August 6, 2018

Odidigboigbo @ 60

Ibori, ICPC

James Ibori

By Sunny Awhefeada

ONE name that will attract more than a significant attention when historians will chronicle the Nigerian experience will be that of the charismatic former governor of Delta State, Chief James Onanefe Ibori. James Ibori’s story approximates the Nigerian narrative in more ways than one.

Born on 4th August 1958, just before the moment of Nigeria’s independence  in 1960, Ibori fits into Salman Rushdie’s metaphor of Midnight Children. Nigeria’s great promise, aspiration, grit, and resilience find manifestation in Ibori.

If Nigeria has been mercilessly tossed into a vortex by her leaders, Ibori has also been a victim. Nigeria’s moments of triumphs, few as they are, have also been Ibori’s moments of ascendancy. Thus, when Nigeria came onto a new dawn  in 1999, Ibori was there with a diadem as one of the harbingers of that new beginning.

Ibori, who turned 60 on Saturday, 4th of August, came into national limelight as the governor of Delta State on the 29th of May, 1999. His emergence as the governor of one of Nigeria’s most enlightened and politically volatile states at the young age of 41 is a testimony to his determination especially as he was not born into a known political family with the proverbial silver spoon jutting out of his mouth.

He was born in the then rustic, but strategically located Oghara where he attended primary and secondary schools after which he entered the University of Benin to study Economics. It was in the university that Ibori’s dialogue with the world began.

He took courses in the vast spectrum of the social sciences and was able to interrogate the many contradictions assailing the world, Africa and Nigeria. His later engagements in life were powered by the knowledge he acquired studying the social sciences.

After graduation, he worked in the oil sector before veering into consultancy in public policy formulation. Endowed with a quick mind, he soon resolved the conflictual essence of the way to go in favour of politics. His initial political outing around 1991 and 1992 did not yield the desired result, but he was unfazed.

He survived the twists and turns of the convoluted transition programme of the 1990s. When the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, was formed in 1998, Ibori, young as he was, was in the vanguard of entrenching and stabilising it. It is doubtful if any of his contemporaries did more than he did in the making of the PDP at that early stage.

When he campaigned for the governorship, the people of Delta State, irrespective of age or tribe, saw in him a refreshingly dynamic option that must be supported. He spoke the language which mirrored the aspirations and yearnings of Deltans. He articulated their impediments and pointed at the way out.

He interrogated the injustices assailing his Niger-Delta homeland and tabled it at different fora. He was courageous and driven by an uncommon desire to remedy the degraded and inhuman condition of the Niger-Delta.

While he campaigned across Delta State, the echoes of his political activities rang out all over Nigeria. The election came and went. He emerged victorious and was sworn in as governor at 41, thus becoming one of the youngest governors in 1999. He didn’t need any quasi benevolent “Not too young to run bill” to propel himself.

The Delta State Ibori met as governor was in straits. Created in 1991, the state had before 1999 experienced only an uncertain 20 months of civilian rule under an overarching military dictatorship at the federal level.

The development that should have been recorded in the remaining years was foiled by soldiers who ruled the state in the later years of military rule. Ibori’s vision and youthful energy went to work in the making of a new Delta State. He set up a think tank to produce a development blueprint for the state and what followed was a development revolution.

No matter what anybody would say, especially in view of Ibori’s later travails which eventually forced him out of Nigeria, his tenure has been one of the most remarkably eventful in terms of vision, dynamism, agenda setting and developmental strides. Ibori not only laid the foundation of Delta State, but built it into a development hub on which future administrations should build.

He opened up the entire state by connecting even the remotest parts with roads and bridges. He built educational institutions and the state became the one with the highest number of government-funded educational institutions in Nigeria.

He also instituted an overseas scholarship scheme from which many Deltans benefitted. He replicated this feat in the health sector which he consolidated by building a world class teaching hospital.

The state not only had the highest number of workforce in Nigeria, it also paid the highest wages. He established the first oil- producing area intervention agency in any state of the Niger-Delta, the Delta State Oil- Producing Area Development Commission, DESOPADEC. He sought to introduce an agricultural revolution in Delta State through oil palm, cassava, shrimp and fish farming. The electrification projects he initiated lit up forgotten hamlets just as he encouraged the rapid spread of telecoms.

Ibori’s visionary legacy inheres in his advocacy of resource control and true federalism. Although, he was internationally festooned as Mr. Resource Control, it was that crusade that got him into trouble with the powers-that-be in Nigeria. His stance has been vindicated as the ideals of restructuring which has become a national zeitgeist manifest in resource control and true federalism. Ibori’s travails especially his corruption trial in London has come to the fore as not only a persecution to diminish his profile, but also aimed at undermining the Niger-Delta and the minorities. This is why the only three governors who were “dealt with” among the 31 profiled for trial by Obasanjo/Ribadu scheme were from the Niger-Delta.

In spite of his ordeals, Ibori remained a factor in state, regional, and national politics even while he was away. His political sagacity remains sublime. The shouts of Odidigboigbo, Odidigboigbo, Odidigboigbo, his onomatopoeic  cognomen, which dominated the landscape when he returned to Nigeria in early 2017, is a measure of the looming place he occupies in our collective consciousness. As he clocks 60 with equanimity, the people of the despoiled Niger-Delta homeland have come to see him as the apotheosis of their aspiration.