Road mansion, but he took over three other real estate properties, including one in London’s posh Hampstead neighborhood. for 2.5 million euros. It might seem like the fruit of excessive optimism, but what is truly incredible is that all these transactions were carried out with cash.
The bonanza continued for Ibori thanks to his clever loyalty changes. He left Abubakar behind and became Obasanjo’s faithful ally in his quest to change the Constitution to allow for a third term. The strategy did not get the necessary support and the governor continued to search for winning horses. In 2005 his political ascendancy is evident, to the point that he raised the arm of Umaru Yar’Adua as a presidential candidate even before the party convention granted him this status. His ambition no longer had limits and went beyond real estate. He hoped to be elected vice president and opt, in the next convocation, to the head of state. In short, he wanted it all.
Ibori touched the sky of the Tropic, but fell with a crash. Like his predecessor Abacha, Yar’Adua passed away in office in 2010 and was replaced by Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, his greatest rival in the struggle for maximum power. Of course, one of the first measures that Jonathan launched when he assumed the leadership of the country was to undertake an investigation into the enrichment of his political enemy.
Buy a private jet
Suspicions about the origin of James Ibori’s immense fortune had already generated misgivings in both Nigeria and the United Kingdom. They began in 2005 when he tried to buy a private jet in the English capital and led to a procedure that involved the search of the office of Bhadresh Gohil, the lawyer and factotum from Ibori. Unfortunately for both, the Police found camouflaged hard drives behind a false wall that revealed a network of ‘offshore’ companies to divert the flow. The courts froze assets worth around € 20 million. Nkoyo, the governor’s wife, tried to get in the way, but was arrested at Heathrow airport. Ibori blamed the judicial operation on political persecution.
Harassment also knocked on his door. Various tribal entities and local NGOs had denounced him and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EECC) had already arrested him in 2007 for theft of public funds and money laundering. The anti-corruption commissioner Nuhu Ribadu came to admit that Ibori offered him to stop the process in exchange for a house abroad and a bag with 15 million dollars (about 12 million euros) that could not even be lifted from the ground. The investigator refused the bribe and, shortly after, suffered two assassination attempts.
In the good old days, James Ibori enjoyed impunity on his private estate. The Delta State Supreme Court acquitted him of 170 charges brought by the EECC. The problem is that Jonathan surpassed him in authority and in 2010 the prosecutors filed a complaint for embezzlement crimes for 217 million euros. There was no escape. He was imprisoned, but the officers who tried to capture him were ambushed before reaching his home. Meanwhile, the governor was flying to Dubai. The relief was short-lived. The Emirates extradited him to England.
Four years in jail
The process was long, complicated and reached his wife, his sister and his lover. The resources of his lawyers slowed him down, even appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. In 2012, Ibori pleaded guilty to ten counts, including theft of 204 million euros from the public purse, money laundering and conspiracy to defraud. His property in England was confiscated and he was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Perhaps they thought this story would be exemplary and restorative. But this is not a movie, it is real life. The convicted only served four years in prison and, once again, He returned to his homeland, the Niger Delta, one of the poorest and most degraded areas in the country. The reception was massive, despite the furious criticism from the media. The ruling class courted him shamelessly, perhaps to benefit from his vast experience in influence peddling. The same government that has condemned his excesses also quietly lobbied London to stop his prosecution.
And so former Governor James Ibori has become the phoenix of Nigerian politics, the wizard of finance, and the Houdini of trials.