The confiscation hearing of James Ibori, the former Governor of Delta State, commenced this week with some startling allegations. Ibori was convicted in April 2012 to serve 13 years in prison having pleaded guilty to ten counts of money laundering and conspiracy to defraud. He had been accused of stealing US$250 million from the Nigerian public purse. When sentencing Ibori, Judge Anthony Pitts stated that the £50 million that Ibori had admitted stealing may be "ludicrously low", a fraction of the total sums he stole, which could be more than £200 million.
On Monday, Sasha Wass, the Crown Prosecutor, made an unexpected claim alleging that during the three-week hearing she would present evidence that Ibori had "asserted ownership of a large part" of Oando, Nigeria's biggest indigenous oil firm which is listed in Nigeria, South Africa and Canada. Ms Wass also claimed on the opening day of the hearing that US$1.2 million was transferred from Oando in three instalments to Mr Ibori’s account in a Swiss bank, PKB Private Bank, which was subsequently transferred to a fund intended to acquire a US$20 million private jet for Ibori.
The allegations have led to a slide in Oando’s share price despite the company issuing a press release denying that Ibori holds a majority stake in the company. Oando stated that:
“Based on our current shareholding register, Mr. James Ibori’s shareholding stands at 443 shares out of a total issued and paid up share capital of 6.8 billion ordinary shares, which is clearly insignificant.”
In relation to the payments made to companies controlled by Ibori Oando said this:
“Oando also states that sometime in 2004, in the normal course of its business, its affiliate Ocean and Oil Services Limited sold approximately US$2.7 million in 3 separate transactions over a period of about 7 months to companies which have now turned out to be indirectly controlled by Mr. James Ibori.”
Oando has reportedly instructed Cherie Blair QC to advise the company in relation to the allegations made at the hearing. Oando will be frustrated by its present inability to have its say in Southwark Crown Court not being a party and as yet receiving no invitation from the Court to make representations. But no doubt the company will now consider seeking to establish in the court of public opinion that Ibori has no direct or indirect stake in the company other the 443 shares identified, as well as making it very clear to the authorities in Canada, Nigeria, South Africa and the UK that it is not guilty of any wrongdoing – another innocent victim of Ibori’s dishonesty.
There will also be furrowed brows at the Swiss bank at the centre of the allegations after Ms Wass referred in Court to certain of its internal documents in which officials compared Ibori to “the Kennedy dynasty which also mixed business and politics”. Ibori convinced the bank that he descended from a wealthy Nigerian family which had created its wealth from investments in the oil industry. Apparently, when opening an account with PKB through a company called Stanhope Ibori told the bank that he held a 30% interest in Oando. Unfortunately, Mr Ibori was a man whose past included an arrest in 1990 in the UK for stealing from a Wickes DIY store, and a conviction a year later for handling a stolen credit card. However, the facts of this case do highlight one of the difficulties of identifying corrupt officials who camouflage their wrongdoing using the cloak of legitimate business dealings conducted both prior and during office. A case is made for a public register of asset declarations of public officials, one that will be made available to financial institutions, foreign authorities and civil society.
Yesterday, the Court was shown footage taken by Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission of Ibori’s property in Abuja filled with the trappings of wealth including marble columns, a private gym and dotted with chandelier images that will serve to echo Ms Wass’s comments last year that Ibori “set about enriching himself at the expense of some of the poorest people in the world”. The hearing at London's Southwark Crown Court continues for three weeks and prosecutors will continue to present evidence of Ibori's assets with a view to confiscating them. Ibori has chosen not to attend court although he says he will give evidence if necessary. It will be interesting to see if and how Ibori’s defence lawyers dispute the prosecution case.