It is no longer news that James Onanefe Ibori, former Governor of oil-rich Delta State, with the traditional title, Obidigborigbo of Africa, has been released from prison by the UK authorities. I will not comment on his jail term and the justice of it.
My comment is on his release and the people who are rejoicing because of it. A friend of mine says, “there are many moving parts..” Let us look at some of them.
First, some background. James Ibori’s rise to power is one of the many wonders of Nigerian politics. I recall when a friend first mentioned to me that my brother, James Ibori, was thinking of contesting for the Governorship of Delta State; my reaction was a good heartfelt laugh. I laughed the guy to scorn and told him to stop peddling rumours. He insisted it was true and asked me to investigate. I did, and when it was confirmed, I jokingly said they should advise him to not waste his time. I was one of those who believed that there was no way he could become the governor, he was without political, biological and geographical pedigree. My argument was based on his background as an Oghara man with new money, and not much else. Oghara people had never been reckoned with in the mainstream politics of Delta State. For some historical reasons that are not too clear to me, the Oghara people are somewhat regarded as outsiders in Urhoboland. Their language is different and in many ways they seem to have more cultural affinity with the Binis, who incidentally are their neighbours. I did not think Oghara was ‘ripe’ for the exalted position of Governor. I argued again that even if by some miracle, Oghara got thrown into the mix; James Ibori would not be a likely candidate because he was not from one of the more ‘political’ families in the clan. But I honestly could not see how the Ibrus of Delta State who had held sway for so long, and other political heavyweights in the state would allow a young unknown to run for and win the governorship elections.
All that is history. Ibori won, and he became one of the more colourful and controversial governors of his time. And then he was jailed for theft, and now he is out, and people are rejoicing, while some others are fuming and wondering why they rejoice at the release of a man who should be left to rot in jail for stealing from the people. So I am asking myself: why do they rejoice?
There are several categories of people rejoicing.
The first category is his kinsmen. They rejoice because Ibori made them politically relevant at a time when they had no hopes of becoming relevant. They found themselves with power, and they went drunk with it. Suddenly, Oghara, long ignored, became the centre of attention, and it was made possible because Ibori dared. He became their idol. They rejoice because James Ibori had a Robin Hood approach to governance. The system which is known in Nigerian parlance as chop-I-chop; He deliberately set out to empower his clansmen and friends and to develop his long-neglected community. Unfortunately for him, his dreams and its implementation had a fight and the development plans went south. But his people had tasted wealth, and new money became like nothing in Oghara. These people cared nothing for anything long-term so long as they had money to spend; and spend they did! To this category, Ibori is their political and Economic Messiah, and his gospel is to them the gospel of life. With him in prison, the star dimmed and lost its lustre, so now that he is out, they rejoice.
The second category of people rejoicing is ‘friends’ and political allies. These are people who used Ibori’s time in office to advance their political and economic agenda. It is rumoured that Ibori made more first-time millionaires than any other Governor in his day. They rejoice because they are hopeful that with his release from jail, they would become relevant once again, and possibly continue from where they stopped.
The third category of people, which is in the minority, are the people who genuinely love the man and are just relieved that his ‘ordeal’ is over. These are his direct family members who care nothing about his politics and his money; and who just want their ‘son’ back.
But is Ibori’s deal truly over? And should anyone be rejoicing? He still has several cases to answer, and it would seem that his political and legal battles are from over. And why are some many others angry at those who rejoice? They are angry because they believe it is an aberration to rejoice when a man who is convicted of stealing the Commonwealth is celebrated as a hero. But you see as they say, ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.’ Whichever side of the divide you are on; this man’s issue is a hot one. To some, he represents all that is evil in the Nigerian system and should be punished accordingly. To some others, he is a man being unjustly punished because he dared the ‘establishment.’
The obidigborigbo is back, and the controversy rages on.