It is loud and quiet at the same time. The conversations on James Onanefe Ibori. On the streets and in homes. In minds and thoughtful reflections, people ponder and wonder - why would a self-identifying criminal emerge as a hero, a star that appears to shine like no other in Nigeria?

What makes a known thief stand out as a beloved child, hugged and embraced by a teeming crowd of supporters? Loved by people from the communities that he robbed so dastardly?

Ibori is a name so very well known in Nigeria and perhaps in the United Kingdom where he and his wife, Theresa Ibori, were arrested for theft in 1990 and fined £300. In 1991, he was convicted of handling a stolen credit card, and fined £100, still in the UK.

He returned to Nigeria afterwards and became a successful politician advising the presidency. At age 40 in 1999, he was elected as governor of Delta State, a post he held for two terms of eight years.

Always of a criminal mind, in 1999 Ibori changed his name in the UK to whitewash his tarnished trail. He fitted easily into the mostly corrupt-ridden system that is Nigeria's political space. Delta State is one of the poorest of the 36 states of Nigeria yet one of the richest as it is naturally endowed with oil wealth, and therefore entitled to receive a large chunk of the regular federal allocation of funds every month.  

Ibori as executive governor in a federated political structure had unlimited control of the state’s funds which he converted into his personal expense budget. As he wished, he used it for himself, the state, friends, well-wishers and patrons. He was lavish and generous. He was kind to his cohort and made them happy with official resources. He put up some visible official infrastructures and buildings in the state.

Above all, he made sure that if he lived for another 200 years, there would be no lack of funds to use for himself and to help whoever pleased him or whose support he needed.

After he left office as governor, Ibori was set upon by the anti-corruption agency in Nigeria. Like many others, he ran circles around the Nigerian criminal justice system using his abundant wealth. He left Nigeria for Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where he had properties and business interests. There, the unrelenting UK government found him and extradited him to London for trial.

He was accused of stealing US$250 million from Nigeria’s public funds. Ibori pleaded guilty to ten counts of money laundering and conspiracy to defraud.

On Tuesday, April 17, 2012, Ibori was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for his crimes. Among possessions confiscated were: two properties in the UK worth £2.2m and £311,000; a £3.2m mansion in South Africa; several vehicles - a fleet of armoured Range Rovers valued at £600,000, a £120,000 Bentley Continental and a Mercedes Benz valued at €407,000.

James Ibori was released from prison in December 2016 after serving over 4 years of the jail term.

As soon as he came out of jail, jubilant supporters paraded around Ibori in London, and welcomed him home to Nigeria in unprecedented show of support. They openly praised and identified with him, no matter what he did in the past and despite his lack of open remorse or change of ways.

The story of Ibori provides many answers to the riddle of corruption and its "octopustic" tentacles that wrap around a nation that keeps struggling with its expanding problems.

From comments, opinions, and discussions, here are ten answers to the historic drama of obvious popularity of ex-convict Ibori.

Stealing of public funds may not count as actual stealing. An elected official must have “invested” a lot of funds to get to office. It is logical that he “recovers” his funds whilst in office, and makes much more to take care of the future and his retinue of hangers-on.

A public official who manages public fund can use it for private purposes. Everyone does it. A state governor can do it more easily because he is hardly ever accountable to anyone.

If, like Ibori, a public official re-distributes a small part of stolen wealth among the people, such “generosity” cleanses the official of any accusations of criminality. Most public officials hold on to their stolen wealth; only kind ones give anything back to their constituencies, friends and supporters.

All politicians steal. Stealing is not corruption. When one has a God-given opportunity to have access to funds or wealth anywhere, he/she had better acquire enough of the wealth to last many lifetimes. (Do not laugh!)

A convicted person from one’s ethnic group or community is still a part of the community. As “one of us”, we have a duty to defend him socially, politically... Other persons also steal anyways, and finally one of our own has the opportunity.

Going to jail is immaterial if the criminal comes out of jail with sizeable wealth to give away. Far too many people will accept money and materials from anyone - prisoner, convict, robber or killer. A former prisoner who is wealthy is likely to be much more generous. He needs supporters. Get to him quickly.

A rich criminal gets to keep so much of stolen money that he/she has the capacity to make others rich still. Politicians who are accused of official looting are financially capable sponsors of candidates for elective offices. It is a smart way for the criminal to purchase immunity from prosecution.

By stealing abundantly, a criminal can comfortably finance his/her own political campaign to get elected to an exalted office. Once successful, immunity and public recognition is conferred on the person by law and society.

In most cases, politics is not a call to service, but a game of power played with money. The more stolen funds are available, the easier it is to aim for selection and election to higher offices.

There is so much poverty that anyone who can distribute money, food, materials to people gets immediate title to relevance. Poor people and needy populace do not link their despicable socio-economic conditions to official stealing and corruption from which they get served trickles of what was originally theirs. The source of wealth is least important as new norms support wealth possession no matter what the sources are.

The supporters and admirers of Ibori and his likes are everywhere. They are products of deeply corrupt political system, social norms gone awry, downgraded values and economic malaise.

Whilst arresting, prosecuting and jailing of corrupt officials is very important, it is equally critical to revisit the political systems, re-value norms, and transform drivers of need and greed.

  

Bunmi Makinwa is the CEO of AUNIQUEI Communication for Leadership and former Africa Regional Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

James Ibori greeting supporters

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