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The Ibori phenomenon: Thieves and govt houses

By Is’haq Modibbo Kawu
“He was never the legitimate governor and there was effectively a thief in government house. As the pretender of that public office, he was able to plunder Delta state’s wealth and hand out patronage”.
Prosecution QC Sasha Wass (speaking about James Onanefe Ibori).

WHILE reporting James Ibori’s guilty plea to the 10-counts charge of money laundering and conspiracy to defraud, last week, in a London court, the BBC reminded that Ibori was “once seen as one of Nigeria’s wealthiest and most influential politicians”. At the height of his national influence, during the Yar’Adua administration, James Ibori formed a powerful duo with former Kwara state governor, BukolaSaraki.

James Ibori

Between them, they were responsible for some of the most high-profile appointments of the period; James Ibori was the inner caucus operative who largely financed the massive rigging of the 2007 elections which returned Umaru Yar’Adua as president, while his tag-team partner, Bukola Saraki, used as redoubt the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), to post influence, in a manner that has never been witnessed before and since.

It was significant that the Ibori myth began to unravel, at the Kwara governor’s lodge in Abuja, where he had been holed up in his partner’s lair, before he was smoked out! His fate eventually took him around, like the character he was, until last week’s denouement of a guilty plea in London!

The media have posted incredible pictures of the luxury he purchased with stolen money, as he made transition from a petty thief in a London shop, to the heights of political power, in Nigeria. Andrew Walker, Nigerian analyst at the BBC, wrote a posting on the BBC website, on February 27th, titled: “James Ibori: How a thief almost became Nigeria’s president”.

It was not a flight of fancy, because at a point, the duo, came close to actualising the ambition, in the murky environments of a presidency locked into vicious political battle for survival, as the incumbent president slipped into a terminal battle with death.

It was estimated that the Ibori, stole about $250m from Delta state. Our indignation at the theft going on, especially in the states, where governors hold states in a bear hug, while milking them to stupor, should be tempered by a robust understanding of how we arrived at the sorry pass.

Unforgivable wrongs of military dictatorship

One of the most unforgivable wrongs of military dictatorship was the destruction of the political process through the uprooting of the organic basis of Nigeria’s political development.

The parties of independence had deficiencies, but the Action group (AG); National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) and the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), at least were rooted in the basic aspirations of the Nigerian people.

It was therefore no surprise that the period between 1958 and 1966, warts and all, has become a most romanticised phase of our national history.

The 1966 coup decapitated the leadership of mainly the Northern-based political elite, just as all the parties were banned following military takeover.

However, the organic roots of these parties were so strong, that when military rule ended in 1979, they were re-born in the new context. Leading lights of the Second Republic, 1979-1983, were directly out of the pages of the earlier era: Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Alhaji Shehu Shagari.

The military period of Babangida, will become a defining era in Nigerian history. Babangida introduced a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), which wrought devastating changes on our national life. The main philosophy was removal of the state’s central role in economic development.

Opening up the economy is lauded as a major achievement, but the transformations in political economy instituted an uncaring society, which favoured the wily sharks and ‘smart’ individuals. Personalisation of state power and its disembodiment as an institution of compassion became the eternal essence of SAP. Marxist-Leninists remember that Lenin described politics as a concentrated expression of economics.

So the SAP era, naturally, created its own politics and politicians. Babangida introduced the concept of “Newbreed” politicians and in droves, those who made good in the shark-infested waters of SAP became the political champions of the new era. Because central to the purpose was the war against memory; the new must not have organic relationship with the old.

As a rootless breed of politicians, they depended on the structures nurtured by military dictatorship and in turn, they became caricatures of military dictatorship. This context aided MKO Abiola’s political ascendancy and its eventual truncation, by his erstwhile, military allies.

Era of the rootless Newbreed

Not much differentiated Abacha’s period from the Babangida era, politically. The ‘newbreed’ was still ascendant, even when older politicians eventually bunched up to provide some loci of opposition to the junta. The 1999 transition, merely consolidated the entrenchment of the ‘newbreed’, and many came with baggages!

How can we forget Salisu Buhari’s Toronto certificate controversy or Bola Tinubu’s “Chicago” certificate scandal? Plus the election into the House of Representative of a known drug baron/PDP financier, late Maurice Ibekwe and Senator Nuhu Aliyu’s well-quoted statement alleging that criminals he had prosecuted found their ways into Nigeria’s Senate! Those were signs of the times in Nigeria.

