The money laundering conviction and 13-year prison term for the Nigerian politician James Ibori on April 17, 2012, is a landmark in the global fight against corruption, Human Rights Watch said today. Ibori, one of Nigeria’s enduring symbols of criminality and impunity, pleaded guilty in a London court to charges involving more than $79 million.
“The world has just got smaller for government officials who believe they can loot their country’s resources with impunity,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “By prosecuting Ibori, the UK authorities have struck a blow not only against financial crimes at home, but also against impunity for corruption around the globe.”
Ibori, for many years one of Nigeria’s most powerful and wealthy politicians, was governor of Delta State in the oil-rich Niger Delta. During Ibori’s eight years in office, from 1999 to 2007, the state government received several billion dollars in oil revenue, according to financial records published by Nigeria’s Finance Ministry.
Yet there was very little to show in Delta State for all this revenue. The state’s public schools crumbled, while primary health clinics remained dilapidated and lacked basic supplies and medicines, Human Rights Watch said.
A police official who headed Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) tried to bring Ibori to justice in 2007. Ibori allegedly bribed him to drop the investigation. When the official further pursued the case, he was removed from office.
Ibori might have been untouchable in Nigeria, but not in the United Kingdom, where he had laundered some of his stolen money. London’s Metropolitan Police Service secured an order from a London court, in 2007, to freeze $35 million worth of his foreign assets, including a private jet.
Over the next two years, the Metropolitan Police arrested several of Ibori’s associates who lived or traveled within the United Kingdom’s jurisdiction, including Ibori’s wife and sister, as well as his British lawyer and two financial consultants. In 2008, French authorities also arrested one of Ibori’s personal assistants and extradited her to the United Kingdom. Ibori’s six accomplices were charged for their role in laundering the stolen funds. Each was convicted by a London court and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 30 months to 10 years.
In May 2010, Ibori was arrested in the United Arab Emirates on an international warrant obtained by the Metropolitan Police. He was extradited to the United Kingdom in April 2011, and arraigned on 25 counts of money laundering, forgery, and fraud. On February 27, 2012, as his trial was set to begin, Ibori pleaded guilty to seven counts of money laundering, one count of conspiracy to commit forgery, one count of obtaining property by deception, and one count of conspiracy to defraud.
“This case was not just about financial transactions in British banks,” said Bekele. “It was about acknowledging global responsibility for helping to stop the devastating human cost of corruption in Nigeria.”
Across Nigeria, ordinary citizens have seen little benefit from the country’s tremendous oil wealth, Human Rights Watch said. Maternal mortality rates are among the world’s highest, and poverty rates continue to climb. Nearly 100 million Nigerians – some 60 percent of the population – live on less than a dollar a day, according to a recent Nigerian government study.
Public funds that could have been used to improve schools and health facilities have instead been squandered and siphoned off by the country’s ruling elite. Human Rights Watch has documented how in some cases powerful politicians have used the vast wealth at their disposal to arm criminal gangs that fuel political violence.
Despite the EFCC’s efforts in Nigeria to combat endemic government corruption – since 2005, the agency has arraigned 19 former state governors on corruption charges – not a single senior politician or government official in Nigeria is currently serving any prison time for these crimes.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom continues to provide substantial foreign aid to Nigeria – Africa’s largest oil producer. The Department for International Development announced, in 2011, that it would allocate $1.6 billion in aid to Nigeria over the next four years, more than doubling the amount of annual aid over this period.