By Sunny Awhefeada
THIS intervention is necessitated by two items: a report in the Premium Times of March 10, 2018 and an essay by the famed columnist, Owei Lakemfa in the Vanguard of March 19. The subject matter of both items is a criticism of the recent hosting and celebration of Chief James Ibori who was governor of Delta State from 1999 to 2007. Both items pooh-poohed the organisers of the event that it was morally reprehensible for them to do so.
The heroic reverence Ibori enjoys nationwide should no longer rankle anybody. What scholars should do is to interrogate why Ibori remains popular in spite of being vilified. In the wake of his celebrated return in February 2018 some newspaper columnists explored the reasons why he received a heroic welcome. This is what Premium Times, Owei Lakemfa and others should do.
When Ibori became governor in 1999, the country, and the Niger Delta in particular, was enveloped by anxiety and hopelessness. The many years of military dictatorship and the devastation of the Niger Delta environment left the people traumatised. But Ibori swung into action and soon the gloom paved way for optimism. The young governor was charismatic and visionary with ambitious plans to launch Delta State into the league of advanced societies beyond Nigeria.
He set up a Think-Tank chaired by the late Mr. Gamaliel Onosode to chart a development course for Delta State. Ibori saw the deep contradictions assailing Nigeria. The country was touted as a federation, but it was run as a unitary state. Ibori interrogated the status quo and saw the wisdom in adhering to a holistic federal arrangement. It was at that point that he launched the crusade for resource control and true federalism. Ibori also galvanised his colleagues from Southern Nigeria into what became the Southern Governors Forum.
Ibori’s passion for federalism was infectious and he became a marked man. The Nigerian oligarchy ever so used to exploiting the resources of the Niger Delta would not hear of his advocacy of true federalism. They laid an ambush for him.
Meanwhile, Ibori embarked on a trail- blazing record of developmental strides in Delta State. He initiated a development revolution that revved up every sector of the state. The civil service, education, health, road, energy, housing and other sectors enjoyed a boost. He prioritised the welfare of the citizenry by paying the highest wages in the country. He built some of the most ambitious bridges in the country and took roads and electricity to places where people never imagined they would see electricity. He set up three polytechnics and a college of education in addition to the existing ones to meet the education aspirations of Deltans. He fast-tracked the development of the state university and built a world class teaching hospital. Ibori must have done over six thousand projects in a state with an unfriendly swampy terrain, high population and many urban centres demanding for government attention.
The oligarchs who felt threatened by Ibori’s stride, especially the resource control and true federalism campaign threw many spanners in his works. In 2003, as Ibori was getting ready for a second term, Abuja power mongers went to work by weaving allegations of criminal convictions against him. A sequence of litigations followed. The case which has become a locus classicus made the rounds from the lowest to the highest courts in Nigeria. Ibori won all the way!
His mettle and strength as a leader were put to test and he came out stronger. His now famous moniker, Odidigboigbo, quickly took on a national significance. Ibori had by then become a frontline governor with unrivalled influence among his colleagues. It was in the middle of these intrigues that Ibori led other governors to insist that the then Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, should run for the PDP presidential ticket since the incumbent President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, entered into an agreement that he was going to do just one term. Obasanjo panicked. He begged Ibori who eventually gave his nod and Obasanjo got a second term. Ibori’s audacity earned him another spot in Obasanjo’s vengeance book.
Ibori got a second term. But Obasanjo and his sidekicks went after him. They instigated many more litigations ranging from election matters, to identity and eligibility issues as well as corruption. The presidentially instigated assault was led by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, then headed by Nuhu Ribadu. The media, not known for serious investigative journalism, bought the presidential poppycock.
Ibori played a significant role at both state and federal levels in 2006 and 2007. In spite of his running battles, he was a factor in the emergence of Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua as President in 2007. In a moment of Freudian slip Obasanjo described him as Nigeria’s most intelligent governor who had a solution to every problem! At the state level, Ibori handled the 2006/2007 transition in a way that was meant to enthrone equity and fair play in a state with a plural ethnic configuration, but his intention didn’t go down well with some people.
Delta State has many ethnic groups with the Urhobo having the highest population. Naturally, some Urhobo felt that such an advantage must translate into their holding on to governorship in perpetuity. However, Ibori, an Urhobo, chose to uphold equity by seeing the wisdom in rotational governorship among the three senatorial districts.
President Goodluck Jonathan who succeeded Yar’ Adua was naïve and he bought hook, line and sinker the political hooey sold to him by Obasanjo and the few disgruntled Delta politicians led by a vocal elder. Jonathan was told that Ibori would undermine his presidency and he must be put away if he wanted to govern Nigeria in peace. Jonathan, not used to the cloak and dagger tendencies of Nigerian politics, quickly approved Ibori’s political liquidation. The climax of the plot was to profile Ibori as masterminding a coup d’etat which will enable the Federal Government to try him for treasonable felony. When the EFCC corralled Ibori for trial in 2010, it was just the prelude to the grand plot. But the then Chief of Army Staff refused to go with the plan.
