Standing before Southwark Crown Court, James Ibori, a former Governor of Delta state, Nigeria, pled guilty to a 20-count charge of money laundering and stealing from the people of Delta state. The man, Ibori, was subsequently sentenced to 12 years imprisonment on April 17, 2012. Four and half years later, after regaining his freedom, though still having property forfeiture cases with the British government, and upon his return to Nigeria, Ibori has now come out in a brazen display of logical impossibility and an inane attempt to wash whatever filth left on his body, to declare his innocence.
He was never a thief even though he pled guilty to stealing. Even though he was twice convicted by the government of the United Kingdom between 1991 and 1992. Even though he had the disappointing Nigerian judicial system bail him out of another case of theft in 1995. He was just a victim of circumstance.
In a saner clime, the only thing left for Ibori to do was apologise to his people, but instead – of course, this is Nigeria where unimaginable things happen – he organised a thanksgiving service after being given a heroic welcome. Afterwards, he came out to rub it in the faces of his people that he never stole from them. Obviously, he has a definition of “thief” different from the one we all know, different from the one the world knows. And this isn’t just about Ibori, it’s about something being fundamentally wrong with our reward and punitive system as a people. If Ibori would come out to say he does not belong to the class of thieves right after serving his conviction for an attempt to steal the whole of Delta state, it is because the people have shown him not to be one. It is because the society has celebrated him so much he thinks himself a god. The same Nigerian society that celebrated the notorious late Diepreye Alameseigha, Lucky Igbinedion and a host of other executhieves.
What has come to be known as jungle justice in Nigeria is an ‘on the spot trial and conviction’ meted out to petty thieves and pickpockets, a number of them do not even bear arms. But they are killed and the lucky others are beaten blue black before being handed to the police. They are treated that way because they are ordinary people. However, when the real thieves are caught, the same peasants that were quick to offer petty thieves as burnt offerings will be quick to cry persecution and organise “live our daughter alone” protests. Such is the reality of the people of Delta who have heroically welcomed a thief venerated so much that a former senator of the federal republic asked if any Deltan has cried to anyone that Ibori stole from him.
People like Ibori deserve the same treatment meted to every other thief, if not more. There was supposed to be a “Black Maria” (that’s the name given vehicles used in transporting convicts in Nigeria) waiting for Ibori at the airport on his arrival. But no, Ibori was coming home, as he famously said. Home, where the son is absolved of all his wrongdoings and celebrated for at least spilling crumbs from the mountain of wealth he has accumulated through systematic purloining.
So if Ibori is not a thief as our people have shown all the while, who then is a thief? The man that steals from the garri seller because he cannot afford a 50 naira cup of garri? Or the man that comes into your house in the middle of the night to eat from your pot of soup? If these ones are thieves, then every person that takes from that which does not belong to him is a thief, including Ibori.