From 1999, the old despot, Olusegun Obasanjo, began to implement neoliberal policies, which was a continuation of SAP by other name: complete institution of greed as the essence of social and private exertions in governance. It has been a complete disaster for Nigeria, to be locked in, between the uncaring doctrine of SAP and the bare-fanged criminality of neoliberalism, from the mid-1980s till today! James Ibori’s checkered political career is emblematic of the era we live in.

As Andrew Walker wrote: “the story of how James Ibori went from convicted thief in London in the 1990s, to become governor of a wealthy oil-producing Nigerian state and then to a British prison is a remarkable one. It is the story of a wily political operator, backing the right political horses and shifting allegiances when expedient”.

The story of our country

What Andrew said of Ibori summarises leading political characters on the Nigerian political scene today. Our political recruitment process lost every semblance of decency and honour, precisely because the process today, is not wired for purposes of service delivery and patriotic exertion.

Individuals personalise power to steal obscene sums of money, as part of the rituals of prebendalist politicking that has gone completely lunatic! This is the hallmark of the period since 1999.

Many of James Ibori’s contemporaries will no doubts, be very worried about what happened to the poster boy of looting; they couldn’t have slept easy in the past week, contemplating whether funds tucked away in off-shore havens might come to light or if mansions in Dubai, South Africa, London or the USA are someday brought into a loop of search for accountability. The James Ibori phenomenon is actually the story of our country today.

It is the most naked expression of the process that allowed thieves to takeover government houses. When Prosecution QC, Sasha Wass said of Ibori: “he was never the legitimate governor and there was effectively a thief in government house”, he literally, could have been describing many of the governors since 1999.

Most rode into government houses on the backs of fraudulent elections and they settled into power to fleece their states. This is the essence of the Ibori phenomenon, which haunts Nigerian politics today.

Revenue allocation: Northern demand, South-South threats

VANGUARD newspaper has faithfully reported the anger, insults and threats from the South-South, apropos of the demand made by Chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum,Aliyu Babangida, for a review of the extant Revenue Allocation Formula.

The responses have been vitriolic, cutting across governors, legislators, and the so-called ‘ex-militants’. In truth, for as long as we share the same space of citizenship, then every part of the country has a legitimate right to make demands, assumed to be for the betterment of all the Nigerian people.

As a Political Scientist, I was taught that politics is the authoritative allocation of values; and invariably, there are conflicts, as different sections of the elite around the country struggle to get a slice of the national cake.  Many have also argued for development of resources from all parts of the country, to break the dependence on the rentier culture, tied to oil-based revenue.

It is a laudable argument, but if the present situation persists, it is legitimate for all sides to seek for more. We can however temper disagreement in more decent language and decorous attitude. Threatening others about “our oil”, or pouring opprobrium on whole regions of the country is unacceptable in decent society.

I do not underrate the environmental degradation visited upon the oil-producing areas, in over fifty years of oil exploration; neither do I accept the deep poverty and privations suffered by our compatriots from oil-bearing communities. The Nigerian state has been in cahoots with transnational oil companies, largely ignoring the negative effects of exploration as they took out petroleum products, which translated to fabulous wealth.

The beneficiaries have largely been members of the Nigerian ruling class, spread all over the country. Practically every Nigerian today recognises the needs of the peoples of the oil-producing areas to reclamation of the environment; greater empowerment of its peoples; injection of more resources for infrastructure and human capital development.

Pursuit to that even the culpable Nigerian state’s hand was moved: 13 percent Derivation; NDDC; Ministry of the Niger Delta; private money from oil companies; Amnesty funds plus the highest percentage of Nigeria’s capital budget for 2012, for example! But all other Nigerian states need the same developments, including and especially the North! That is not what a lot of those who read these lines in the South want to hear but that is the truth. For as long as we share the space of nationhood together, resources found in Nigeria, will have to be used to develop all of Nigeria.

Today, it is oil from the Niger Delta; it will be something else tomorrow. That is why we cannot afford the chauvinism bordering on threats and indecorous language which many individuals from the Niger Delta regularly deploy as part of the arsenal of argument!


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.