UK to return £4.2m of Nigerian funds stolen by governor who was jailed

UK to return £4.2m of Nigerian funds stolen by governor who was jailed

James Ibori and his associates stole the money and a failed appeal cleared the way for asset seizure

James Ibori, seen outside the high court in 2017. Photograph: Estelle Shirbon/Reuters

(Theguardian)—The UK will return £4.2m of Nigerian government funds stolen by a governor from the oil-rich Delta state who served a jail term in London for fraud – in the first such deal between the two countries. The money was stolen by James Ibori and his associates. He was jailed in 2012 for fraud amounting to nearly £50m after a drawn-out extradition procedure and his evasion of arrest and prosecution in Nigeria.

A failed appeal in 2018 cleared the way for a seizure of his UK assets. Billions of pounds worth of Nigerian government funds have been taken out of the country and laundered in countries like the UK, where Nigerian elites have built extensive property portfolios and assets. The UK government has faced criticism for not doing enough to prevent foreign officials acquiring property and assets in UK jurisdictions.

Nigeria’s justice minister signed an agreement on Tuesday with the UK high commissioner in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, to return the recovered funds. Nigeria said they would be used on key infrastructure and building works.

The UK’s Africa minister, James Duddridge, hailed the move. “When money is stolen from public funds it hits the poorest communities the hardest and means money can’t be spent where it’s most needed,” he said.

Home Office minister Susan Williams described the deal as “a significant moment in our fight against illicit finance wherever it is found”.

The agreement follows a memorandum of understanding signed between Nigeria and the UK, its former colonial power, in 2016, which aimed to return the seized proceeds of bribery or corruption within a framework that commits Nigeria to transparent use of the returned funds.

Ibori, who was once a cashier at UK DIY stores, stole public funds to buy luxury properties and cars and a private jet. He served four years of a 13-year jail term, which anti-corruption campaigners hailed as a rare victory in the fight against international graft.

Corruption has long been endemic in Nigeria. A corruption perception index by Transparency International ranks the country 149th out of 180 countries.

Nigeria’s government under President Muhammadu Buhari has pursued the seizure of UK assets belonging to officials accused of corruption, but has failed to secure their release.

Matthew Page, as associate fellow at the foreign policy thinktank Chatham House, said the agreement was important but that UK authorities needed to do more. “This is an important first step but must be followed by additional investigations and forfeitures of the hundreds of millions of pounds in stolen public funds that Nigerian kleptocrats have stashed in the UK over the decades,” he said.

“The return of stolen assets is always good news, but it is also a reminder that this government needs to do more to ensure that the world’s most corrupt individuals are not able to live, school and spend their ill-gotten gains in the UK as freely as they do now.”

Nigeria said the funds would support substantial key infrastructure work around the country, despite the fact the money was laundered from Delta state, where much of the population does not benefit from the country’s vast oil wealth.