The criminalisation of the Nigerian state

In 2012, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) ran a story of how an thief (James Ibori) almost became Nigeria’s president. They detailed his life of crime, together with his wife, in the United Kingdom, his relocation to Nigeria and foray into politics, his emergence as governor of the oil-rich Delta State, his many kleptocratic dealings that almost saw him emerge as Nigeria’s Vice President in 2007 or, had Yar’Adua lived, 2011, putting him in poll position to emerge Nigeria’s president.

Although the authorities knew about his criminal past and his ineligibility to hold public office, they looked the other way until he began to step out of line by aligning with Obasanjo’s then-vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who was seeking to upstage his boss to become president.

Ibori’s criminal past was used by Obasanjo as a cudgel to whip him into line. But to the eternal shame of Nigeria’s Supreme Court, when the matter got to them, they played along with the political class by refusing to declare him an ex-convict and therefore ineligible to occupy the office of governor even though he had also been convicted, in 1995, by an Upper Area Court Bwari, Abuja, for stealing building materials and sentenced to a year in prison with an N1000 fine option, which he promptly paid.

The Nigerian court was again presented with an opportunity to redeem itself in 2009, but once again, he got a plaint judge – Marcel Awokulehin – to dismiss the 170 count corruption charges against him on the grounds that there was “no clear evidence to support the charges.” Yet, two years later in the UK, Ibori pleaded guilty at once to avoid an open trial which will shed light on all his crimes and avoid the maximum sentence for his crime. Before then, his wife, sister, mistress, and lawyer have all been convicted of money laundering in the UK and sentenced to various terms in prison.

For the masses, principal victims of misgovernance, these issues matter less. Once the dog whistle is sounded, issues of identity take over and nothing anyone says about the character, eligibility, or even suitability of a candidate matters anymore

Of course, there were other convicted criminals like Ibori too – like Chimaroke Nnamani, who also kept his criminal conviction in Florida to become governor of Enugu State. The current list is just mind-boggling. It includes Nigeria’s Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, who was on February 28, 2007, convicted of theft by the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia in the United States. That information was public. But nobody cared or acted upon it, and he was elected Speaker.

Dapo Abiodun, current Ogun State governor, was also convicted of credit card fraud and jailed in Miami Dade, Florida, in 1986. On returning to Nigeria to contest election, as they always do, he simply applied for and got his criminal records redacted. The practical implication is that he could lie on his Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) forms that he had no prior criminal records without immediately being caught.

Read also: Why I am exposing Tinubu – Hundeyin

But even now that it is known he committed perjury and would be disqualified on that basis from being governor, it is next to impossible to remove him from office through the Nigerian court system. Incidentally, Dapo Abiodun contested for a senatorial seat in 2015 against another wanted drug kingpin in the United States, Buruji Kashamu, whose extradition requests to face drug charges were continuously thwarted by the Nigerian courts until he died two years ago of complications from Covid-19.

Of course, after becoming governor, he soon surrounded himself with his fellow fraudsters. In May 2021, his Senior Special Assistant on Special Duties, Abidemi Rufai, was arrested at the John Kennedy International Airport on what prosecutors called a “litany of scams” that took in more than $600,000 in public and private funds, including Washington unemployment benefits intended for pandemic victims”. He was recently sentenced to 5 years in prison.

Then, there is the don himself – Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Two decades ago, he was identified as a bagman for two Nigerian drug dealers in Chicago and had to forfeit nearly half a million dollars to the United States Treasury Department in the highly publicized case. But despite this, his doubtful and shady background, the discrepancies in his date of birth and education, and many other corruption allegations swirling around him – he has recently decided to settle out of court a case brought against him by a business partner which basically named him as a part-owner of a company providing financial advisory services to the Lagos State government for a hefty fee of more than a quarter of the total revenues generated by the state – none of these is going to come under scrutiny in the period leading up to the election.

For the masses, principal victims of misgovernance, these issues matter less. Once the dog whistle is sounded, issues of identity take over and nothing anyone says about the character, eligibility, or even suitability of a candidate matters anymore. Those not affected by identity are willing to sell their votes for a mess of pottage, driven by hunger and abjection. For the middle class and elite, however, especially in the Southwest, it is all about identity, capturing power, and the spoils of power.

Perhaps, Tinubu may well go one step further than Pablo Escobar and become president of Nigeria. It will surely be a first and a world record for Nigeria. That time, the BBC would title its story “How a drug lord became Nigeria’s president.”