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OPINION: Just Before £4.2m Delta Loot Returns

Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, Nigeria's Attorney-General

I was quite surprised when on May Day there was a newsflash on national television that the Attorney-General of the Federation ad Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, had issued a statement on the expected James Ibori loot. That day being a public holiday, I had thought that something good or frightfully awful had happened. But all he said was that procedures in foreign banks had delayed the transfer of the money to Nigeria. He said that he had expected it in two weeks. All the same, he was still expectant.

That was hardly breaking news.

However, what is important now is that before this money is returned, there is the pressing need for the rigorous interrogation of the prosecution of James Ibori and especially the consequent loot seizure, before its repatriation ends in misappropriation.

In spite of the petitions filed by Deltans against their former Governor James Onanefe Ibori, the man walked free after the half- hearted attempts that were made to prosecute him for corrupt enrichment during his tenure as state governor. Ibori relocated to Dubai- it was there he was picked up and later extradited to the United Kingdom. Only in the UK was he made to face the full wrath of the law for money laundering and for fraud. In what was hailed in Britain as a landmark case, Ibori was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2012. He was found guilty of 10 charges of fraud and money laundering committed during his 8 years as Governor of Delta State.

As a Nigerian state governor, Ibori went to England repeatedly and lodged large cash sums in multiple accounts in various British banks. NO QUESTIONS WERE ASKED. Certainly now, it is the very least the British Government can do, to return the money to the rightful coffers. And they have now decided to do just that.

On March 9 2021, the British High Commissioner, Catriona Laing, announced that the sum of £4.2m recovered from Ibori would be repatriated to Nigeria “in the next few days”. This is not really the shocking part of the news. Periodically, Nigeria gets notified of repatriated loot that had been stashed away in foreign banks by a former head of state or by a few state governors. What is confounding is the Federal Government announcing that it would retain the funds and even utilise them for building projects in other parts of Nigeria ( not in Delta ). Pressed further,   Malami expressly stated that the money would not be returned to Delta State.

It is indefensible that the Federal Government would want to retain the money meant for Delta State. The claims of having cooperated with the UK in the trial of Ibori are only spurious at best. Nigerians in Delta State were the people being plundered.

Rather, back in Nigeria, Ibori was briefly picked up on 170 unsubstantiated charges against him, ALL of which were dismissed.  Furthermore, the courts granted him a court order stopping the London Metropolitan police from coming to Delta State to gather evidence in 2007- and the Federal Government did nothing to challenge and possibly reverse that order. Ibori’s accomplices, his wife Nkoyo(Teresa), sister Christy Idie(nee Ibori) and girlfriend,  Udoamaka Onuigbo (a.k.a  Okoronkwo) were minor celebrities in Nigeria, hailed and featured in soft- sell magazines. In England, all three were sentenced  in a separate trial in 2010 to  five years imprisonment each for their roles in the money laundering saga.

Ibori’s arrest in 2010 in Dubai was on a British arrest warrant, not on a Nigerian one. He travelled to Dubai from Nigeria a free man. He was arrested in Dubai later when he was negotiating to buy himself a private jet, valued at between 20 and 30 million pounds. It was at the request of the British authorities that Ibori was extradited to Britain.

Moreover, in sentencing Ibori at Southwark  Crown Court in London, Judge Anthony Pitts, the trial judge had said, “During those two terms, you turned yourself in very short order into a multimillionaire  through corruption ”. The British police had accused Ibori of 10 charges of fraud and money laundering committed during his eight years as governor of Delta State. He had pleaded guilty. He was jailed and later released on parole in 2016. His forfeited millions were also to be returned.

Money so returned has always been received and repatriated to the state governments concerned. Plateau and Bayelsa States, had in the past, received their erstwhile looted funds after repatriation to Nigeria from Britain. Under no circumstances should these repatriated funds of Delta State now be captured by the Federal Government.

If monies are looted or stolen from individuals or corporate bodies, by natural justice, such recovered monies are returned to the owners. Not one penny of this money in question should be found missing, but must be credited to the Delta State government and receipt ascertained by the Delta State Governor, Dr Ifeanyi Okowa. If the former state governor had not looted the money, it would have been used by the Delta State people exclusively under the governor’s custodianship, not by the Federal  Government.

The Federal Government retaining the repatriated Delta loot is antithetical to the campaign against corruption. In fact, it will only smack of corruption – something former President Goodluck Jonathan described as “common stealing.”

But this looming misappropriation by the Federal Government will not be mere stealing. It will constitute a government policy promoting inequality. It will make for huge power imbalance, cause unrest and the action will bring about a subsequent reaction over the denial of natural justice. It will also set a bad precedent, if allowed to stand.

It is very important for the Federal Government to be conscious of the effect of any such action on Nigeria’s corruption perception index. Our CPI will fall further than it is already doing, what with funds getting looted and stashed abroad. When recovered and sent back, the funds are captured again by some other sections of government.

It is worthy of mention that the James Ibori case was one of the biggest money laundering cases ever in Britain.  Consequently, it behoves the British Government to monitor the movement of the funds until they are returned to the Delta State Government – the legitimate owner.

The British Government has got to be especially careful now and be vigilant up to the final point of recovery, if the aims of returning looted funds are to be achieved. The purpose becomes utterly defeated when money looted from A and recovered by B is handed over to C, rather than back to A. In addition, it could constitute an indictment on B, as is beginning to happen now; with the Delta people starting to point accusing fingers at Britain.

In particula,  Delta State in Nigeria would undergo a double whammy. The mostly impoverished Deltans would continue to remain short-changed. Firstly the money meant for all the people of Delta is looted and stashed away in British banks, depriving the 5.7 million people of needed funds and infrastructure. Then the funds are returned, but ‘captured’ by the Federal Government, thereby permanently depriving the Delta people of their commonwealth.

Before that money is returned, it is of utmost importance that the British authorities place a caveat that in order to effect the funds transfer, the money must be remitted to the Delta State Government upon receipt by the Federal  Government.

Attah is a Newscaster,  biographer and columnist .

Twitter @mikky_princess