Ibori was tipped off about the deadly plot and the only alternative left for him was to flee Nigeria. The story of his experience in exile which is made up of arrest, trial and sentence is now in the public domain. The Nigerian Government pressured the British judicial system to put Ibori away and the latter eager to prove a point to the world as a corruption fighting nation went to unethical lengths in convicting Ibori. Today, Ibori is free and back home, but the world should know that what he went through was persecution and not prosecution.
Ibori’s ordeal was not the comeuppance for corruption. Questions should be asked and observations made about the malevolent cabalistic system vis-a-vis Ibori’s experience. What was the context in which the nation’s political office holders operated between 1999 and 2007? Why was Ibori singled out for persecution? Was he the only governor accused of corruption in his time? What happened to the 31 governors Ribadu claimed were being investigated for corruption in 2006? Why did Ibori receive a hero’s welcome on regaining freedom? What are his legacies?
The context under which Ibori operated as governor in 1999 was almost cavalier with political office holders throwing caution to the wind in their handling of state funds. Ibori must have been carried away by this ambience and committed some infractions. While not supporting the financial malfeasance that dominated the national space at the time, it could be taken that he merely danced the dance prevalent at that time. Many of those who pilloried him, including Obasanjo, Jonathan and their sidekicks, have bigger skeletons in their cupboards. Obasanjo is yet to be able to give satisfactory response to how $16 billion couldn’t light up Nigeria. He is still unable to explain the Halliburton scandal. Yet, the system went after only Ibori.
Ibori suffered victimhood for many reasons. First of which was his advocacy for resource control and true federalism which rankled those who hold Nigeria in thralldom. To them, putting him away will muffle the struggle so they can continue to ride roughshod over Nigeria. How wrong they were! The restiveness in the Niger Delta, the insurgency in the North East, the resurgence of Biafra and the present call for restructuring from all quarters reinforce Ibori’s credentials as a visionary. He envisaged all these two decades ago! His ideas find convergence with those of Adaka Boro and Ken Saro-Wiwa, and he suffered like both men. Ibori’s courage in leading pro-Atiku elements against Obasanjo in 2003, the vicious clique his 2006/2007 politics offended in Delta State as well as Goodluck Jonathan’s error of judgement in believing lies told him about Ibori were also factors to note in the saga of his ordeal. In the end, Ibori’s adversaries lost out in the power struggle. Had Jonathan taken Ibori as an ally, the 2015 political seismic shift that sent him packing from Aso Rock would not have taken place. Many of those who plotted Jonathan’s electoral defeat were Ibori’s boon companions and his uncommon sagacity would have saved the day for Jonathan and his rookie band of co-travellers.
Ibori was not the only governor alleged to have been corrupt between 1999 and 2007. Rabid Ribadu once told Nigerians that he had a dossier on thirty-one corrupt governors and Obasanjo crowed that while he would be retiring to his farm, those governors would be cooling off in prison. Did that happen to any other governor besides the Niger Delta trio of Ibori, D. S. P. Alamieyeseigha of Bayelsa State and Lucky Igbinedion of Edo State, who were considered as Ibori’s comrades in the resource control crusade? Many of those thirty-one governors profiled by Ribadu later went on to become ministers and senators. In fact, one of them not only became Ribadu’s leader and financier as presidential candidate of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, in 2011, but today struts the political terrain as a national leader after successfully coordinating the alliance that routed the PDP in the 2015 election. Ribadu went on to grovel and do obeisance before some of the thirty-one governors in his bid to get the governorship ticket of the PDP in Adamawa State in 2014. The politicians had him! So much for being an anti-corruption crusader!
The people of Delta State, irrespective of ethnic or political affiliations now see Ibori’s experience as victimization. The powers that be clothed him in the toga of a villain, but Deltans and in fact Niger Deltans now see him as a victim. The heroic welcome is a form of restitution for Ibori. And his legacies? They are legion and imperishable. The roads he built, the bridges, the hospitals, the schools, the employment opportunities he created, the villages he gave water and electricity, all attest to the fact that he served. That Ibori was not impeached as governor of Delta State by a hyper-conscious House of Assembly was a mark of his political acumen. His evolving a rotational governorship arrangement not only checked an incipient hegemony, but has given all Deltans a sense of belonging. What about the Ibori School of politics? Yes, there is hardly any Delta State politician, whether in PDP or APC who didn’t take a lesson or two from Ibori. There is no politician of note in Delta State whose political paternity is not traced to Ibori. Nigerians should rethink and re-evaluate the Ibori phenomenon.