Just as the 2012 conviction of former Delta State Governor, James Ibori, by a court in the United Kingdom elicited mixed reactions, the British Government’s resolve yesterday to return to Nigeria £4.2million (about N2.2 billion) funds recovered from friends and family members of the former governor has stirred up debate pitting the Federal Government against the Delta State government.
The Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami yesterday, disclosed that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) has directed that the £4.2million returned loot be deployed to complete the second Niger Bridge among other projects.
The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Ms. Catriona Laing, said this was the first tranche of such a planned refund. She noted that the Ibori case is complicated and the United Kingdom authorities were still working on the total and actual amount involved in the case.
Malami, who disclosed this during the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the British and Nigerian Governments, added that the money would also impact significantly on the Lagos-Ibadan and the Abuja-Kano expressway projects.
His words: “In consonance with existing framework engaged in the management of previous recoveries, the Federal Executive Council has directed that the instant repatriated funds should be deployed towards the completion of the Second Niger Bridge, Abuja-Kano expressway and the Lagos-Ibadan expressway under the coordination of the Nigeria Social Investment Authority (NSIA).”
Malami recalled that the Nigerian government had all along provided the required mutual assistance and back up to the British authorities while the prosecution of James Ibori lasted in London.
“I am confident that both the Nigerian and British governments remain committed to all affirmative actions to combat corruption/illicit financial flows, ensure that looters do not find comfort or safe haven in our territories, and also to guarantee that the forfeited or recovered proceeds of corruption are deployed to the benefit of the masses,” he said.
Similarly, the British High Commissioner said the agreement further demonstrated that money obtained through criminality or corruption is not welcome in the UK.
“The return of these assets to Nigeria has been subject to a number of hard-fought legal challenges by third parties, which were defeated in the UK courts. We will ensure the full weight of law enforcement to crack down on those who use, move, or hide their proceed of crime in the UK.
The High Commissioner added that all things being equal the £4.2 million would be made available to Nigeria “in the next couple of days”.
In February 2012, Ibori pleaded guilty in a UK court to money laundering, conspiracy to defraud, and forgery and was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Some of his associates and family members also received sentences for similar offences.
Reacting, the Commissioner for Information in Delta State, Charles Aniagwu, described the plan by the Federal Government to appropriate the recovered fund as the height of wickedness. “Why should Delta State money be used in building Lagos-Ibadan Expressway or Abuja-Kano rail? Is the Federal Government saying it doesn’t know the origin of the money? The money belongs to Delta State. We would have understood if the Federal Government had said it wants to receive 20 per cent, but to take all the money is wrong.”
Also, Chief Press Secretary Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, Mr. Olise Ifeajika, said the N2.2 billion to be refunded by UK government belongs to Delta State, and so it should be transferred to the state as soon as possible. “We want the money, it is for the state, Ibori was never a Federal Minister, but the governor of Delta State”.
According to the governor’s spokesman, Federal Government has no business handling the money or spending it for any projects whatsoever without consulting the state, because the money is for the state. Even, the project they are talking about is not in Delta.
The Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay, reechoed the state government’s call. He told The Guardian yesterday: “The money is Delta State money and must be returned to Delta State. Federal Government cannot appropriate it for any reason whatsoever. Delta State should officially demand it, failing which the court can be activated for a judicial pronouncement in that regard.”
Ibori, who ruled Delta State from 1999 to 2007, was convicted by a UK court in 2012 and was sentenced to 13 years in jail after admitting fraud of nearly £50 million, even though prosecutors say the actual amount stolen was about £250 million. He was released in 2016 after serving a fraction of his term.
It would be recalled that on December 9, 2016, when Ibori was released from UK prison, there was widespread jubilation in his Oghara village.
Also in 2016, it was reported that the Delta State Government would not receive any money once the UK repatriates the funds due to the refusal of the state government to cooperate with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) during Ibori’s trial, thereby permanently forfeiting $15 million of the Ibori loot to the Federal Government.
