The life and times of James Onanefe Ibori, the Odidigborigbo of Urhobo Kingdom, the former Governor and political godfather of Delta State, is a story that can be told from one generation to the other because of the lessons it portends for Nigeria and any politician who believes that accumulating illegal wealth is the right way to go.
It is also one that goes to show that no matter how long it takes for criminality to thrive, the wheels of justice may turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine and in the end, the long arm of the law would prevail.
That was the case of Ibori who, today, has joined the ranks of the late military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, to become the ‘sugar daddies’ of the Nigerian government with the return of their looted funds to the coffers of the country.
The drama of the return of Ibori’s loot is the stuff great movies are made of. At the moment, there is a tussle over whether the Federal Government should cede the money to the Delta State government even though the former had argued earlier that Ibori did not loot any money from the State treasury.
Indeed, before the British government was able to convict Ibori and sentence him to a 13-year prison term in 2012, he was held in high esteem in Nigeria, despite the myriads of corruption charges leveled against him. That it took a London court to jail Ibori whose case was bungled many times in his own country, speaks to the pervasiveness of corruption in Nigeria.
The drama started at a Federal High Court in Asaba, the Delta State capital, on December 17, 2009, when Ibori, a two-term governor, was first arraigned on corruption charges before Justice Marcel Awokulehin.
The case, with 170-counts corruption charges leveled against Ibori by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), could have been an open and shut case that would not take an incorruptible judge to dispatch and send the culprit to jail. The EFCC thought they had a very tight case but the anti-graft agency did not take into cognizance the underhand dealings behind the scenes in the Nigerian justice system.
After a long drawn case, Justice Awokulehin discharged and acquitted Ibori of all the 170 charges and once again, the Odidigborigbo had been cleared of any wrong doing.
He walked into the waiting arms of his supporters who had stormed the court in their thousands to cheer him to victory and with the clean bill of health given to Ibori by Judge Awokulehin, his rented crowd erupted into shouts of jubilation, singing his praises.
But three years later, precisely on April 17, 2012, a twist to the Ibori mystique emerged when, in faraway London, millions of kilometres away from Nigeria, Justice Anthony Pitts of the Southwark Crown Court convicted the Odidigborigbo himself, after he pleaded guilty to corruption charges, and sentenced him to 13 years imprisonment, using virtually the same charges that Awokulehin had dismissed in Nigeria.
A foreign court had demystified Ibori. While delivering his judgment, Justice Pitts said:
“The history of dishonesty, corruption and theft in the first indictment would alone attract the maximum or close to the maximum sentence allowed by law, but there is another indictment of serious fraud which you have pleaded guilty to.”
Pitts added that if Ibori had fought the case to the end without pleading guilty, he would be looking at 24 years, “but he will get a discount for pleading guilty,” before slamming a 13-year sentence on the former Delta governor. But deducting the 645 days he had already spent behind bars, he said Ibori would serve the rest in British jail which amounted to only four years in prison.
A lead prosecutor in the case, Sasha Wass, had described Ibori’s tricks as those of a criminal genius who had adopted several strategies and tactics to milk his state to the bone.
“The suspect lived and behaved like a billionaire on stolen funds from Delta State of Nigeria. He went on to live the lifestyle of a property tycoon, living like royalty,” Wass said, referring to the many counts of money laundering and fraud, and reasoned that his attitude established that the allegations against him were correct and incontrovertible.
Ibori’s litany of sins
Reeling out Ibori’s litany of crimes, Wass said he had acquired different international passports with different birth dates so as to obliterate his dubious past. Before becoming governor of the oil rich Delta State, Ibori had been convicted thrice for corruption in Britain, she added, for emphasis.
On January 25, 1991, Ibori had been sentenced alongside his first wife, Theresa Nkoyo-Ibori, by the Crown Court at Isleworth. while in February 7, 1992, he was found guilty on one count of handling stolen goods.
Again in 1994, authorities in the United States of America investigated Ibori over a huge dollar lodgement in an American bank for which he later forfeited $400,000 out of the amount to the US government.
Wass maintained that Ibori, thereafter, purchased a house, “the first in a property portfolio that by the time he stepped down as governor was valued at nearly £7m.”
She further told the court that the property portfolio consisted of three houses in the UK; two in London and one in Dorset, close to the rich private institution where his three children were schooling.
Ibori was also accused of acquiring properties in South Africa and Houston, Texas, USA. She also presented to the judge a photograph from an estate agent’s brochure of the South African real estate which Ibori bought for a whopping £3m.
“For example, by 2007, the former governor had spent £170,000 on motorcars, school fees of £143,000, and £920,000 on an American Express Centurion card. That type of credit card is the exclusive preserve of the high and the mighty who have much to spend.
“The suspect, Ibori, also purchased a £120,000 Mercedes Maybach, the German equivalent of a Rolls Royce, which was shipped directly to his South African mansion. Ibori was in the process of buying a £20mn Challenger jet while being investigated by the UK police.”
