Ibori regains freedom in London
• Judge averts further detention, Delta residents jubilate
After over four and a half years in prison, former Governor James Ibori of Delta State yesterday regained his freedom at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. An appeal judge, Mrs. Justice May, ordered the Home Office to immediately release him.
Ibori had already served more than half of the sentence he was given in April 2012, when Southwark Crown court judge, Anthony Pitts jailed him for money laundering charges, after he pleaded guilty a day to the commencement of the jury trial.
The release of the governor, who escaped prosecution in Nigeria by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and his possible return to Nigeria, could change the political landscape, especially in his South-South region of the former President Goodluck Jonathan. Although Ibori, who was still very politically active in London prison, was close to Jonathan’s predecessor, the late Umaru Yar’Adua, he and Jonathan are not the best of political friends. It was not clear at press time if the Federal Government would revisit some of the charges for which he was cleared in controversial circumstances before his ordeal in London. But his political leaning upon his return to Nigeria could determine his fate.
The Guardian contacted the EFCC on the matter yesterday but top officials said they would provide answers later.
At yesterday’s hearing at the Strand-based court, May opposed the unlawful detention of the former governor, much to the disappointment of the Home Office. As soon as Ibori’s legal team had secured his release, an aide contacted The Guardian, saying, “the legal team will brief you”, when asked about his release.
A member of Ibori’s team, Jonathan Chike Epele, later confirmed this in a telephone conversation. “Today we won a victory at the Royal Court of Justice, London, when we challenged the decision of the Home Office not to release Ibori who was due for release on the 20th of December, 2016. After serving his sentence, we were informed that the Home Office will not release him on the ground that his confiscation proceeding has not been concluded.”
The Guardian later spoke to Southwark Crown court sources, who acknowledged that there was a confiscation of assets direction hearing on February 3, next year, but it should not have been a basis for holding on to Ibori, as May had rightly ruled.
Epele told The Guardian that he explained to the judge that there was no ground in law on which Ibori could be further detained and the refusal of the Home Office to release him was unlawful. He added that the position of the government was totally unreasonable and not in accordance with any known prison, immigration or confiscation law.
It was learnt that Ibori should actually have been released earlier this year, but the Home Office used the same excuse to keep holding him at the Huntercoombe Prison in Oxfordshire, where he served the last leg of his sentence.
The Home Office confirmed to The Guardian around 5:47pm. that “Ibori has been released, but as a foreign national, we will be hoping to deport him.” When asked if a date had been set for the deportation proceedings, the Home Office Press Officer, Richard Mellor, said “no date has been fixed, but Mr. Ibori has served his time as a foreign national.”
Ibori who was governor between 1999 and 2007 on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), was accused of stealing $250million belonging to the state government in February 2012.
Subsequently, he was tried and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment by Southwark Crown Court on April 17, 2012 after pleading guilty to corrupt charges.
Ibori had been arrested in Dubai, United Arab Emirates under an Interpol Arrest Warrant issued from the UK on corruption charges at the instance of the Metropolitan Police.
His travails that culminated in prison were triggered off by a petition sent to the EFCC by a group known as Delta State Elders and Stakeholders Forum, which accused him of misappropriating the state’s funds.
Meanwhile, reactions have been trailing his release from the London prison.
The Deputy National Chairman of PDP, South West zone, Dr. Eddy Olafeso who congratulated Ibori said it was important the Nigerian society allowed him to recuperate fully and take his time to integrate himself into the society before bordering him with anything.
“As far as I am concerned, the fact that he was sentenced over some offences and went to jail does not mean he should be condemned or stigmatised for life.”
On whether the PDP would be willing to accept the embattled former governor if he indicated interest in joining the party, Olafeso responded that Ibori did not at any point in time say he had left the PDP.
The Lagos spokesman of All Progressives Congress (APC), Mr. Joe Igbokwe said it was a big lesson for Nigeria because someone who ordinarily would have been free here was tried and jailed for corruption in London.
In his view, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, the National Publicity Secretary, Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere said Ibori’s case had clearly shown there was something wrong with Nigeria’s judicial system.
The news of Ibori’s release reverberated across Delta State yesterday with mixed reactions.
In Asaba, the meeting of the Delta Traditional Rulers Council was thrown into jubilation as the monarchs rejoiced with the Ovie of Oghara, Nobel Oyibo Estemitan
It was also learnt that work was temporarily suspended in the Government House in Asaba as the elated workers milled around to discuss the release of the former governor and the political implications for the state.
While Warri, Asaba and other towns remained relatively calm, Ibori’s hometown, Oghara, was in a joyous mood.
At Oghara, Ethiope West Local Council, there were pockets of celebration across the town to mark the release. A traditional festival was going on in Oghara yesterday when the news filtered in, the ceremony was enlivened and the chant of “Ibori”, “Ibori” could be heard among the cerebrating crowd in the street even though the other section of Ibori’s hometown wore a quiet disposition.
In Asaba and its environs, the residents rolled out their drums to celebrate the man they described as “Ibori, Odidigborigbo” and Delta’s strong man in politics.
The youths sang in Asaba- Ibo songs along Nnebisi road, Summit junction, Okpanam road and Anwai road dancing freely to the Asaba drum beats, thereby causing a serious traffic gridlock.