During the two-day sentencing hearings for convicted former Governor James Ibori, many Nigerians crowded around the door to court 9 of Southwark Crown Court. They pushed, shouted, talked and laughed. They all wanted to be part of the big event, to be present in the courtroom to jeer or cheer the man who was facing a critical moment.
They were so desperate to get into the court that police officers had to be called to keep order. Before the police intervened, the excited Nigerian crowd simply ignored pleas to move back.
The most vociferous were those mobilized to hail Ibori. Yet, despite their rowdy show of support, Mr. Ibori sat looking glum.
He looked especially enraged when a tiny chink of light was shed on his work for the late military ruler Sani Abacha.
In 1996, US customs officials caught Ibori with $1 million in cash. To get him out of the jam, Ibori claimed the Abacha regime had employed him to advise it on anti-drug trafficking and money laundering matters. He asserted that the cash with him was the fee he received for the job. US authorities allowed Ibori to leave the US with $600,000. They said he could collect the remainder if he could show that the money was legitimate. Mr. Ibori never bothered to collect it.
Ibori’s counsel at his money laundering trial, Nicholas Purnell, QC, spent a long time portraying the former governor as the victim of poor advice by Bhadresh Gohil, Ibori’s solicitor (who is serving a seven-year sentence). Mr. Purnell also sought to depict Ibori as a hero in his home state of Delta, a man laid low by the corruption he had “done much to lessen” in Delta State once he took office.
Mr. Purnell said: “Nigeria’s nascent democracy, its society cannot be judged by the same standards as we judge our own.” That sentiment was no doubt popular with the pro-Ibori audience in the public gallery.
Former professional footballer John Fashanu was one of Ibori’s most visible supporters. He pitched up to tell the court that, had it not been for Mr. Ibori, a dozen stadiums would not have been built for the children (and ex-militants) of Delta State. Mr. Fashanu also cited the construction of an international standard shooting range as one of the former governor’s major achievements.
“Shooting was something that hadn’t been introduced to Nigeria before,” the former footballer said in what became part of the amazing legal theatre.
Yet, the critical moment when James Ibori’s legal team had to decide the fight was lost, came two months earlier, at a very poorly-attended hearing. Even Mr. Ibori was not present that when seemingly dry and opaque legal arguments were advanced. In reality, that was when his fate was sealed.
At the said hearing, Judge Anthony Pitts ruled that the prosecution could tell the jury that James Ibori’s convictions in Britain in the early 1990s, had they been disclosed to the correct authorities, would have given grounds for his disqualification from holding office under the terms of the Nigerian constitution.
Judge Pitts came to the ruling after listening to four witness testimonies from Nigerian constitutional law experts, including Alex Izinyon, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), one of the self-proclaimed constitutional barristers in Nigeria. The legal submissions appeared a baffling affair for the British prosecutors and the judge, as the experts seemed to contradict one another.
The prosecution witnesses asserted that, unquestionably, the spirit of the Nigerian constitution held that criminals should be barred from taking office. But Ibori’s barrister Nicholas Purnell argued that the wording of the Nigerian constitution excluded offences committed outside Nigeria. Defense witnesses said that the proper process was for ordinary citizens of Nigeria to do the digging necessary to report people they believed to be unfit to hold office to the election authorities. Then a Nigerian court would have to make a decision if that conviction was relevant and if a candidate should be barred from office. They argued, in effect, that convictions for fraud outside Nigeria meant little inside the country.
However, Judge Pitts expressed some considerable astonishment at this interpretation. He decided that – as far as this case went – the spirit of the constitution was to “guarantee good governance” as it says in the opening paragraphs of the document itself. Judge Pitts was at pains to underscore that he was not making a ruling that had any effect in Nigeria itself, only on this case, and what a British juror would hear.
The question he had to ponder, however, was one that went right to the heart of Nigerian politics: “Why would a country have a constitution that allowed an international fraudster to hold high political office, even become president?”
At this ruling Ibori’s defense played their last hand. Mr. Purnell attacked from another angle by reading out the entire text of the British Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. Under the provisions of this law, after a period of time has passed after their conviction, people convicted of an offense in a UK court are entitled to consider that their legal status has returned to be as if they had never been convicted.
Mr. Ibori and his wife, Theresa, were convicted of theft in 1991; Mr. Ibori of another count of handling stolen goods in 1992. For both offences, they received a fine. The period after which they could consider those convictions “spent” was five years. Mr. Ibori was therefore entitled to have withheld the facts about his convictions when he was standing for election in 1999, Mr. Purnell contended.
Taken aback, Judge Pitts stated, “This has taken me entirely by surprise.” He ruled later that afternoon that Nigeria had set their own time period that required disclosure of offences, and that was 10 years, as stated in the constitution. Judge Pitts ruled that the prosecution could introduce this evidence into the case.
The jury, when they were sworn in, could be told by the prosecution that Mr. Ibori’s offences not only predated his move into politics, but also that, during his swearing-in, he believed there was a significant risk that he would be disqualified if the truth about him were to be known. The prosecution could therefore paint a complete a picture of James Ibori’s “rags to riches” story, and the criminality that had been employed at every stage.
