Monday, February 27, 2012

The collapse of James Ibori

It wasn't until a few minutes in to the hearing that I realised that I was about to witness the full and total collapse of James Onafene Ibori.

I had come to Southwark Crown Court expecting to see a jury selected and sworn in and then the lengthy process of trying the former governor of Delta State would begin.

The trial was scheduled to last for three months. Mr Ibori was going to call 58 witnesses, we'd been told. I was expecting a lavish and punctillious defence from "this generation's finest legal mind" Nicholas Purnell QC.

The jury would have access to a bundle of documents weighing several kilos, on which there would be the details of complicated financial interactions and money laundering schemes. I would not have access to that information. I'd have to keep up.

But then the prosecutor Sasha Wass QC started telling the judge that they had agreed a new indictment to be presented to Mr Ibori. Then it became clear that he was going to be arraigned on the charges involved in a second trial, not scheduled to begin until next year.

It could mean only one thing. He was planning to plead guilty.

Almost every hearing has been well attended by Ibori's supporters, but today people pressed in to the door in an unruly mob an hour before court was due to start.

When they were eventually let in, when the seats were full inside and the court clerk tried to those without a seat to leave they looked at him like he had just cursed their mothers.

"This is the reason Nigeria is poor," said one Nigerian spectator (a lawyer who had -she said- worked with trial judge Anthony Pitts when he was a prosecutor).

"So unruly, and look at the lack of respect for court officers!" she tutted.
When Ibori said the word "guilty", the atmosphere became leaden and heavy, but my heart was pumping.

After he said the word "guilty" ten times, the prosecutor declaimed James Ibori, calling him "effectively a thief in office, a pretender in government who had plundered the public purse."

I'd met James Ibori twice before. the first time at the People's Democratic Party convention in 2006, when he held "president (s)elect" Umaru Yar'Adua's hands aloft in victory -hours before a vote was cast in his favour.

The second time was in 2008 when Yar'Adua's 2007 election came to the Election Petition Tribunal. It had been a jam to get in there too, but everyone parted for James Onafene Ibori. He was wearing his immaculate white starch-pressed baban riga, blue cap and terrible green crocodile skin clogs -mirroring exactly the dress style of the president.

That James Ibori was not the James Ibori they led down to the cells.

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