But interestingly, Ibori was not alone in this crime ring as many members of his family, associates, acquaintances and even mistresses, were part of the organized crime that helped him loot and milk his state government dry.
The proxies reportedly used their own bank accounts to help Ibori divert money from government accounts to purchase real estates in the UK, South Africa, Dubai and the US. He was also accused of using different lawyers to acquire many mansions, so much so that it would be difficult to trace his money laundering activities.
Wass also indicted the former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Victor Attah, as a go-between for Ibori and his lawyer, Badrash Gohil, who specialised in money laundering. She added that Gohil assisted Ibori to set up Swiss bank accounts and trusts in the tax havens of the Seychelles, as well as the Channel Islands in order to hide his thieving.
Some of the deposits, according to Wass, were €20m in a trust fund called Zircon in the Channel Island of Guernsey, and £1m in another trust called Onyx. Worse still, Ibori was said to have had six accounts with Barclays Bank in London, with more than £1m in each.
He was said to be operating another account in Colorado in the US, all opened in different names and facilitated by Gohil, using his clients who were all linked to Ibori.
The Metropolitan Police, which also investigated Ibori, revealed that during his eight years as governor, he “systematically stole funds from the public purse, secreting them in bank accounts across the world” in a fraud spree worth $250m.
After the sentencing hearing, Sue Patten, head of the Crown Prosecution Service central fraud group, said the UK government would bid to confiscate the assets Ibori had illegally acquired “at the expense of some of the poorest people in the world.”
Journey to prison
For the records, in 1991, Ibori was working at Wickes DIY store in Ruislip, Middlesex, a hardware store in the London suburb of Neasden, earning a reported £15,000 ($24,000) a year. He was caught by his employer when he allowed his wife to walk through the till he was manning and make away with goods worth thousands of pounds without paying for them. They both pleaded guilty at Isleworth Crown Court and were fined and convicted.
Again in 1992, Ibori was convicted for possession of a stolen credit card which had £1,000 spent on it, and was again fined in a UK court.
Ibori’s third conviction in the UK came in 1999, when he took out a mortgage on a property located on Abbey Road, London. To do that, he got a new passport with a false birth date to mask his previous convictions. But what he did not know was that the birth date he chose made it medically impossible for him to use the passport as it was only a month after his sister’s birthday in the same year, raising suspicions when he later faced prosecutors. He was again convicted, for the third time.
The Nigerian connection
But Ibori’s first brush with the law in Nigeria was when he was first arrested by the EFCC in December 2007, and charged before Awokulehin at a Federal High Court sitting in Asaba. The same year, a British court froze Ibori’s assets worth $35m (about £21m), with the British authorities declaring him wanted over money laundering.
Two years later, Awokulehin gave Ibori a clean bill of health, literarily telling him to go and sin no more, as it were, but the EFCC insisted that Ibori had a case to answer, alleging that he had stolen $292m (about N44bn) from government’s coffers.
For three years or so, Ibori eluded the long arm of the law in Nigeria and, on April 30, 2010, sneaked out of the country to one of his hideouts in Dubai. But on May 12, 2010, officials of the International Police (Interpol), nabbed him while hiding in his hotel room.
On October 17, 2010, a United Arab Emirates Court of Appeal, sitting in Dubai, gave a verdict that he be extradited to the UK to face charges of corruption and money laundering, and that began his journey to prison and ignominy.
Ibori did not go down alone as he was jailed alongside his wife, mistress, sister, and lawyer, for their roles in the crime ring, with the benevolent Odidigborigbo as the felon-in-chief.
On June 7, 2010, Ibori’s sister, Christine Ibie-Ibori and his alleged mistress, Udoamaka Okoronkwo-Onuigbo, were jailed five years in London for their complicity in the former governor’s corruption ring.
A jury in the Southwark Crown Court had found them guilty of money laundering and mortgage fraud. While his sister was convicted on a nine-count charge of money laundering and mortgage fraud estimated at $101.5m, Okoronkwo-Onuigbo was jailed by Justice Christopher Hardy for money laundering.
Before Ibori’s final trip to the prison, his former wife, Theresa, was one of his precursors as she was sentenced to a five year prison term on November 22, 2010, by the Southwark Crown Court, London, for assisting her husband to loot Delta State’s treasury.
Theresa was said to have paid £2.2m in cash for a property in Hampstead, just two years after her husband became governor.
It was during the court hearing that Nigerians were shocked with the revelation that Ibori had previously been convicted in the UK for theft while he was working for Wickes as a cashier.
At the time of his arrest in Dubai and extradition to the UK, the Odidigborigbo was in the process of buying a £20 million Bombardier private jet, and had reportedly paid a deposit of around £4m.