To prove the charges of conspiracy on money laundering, the prosecution needed only prove an inference of a predicate offence, such as an unexplained “rags to riches” story. Clearly, this had a chilling effect on the Ibori team.
At the court’s next hearing, it was palpable that something was clearly different. Fewer of the defense hangers-on were on the back bench of the legal benches. Their places were taken up by the detectives who had spent 7 years on the Ibori case. They seemed upbeat, and there was a happy buzz around the prosecution benches.
There had been stories in the Nigerian media of a “plea bargain” – a concept that does not have any legal validity in the UK. However, the lead prosecutor, Sasha Wass, QC, disclosed that the prosecution had made some amendments to the indictments, and that Mr. Ibori would enter a plea to the amended indictments. Afterwards, Mr. Ibori stood up and, looking at a sheaf of papers held by his lawyer, bent to read the charges as they were read to him. Out of 14 charges, he he plead guilty to 10; four were “left on the file,” which means that they would not be tried, but Ibori’s guilt was implied by his admission to the others.
“The admission accepted by the defense by this plea is to the entirety of the prosecution’s case,” said Miss Wass.
The prosecution could not only show the “irresistible inference of criminality” needed to prove the bare minimum of a charge of conspiracy to money laundering, they could prove the original, the predicate, offences of fraud in Nigeria.
But it was not until the sentencing that the public gallery got the full run-down of some of the key evidence. The court heard how, in Ibori’s first term, he took money from inflated contracts for a sports stadium and a fleet of cars for the state government, funneled the cash through shell companies in the names of his sister, Christine Ibori Ibie, and his mistress, Udoamaka Okoronkwo, and bought property in London.
In 2005, Ibori met the Mayfair solicitor Bhadresh Gohil, who the prosecution described as a “money laundering specialist;” things changed. As the money laundering reporting officer at the firm Arlington Sharmas, Gohil’s duties included keeping the firm compliant with international money laundering regulations. But Gohil would offer his services to James Ibori to hide money coming out of Delta State in ways that police admit would be hard to crack.
Gohil was introduced to Ibori by then Governor Victor Attah of Akwa Ibom, the court heard. Attah and Gohil had come up with a scam guaranteed to net them millions of dollars. The court heard how a stroke of good fortune and observant police work led to the discovery of the bulk of the evidence that made the prosecution’s case so strong. By 2005, police had begun to investigate Ibori and Gohil after their attempt to buy a private jet from the Canadian firm Bombardier raised suspicions.
A police officer searching Gohil’s office noticed that something about the electric fireplace was not right. It was, in fact, a secret compartment accessed by pulling a hidden chain. Inside was a plastic bag holding two external hard drives. They were full of data relating to what became known as the “V Mobile” fraud.
In essence, the scam was to siphon off cash from the sale of shares in the company V Mobile held by both Delta and Akwa Ibom states. To do this, the prosecution said, the conspirators created a fake “parasite” company that extracted a $37 million from the sale in fees for researching the market price, due diligence and legal work, and a success fee. The high value of the fee was justified in the sale contracts because of the supposed risks involved in the sale.
“In reality,” Judge Pitts said, “there was no risk, it was money for nothing.” Ibori, Attah, and Gohil knew the price they were likely to get from the sale and rigged it so they could extract a maximum from the deal for themselves.
One piece of evidence on the hard drives in particular linked Gohil and Ibori to the fraud. It was an email from Gohil to Ibori setting out the scheme and the steps they needed to take to carry it out. It laid out the need to create a paper trail to make the “parasite” company appear to be genuine. The proceeds were then funneled through companies and trusts in the UK Channel Islands and the Seychelles and to bank accounts in Barclays and HSBC in London and Citi Bank in the US.
Recovery procedures to locate and seize the cash will begin later this year.
In addition to the V Mobile fraud, Gohil also helped Ibori in his attempt to buy the $20 million challenger jet. Gohil set up a Swiss bank account and then moved the money into another Swiss account belonging to a client he had power of attorney over, and who had no idea of what was going on. That “clean” money could then be used to open new accounts and buy the jet.
Despite all this evidence, Ibori’s supporters outside the court were not convinced. “All of this is not true,” one lady shouted. “He was a successful business man before becoming governor.” She refused to disclose her name.
Another man, who gave his name as Evans Johns, attended most of the hearings and was seen as a link between the supporters and the legal team. He was observed taking the roll of Ibori’s supporters who turned up.
“This judge doesn’t know the way we do things in Delta State,” Mr. Johns argued. He added, “If you showed [Judge Pitts} a map, he wouldn’t even know where Delta State was.”
Judge Pitts told the court as he sentenced Ibori: “None of the sentencing guidelines even get close to the amounts in your case. In my view had you not changed your plea to guilty you would have been at or close to the most serious sentences.” Ibori received a 13-year sentence, but will most likely serve at least seven years in jail, according to UK prison authorities.
The police have frozen £50 million of his assets. They believe they can locate another £200 million, but the true extent of what remains hidden is unknown. One report has Ibori’s loot as high as $3 billion.
That raises the question: Could Ibori come out of jail a billionaire? “He wouldn’t be the first to hide money from the courts,” concluded Detective Superintendent Matthew Parkes.