LONDON, (Reuters) – A British court sentenced the former governor of a Nigerian oil state to 13 years in prison today after he pleaded guilty to embezzling 50 million pounds ($79 million) in one of the biggest money-laundering cases seen in Britain.
A founding member and key power-broker of Nigeria’s ruling party, James Ibori is the most prominent Nigerian politician to be successfully prosecuted for the corruption that has held back Africa’s most populous nation and top oil producer for decades.
He pleaded guilty to 10 charges of fraud and money-laundering committed during his eight years as governor of Delta State, an impoverished maze of mangrove creeks and pipelines ravaged by years of armed conflict over access to oil money.
“During those two terms (as governor) you turned yourself in very short order indeed into a multi-millionaire through corruption,” Judge Anthony Pitts told Ibori at the end of a two-day sentencing at Southwark Crown Court in London.
Pitts said it was one of the biggest money-laundering cases seen and that the 50 million pounds Ibori had admitted to stealing may be a “ludicrously low” fraction of his total booty.
“The figure may be in excess of 200 million pounds, it is difficult to tell. The confiscation proceedings may shed some further light on the enormity of the sums involved.”
Prosecutor Sasha Wass said Ibori engaged in a wide variety of frauds. The single biggest scam involved siphoning off $37 million in fake consultancy fees during the sale of Delta State’s stake in mobile telecoms company V Mobile.
The court heard that Ibori used his stolen fortune to acquire six foreign properties worth 6.9 million pounds in total, a fleet of luxury cars including a Bentley and a Maybach 62, and that he tried to buy a $20 million private jet.
His properties included a country mansion in a village in southwest England, close to the private school where his three daughters were being educated.
His defense counsel, Nicholas Purnell, argued that his crimes were mitigated by his achievements as governor, particularly the construction of vital infrastructure.
In a bizarre courtroom twist, Purnell called former Wimbledon footballer John Fashanu, now Nigeria’s ambassador for sports and tourism, as a character witness.
Fashanu praised Ibori for overseeing the construction in Delta State of three Olympic and FIFA-registered stadia, an 18-hole golf course and a shooting range.
Judge Pitts said he was not sure what use the ordinary people of Delta State were making of such facilities, but in any case it was not for him to judge Ibori’s overall performance as governor but rather to sentence him for his specific crimes.
HOUSES AND LUXURY GOODS
Britain, Nigeria’s former colonial ruler, was the destination of choice for generations of corrupt Nigerian politicians looking to spend their money on houses or luxury goods. Ibori’s jail sentence may put an end to that.
His case is a major success for the Metropolitan Police, which spent seven years untangling his international web of bogus companies and bank accounts.
“This is a landmark case. We would like to see other countries follow the UK’s lead in bringing corrupt politicians to account, and not just them but also the lawyers, accountants and bankers who allow them to commit their crimes,” said Robert Palmer of anti-corruption group Global Witness.
Ibori’s criminal career started in 1991 when he was working as a cashier at Wickes, a home improvements chainstore in London, and was caught stealing from the till. In 1992, he was convicted again, this time for handling a stolen credit card.
He then returned to Nigeria where he got involved in politics. During Nigeria’s transition from military to civilian rule in 1999, he was elected governor of Delta, one of the three major oil-producing states in the southern Niger Delta.
Ibori used his clout and wealth as governor to establish himself as a behind-the-scenes kingmaker within the ruling People’s Democratic Party. This ensured that he remained influential after stepping down in 2007, having served the two four-year terms allowed by the constitution.
$15 MILLION IN CASH
He thwarted attempts by the EFCC, a homegrown anti-corruption agency, to prosecute him after he left office. He obtained the transfer of his court case from the northern city of Kaduna to the Delta State capital Asaba, where a judge who was also his cousin dismissed all 170 charges against him.
He was also able to obtain a court order that prevented officers from the London Metropolitan Police from visiting Delta State in October 2007 to gather evidence.
Former EFCC boss Nuhu Ribadu said in written testimony that Ibori had come to his office with $15 million in cash in April 2007 in an attempt to bribe him to drop investigations into his affairs. Ribadu refused and later went into exile in Britain.
But British investigators kept plugging away at the case and Ibori’s wife Theresa, sister Christine, mistress Onuigbo Okoronkwo and lawyer Bhadresh Gohil were all tried and convicted in Britain for their part in helping Ibori launder his millions.
In two trials in 2010, the women were sentenced to five years in jail each while Gohil was sentenced to 10 years.
Prosecutor Wass said Ibori launched the huge V Mobile scam at a time when he knew British police were investigating him.
Feeling the heat in Nigeria, Ibori fled to Dubai in April 2010 but he was arrested there on a British warrant. He was extradited to London in April 2011 and was due to stand trial on two separate indictments for a total of six months.
His decision on Feb. 27 this year to plead guilty to 10 of the 23 charges against him led to the two trials being cancelled. Judge Pitts said this represented a colossal saving in UK taxpayer money and court time, and he had reduced Ibori’s sentence to reflect the guilty plea and its impact.
Ibori is likely to spend only four and a half more years behind bars because he has already been in custody for two years, one in Dubai and one in London, and because he will be eligible for parole halfway through his prison term.