In the last few months, there has been roiling controversy over the $15 million bribe allegedly offered to the former chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu by ex- Delta State governor, Mr. James Onanefe Ibori.
This matter had almost vanished from public consciousness until a Federal High Court in Abuja granted an interim order, forfeiting the money to the Federal Government of Nigeria. The order roused all manner of claimants from their prolonged, five-year slumber to stake feverish, and seemingly bogus claims to what they must have adjudged to be 'free money'.
The sudden emergence of desperate claimants pushing claims and counter claims to the bribe money and the inevitable, associated media frenzy has had the effect of creating confusion in the minds of ordinary Nigerians about the issues involved in the entire saga.
In the light of this, it is important to recall events leading to and surrounding the alleged bribe. What is now known as the Ibori bribe is the fallout of the EFCC's investigation of the eight year' rule of former Governor James Onanefe Ibori of Delta State. The investigation began during the ex- governor's second term in office, but as a sitting governor who enjoyed constitutional immunity from criminal prosecution, he could therefore not be arrested and charged at the time. The anti- graft agency bided its time until Ibori left office. However, the former governor was aware of the extensive investigation and the damning evidence EFCC had amassed against him (some of which it had shared with the London Metropolitan Police).
Ibori must have felt compelled to act fast to assure a hassle-free post-Government House life. So, in April 2007, a little over a month to the end of his last term in office, Ibori, in a desperate bid to stave off prosecution by the Commission, approached then chairman of the EFCC, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu with what he thought was an irresistible offer of a $15 million bribe. The goal obviously was to get the Commission off his back and stymie its cooperation with the London Metropolitan Police.
It was reported that the money was dropped off at the home of Andy Uba, then a Special Assistant to former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Ribadu pretended to play along with the scheme but detailed his Director of Operations, Mr. Ibrahim Lamorde, now Executive Chairman, EFCC, to collect the money, after alerting the Central Bank of Nigeria to make provision for its safekeeping, with the intention of using it as evidence during the trial of the former governor.
A few months after Ibori left office, he was arrested and arraigned before a Federal High Court in Kaduna. That arraignment set off a chain of events, one of which was the forced exit of Ribadu as chairman of the EFCC, but tellingly, the unexplainable discharge of Ibori, on all 170-count charges of stealing and money laundering amongst other alleged economic and financial crimes.
The history of the trial of Ibori in Nigerian courts is well known. But suffice is to say that one of the charges against him by the EFCC was the attempt to compromise the Commission through the offer of the $15 million bribe to Mallam Ribadu. This was buttressed by statements tendered in court.
On his part, Ibori denied on oath, ever offering any bribe to the EFCC. That raised the crucial poser: If Ibori is not claiming ownership of the bribe, to whom then does it belong?
For the five long years that that riddle remained unsolved, the money had remained in the vaults of the Central Bank of Nigeria. In those years, no one approached the EFCC or the courts to claim ownership of the money; not even the Delta State Government. As far as the Emmanuel Uduaghan administration was concerned, the EFCC was wailing louder than the bereaved in its case against Ibori! Indeed, rather than assist the Commission to recover the looted funds of the impoverished people of Delta State, the State Government (the same Delta State Government now claiming the $15 million in question) actually rushed to the Federal High Court in Benin City on October 9, 2007, to challenge and attempt to frustrate the investigation and prosecution of Ibori.
I recall that Delta State through its Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Emmanuel Gaban Okirhenyefa, deposed that the Auditor-General of Delta State: "informed me and I verily believe him that no incident of conspiracy, official corruption, misappropriation or stealing of public funds were identified by him"
When the application was turned down, Delta State in November 2007 went to the Court of Appeal sitting in Benin City, with the same prayers, seeking to stop EFCC in its tracks by declaring that no money was missing from the Delta State treasury!
That was the position until the federal government in the exercise of its statutory obligation as it relates to unclaimed assets likely to be proceeds of crime, arrived at the conclusion that it serves no public good for the money to remain dormant in the CBN vaults. Consequently, it approached the Federal High Court for an interim forfeiture order. This is in full compliance with Section 17 (1), (2), (3), (4), (5) and (6) of the Advance Fee Fraud and other Related Offences Act (2006).
Nevertheless, it is important to restate here that the attempts by desperate individuals and groups to corner the $15 million bribe tend to give the impression that this was some lost-but-found money, which a mere proof of ownership was all the owner needed to reclaim it. The reality is that the $15 million in question (disclaimed as it is by the offeror and now being claimed by all manners of individuals and groups) is a telling evidence of a desperate attempt to cover up a crime. The Ibori bribe matter is serious law enforcement and judicial issue and should be treated as such.
- Abubakar, a veteran journalist, lives in Abuja