In the end, for James Onanefe Ibori last week, it was very simple, very quiet, and very lonely.
“Guilty,” he said, of himself.
In the sleepless hours before that moment, the former governor of Delta State must have had plenty of conversations with his high-priced lawyers, who must have had many conversations with the prosecution, who must have been holding up a sign which read: Dead End.
Do you know why municipal administrators and road construction crews put Dead End signs on roads?
They do so to avoid accidents. Otherwise, most Dead Ends are pretty obvious.
In Mr. Ibori’s case, many things were quite clear that day in Dubai when he heard the words, “You are under arrest!”
He had been around British law, its lawyers and courtrooms. He had reviewed the famous 1970s Iyabo Olurunkoya case which sent the lovely Lagosian to jail. He knew intimate details of the case of former Plateau State Governor Joshua Dariye, and even more of Governor Dipreye Alamieyeseigha. He knew the British.
Ibori knew British lawyers: how professional and diligent they were, especially when they were being heavily paid. He had faced them twice before, when he could not really afford to pay them, and had twice been convicted.
Still, he knew they were the best friend a man could have if you were paying them handsomely. And this time, Ibori had the cash and the connections to pay them.
That was until the contracts were all signed and the lawyers were cashing the cheques. And then, curiously, the courtroom of Southwark Crown Court kept getting smaller and growing hotter at each hearing.
And then, one night last week, they told him, quietly, that the choice before him was not jail or no jail, but between jail for close to forever and jail for shorter than that.
What was “shorter than that,” the self-proclaimed Odidigborigbo of Africa must have wanted to know.
“Well, in all honesty, one or two decades, sir!” A robust Cockney accent.
At which point Ibori must have emitted an admixture of a gasp and a sigh, his tongue hanging out of his mouth: “As in 10 or 20 years?”
Of all the qualities of Time, one of the most profound is its ability to stand perfectly still when you have nowhere to go. I imagine that when your lawyer says you can choose between forever and a couple of decades for the right to determine how long you will be able to travel only to the toilet, you must feel pretty boxed in.
As we now know, Mr. Ibori, his focus on self-preservation, chose shorter-than-forever.
“Guilty, Your Honour.”
Let us remember that no significant money-launderer acts alone. Not one. They gather friends and relatives and even acquaintances to help in the ultimate hauling and trucking, for a share. In Mr. Ibori’s own circle, at least four, who include his wife, his sister and his mistress, have already been sent to jail.
But that was not the plan. All of his UK troubles seemingly behind him, and back in Nigeria during the Sani Abacha years, Mr. Ibori learned quickly that Nigeria was his natural terrain, a place where you could do whatever you want, if you knew how to do it, and get away with it. A hustler’s heaven.
He learned you could purchase people and justice and position in almost the same way you paid locally for goods and services: cash. That must have been why becoming governor of Delta State was so easy.
But once “Governor,” he knew he could have it for all of eight years, and for longer if Olusegun Obasanjo implemented his third term scheme. But imagine: eight years in which to move from being Lord and Master of small and cramped Delta State into owning Africa and the world.
Let the records show, then, that he did rule Delta for those eight years, as he had promised himself, and then ensured he was succeeded in office by his cousin. Let the records also show that he then bankrolled the election of the new President, his former colleague in the Governors’ Forum, Umaru Yar’Adua.
Once that was accomplished, Ibori was set for life—our life, that is, because his was already fully assured. He knew that he could live forever. He owned Aso Rock and all that was within.
Recall that in a famous interview in April 2009 with The Guardian, Mr. Yar’Adua was asked if it bothered him that his government appeared soft on corruption and that some former governors who were perceived to be corrupt were so close to his government.
Answered Yar’Adua: “It is…between me and them, the ex-governors. You see, these former governors are my colleagues. We had worked together for eight years. Because I am the President, I cannot just jettison people I know…I don't know anything else about the fight against corruption that we have not done.”
That may explain why, when the time came and the EFCC outlined 170 charges of corruption against Mr. Ibori, he got exactly the trial he wanted, and at the location, courtroom, prosecutor and judge of his choosing. Not surprisingly, all of the 170 counts were dismissed, and the Third Class graduate of the University of Benin climbed aboard a helicopter to the institute to deliver a Founder’s Day lecture.
The trouble was that Mr. Yar’Adua’s health betrayed him and the power cabal of which Mr. Ibori was a leading member. But being an active cabalist, regrettably, guaranteed the future only if Mr. Yar’Adua returned to power, but he did not. His death left exposed all of those who had trampled on his would-be successor, deliberately or otherwise.
That was why Mr. Ibori was wandering around the wilds of Dubai without a loincloth to cover his manhood.
That is not an easy word to say. Judges throw it only at others. What must have made it even more painful is Ibori’s knowledge of many of his accomplices who got away with a lot of “his” money; accomplices who must be drinking to British justice today as Ibori’s incarceration makes all that money theirs.
To the former governor, those words must have been surreal, like the dreams of a drunk. Once upon another lifetime, Mr. Ibori was a shop cashier in the same neighborhood. London, England: the object of much lust and subject of many a song.
He found himself when he left England, to become all-powerful and all-conquering, with the world at his feet. To return there only to face a long jail stretch must be very painful.
The British—God bless them—have pledged to trace Ibori’s assets to the ends of the earth. They will assemble everything, deduct their expenses, and send Nigeria the change.
That will still be a fairly healthy return, except that the next chapter seems pre-written. The repatriated loot, if the history and character of the current government and its sponsoring party are any guide, will either vanish or be held in trust for Mr. Ibori. The Abacha loot has never been accounted for.
The final regret Mr. Ibori will have a lot of time to think about, therefore, will be about all those prominent Nigerians who have got away with their “share of the national cake.” He knows them all.
The funny part is that he could have been a Senator, in that retirement home where hypocrisy, looting, pedophilia, certificate forgery and image laundering are normal and you do not even have to read a single bill.
The tragedy, however, is that Mr. Ibori’s conviction is a denunciation of our independence and our democracy. It underlines the shame that passes for governance in Nigeria, in all the arms of the government, and across 50 years.