While giving his ruling on the case of the EFCC vs the Delta State Government regarding the ownership of the $15 million, which Ibori allegedly wanted to use in bribing a former Chairman of the EFCC, Nuhu Ribadu, Justice Gabriel Kolawole, had accused the state government of protecting Ibori. The judge ruled that money recovered from Ibori must be paid into the Federation Account and not the Delta State coffers.
But the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), a non-governmental advocacy body, while commending the return of the £4.2 million to the country, said “the funds should be utilized to compensate
victims of corruption in Delta State from whom it was stolen.
“By signing up to Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR) as parts of efforts to fight corruption, the Federal Government committed to responsible asset return and citizens of Delta are clearly the victims here.”
Human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), noted that the recovered funds ought to be handed over to the people of Delta State.
Delta State-based lawyer, Chief Albert Akpomudje SAN, said: “It is unfair. Unless the source of funds has to do with the Federal Government they cannot do what they want with it. Therefore, the right thing to be done was to send the money to be used to develop the state. To now spread it like largesse for everybody as if it is federal money is not fair at all.
“I think that it is a matter that the Attorney General of the state can pursue in court. I don’t expect them to allow it to lie low. They should challenge it in court. You can only distribute funds that you can claim ownership of. Delta should own the money. It is as simple as that. They have already decided how to distribute the funds without considering the state from where the money was taken.”
Also, a constitutional lawyer and author, Chief Sebastine Hon (SAN), said: “The issue is that Nigeria practices federalism. The truth of the matter is that the money belongs to Delta State and should be given to them. The only responsibility of the government is to relate with the UK government in respect of the fund’s transfer because it was an intercontinental matter. Aside from that, the money belongs to Delta.
“Ordinarily, it would have been a negotiation between Delta State Government and the UK government. There is no record or evidence that the Federal Government loaned money to Ibori and he (Ibori) was never a president. Therefore, it is illegal for the Federal Government to appropriate the funds recovered from a former governor of a federating state.”
HOWEVER, a Lagos-based lawyer, Emeka Okpoko (SAN), said: “This case presents a bit of a complex and complicated situation. A bit complex in the sense that Delta State denied that they were never looking for their money. It is an issue that if they go to court, they would confront from different angles.
“The fact is that they denied and the denial was done at the point of prosecution. But what is fundamental is the origin or the source of the money. Where did the money come from? Even if they denied it, can they not say that at that material time, they were not looking for their money, but on a further investigation and interrogation of their account they now discovered that their money is missing? Can somebody whom it can easily be established that the money never came from, suddenly become the owner of the money?
“Ibori has no connection with the Federal Government as at that time. So, that money couldn’t have come from the Federal Government source. So, if the court is convinced that the origin is from Delta, why would the money not go to Delta? And if the money belongs to Delta, the Federal Government has no reason and cannot competently appropriate it.”
Critics are also questioning why the fresh fund is being ploughed into the same projects that previous recovered funds had been allocated to. In May 2020, the Federal Government on receipt of $311 million Sani Abacha loots from the United States said the money would go to completing infrastructure projects in the country.
And according to the presidential spokesperson, Garba Shehu, the second Niger Bridge, Lagos-Ibadan, and Abuja-Kaduna-Kano expressways were listed alongside Mambilla Power Project as projects the recovered money would be spent on.
MEANWHILE, the Oghara Development Union, (ODU) Lagos branch, has called on the Federal Government to insist that every single penny that has been forfeited by Ibori’s associates in the London trial be returned to Nigeria. The union said in a statement signed by its General Secretary, Sunday Agbofodoh.
“We call on Nigeria to insist that the full worth of the three buildings seized through a court order be repatriated to Nigeria. We followed the case diligently and know that the sum the women forfeited was £6.2 million and not £4.2 million. The entire sum should be returned to Nigeria. Nigeria should also demand the interest on the £6.2 million since 2012 because the money would not have sat idly in the bank without attracting interest.”