When he had served his term and was released from jail, Ibori came back to Nigeria to a tumultuous welcome by the people of his Oghara community in Delta State, who rolled out the drums to welcome him like a hero who had gone to a far off land to bring home unheard laurels and glory.
Ibori’s seized assets
The road to confiscating Ibori’s looted assets and returning them to Nigeria has been a long and arduous process for UK prosecutors and as the time he was sent to prison, a roll call of his recovered and confiscated assets read like a list out of Forbes Magazine millionaire inventory.
Some of the assets recovered from him include:
1. $35m of assets which were first frozen by UK courts in 2007. A first confiscation hearing ended inconclusively in late 2013, while a fresh confiscation trial which was due to begin in 2014, was stalled after Ibori and his associates sought to appeal their convictions on the basis of alleged corruption in the Metropolitan Police, with Ibori’s legal team accusing the Met Police of hiring private investigators to trail him and had been paid bribes.
In November 2018, the UK’s Court of Appeal rejected these appeals, finding that the allegations that officers investigating Ibori had been paid bribes were unproven, and that Ibori himself had instigated any such attempts to offer the bribes.
Ibori’s application to appeal his conviction all the way to the European Court of Human Rights was also rejected in November 2019.
2. In January 2020, prosecutors moved to confiscate £117m in stolen funds from Ibori, considerably more than the £50m he pleaded guilty to stealing, as well as £2.6m from his mistress, Udomaka Onuigbo, although prosecutors believe she had benefited from a total of £26m for her part in facilitating Ibori’s corruption.
3. A corporate financier, Lambertus De Boer, and a fiduciary agent in Jersey, Daniel McCann, were both sentenced to 30 months for money laundering and forgery while McCann was subject to a confiscation order of £45,000 in 2012.
4. The sum of £30.8m was recovered from Ibori’s personal lawyer, Gohil, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in September 2010. Gohil was alo “struck off” the register of solicitors in the UK shortly after his conviction.
5. Ibori’s personal banker and a former Goldman Sachs executive, Elias Nimoh Preko, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison in 2013 and ordered to pay £7.3m in confiscation in September 2019.
6. The UK court also established the following assets belonged to Ibori: Flat 23, 20 Abbey Road, London NW8 9BJ; 7 Westover Hill, London, NW3 7VH, and 42 Great Grand Shaftsbury, Dorset SP 7 8FF.
7. Ibori was also named as the beneficial owner of Haleway Properties and Boyd Properties, both in Gibraltar, as well as Teleton Quays (BVI). Also listed was the Julia Foundation in Panama, a financial investment company that was allegedly used to launder money across the globe.
8. Ibori’s sister, Christine, was also said to own three properties in the UK located at 58 Uphill Drive, London NW9 OBX; 76 Woodhill Crescent, Kenton, Harrow, Middlesex HA OLZ; and 139 Kingfisher Way, London NW10.
Other assets recovered from the former governor include:
1. A house in Hampstead, north London, worth £2.2m
2. A property in Shaftesbury, Dorset, valued at £311,000
3. A £3.2m mansion in Sandton, near Johannesburg, South Africa
4. A fleet of armoured Range Rovers valued at £600,000
5. A £120,000 Bentley Continental GT
6. A Mercedes-Benz Maybach 62 bought for €407,000 cash, that was shipped direct to his mansion in South Africa.
Who is James Onanefe Ibori?
The man, James Onanefe Ibori, was born on August 4, 1959, to the family of Chief Ukavbe Ibori and Comfort Oji Ibori of Otefe in Oghara clan, Ethiope West Local Government Area of Delta State.
He attended Baptist High School, Oghareki, now Oghareki Grammar School, before proceeding to the University of Benin, where he obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics and Statistics.
Ibori moved to London in the 1980s where he married his first wife, Theresa. He worked as a cashier at Wickes DIY store in Ruislip, Middlesex.
In 1990, the couple were arrested for theft from the store, and fined £300. In 1991, he was convicted of handling a stolen credit card, and fined £100.
Upon returning to Nigeria, between 1994 and 1997, Ibori served as a consultant to the Federal Government under the late military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, on public policy formulation and implementation.
Ibori’s political career began when he joined the National Republican Convention (NRC). In 1991, he was nominated to contest for the Federal House of Representatives seat to represent Ethiope Federal Constituency. He lost the election to the Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate.
When the Sani Abacha Transition Programme kicked off, he joined the Grassroots Democratic Movement (GDM). The GDM clinched a good number of local, state and federal positions, including one of the three senatorial seats in Delta State.
However, at the termination of the transition programme following Abacha’s death, Ibori and other political leaders in Delta formed the Delta National Congress (DNC).
The DNC later merged with many others of like ideas to birth the PDP, where he contested and won the governorship election in the state. In 2003, he was re-elected as governor for another four-year term and was succeeded by his protégée, Emmanuel Uduaghan in 2007.
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