ABUJA — Britain is preparing to transfer incarcerated Nigerians back to Nigeria, and one of them could be James Ibori, a popular former governor serving 13 years for corruption. Unlike other prisoners, who will face harsh Nigerian prison conditions, Ibori may be treated like a hero if he comes home.
The British government said any Nigerian prisoner serving a sentence in Britain that is more than 12 months long will be sent home, if both governments agree to the swap.
It is not known wether James Ibori, former governor of Nigeria's oil-rich Delta state, will be sent back.
In February 2012 Ibori was sentenced to 13 years in a British prison after being accused of stealing $250 million from public coffers. Prior to that he was twice accused of corruption in Nigeria, but never convicted.
At this bar in Delta state, Ibori supporters said the accusations and the conviction in Britain were moves by rival politicians seeking to squash Ibori’s massive support. They said they would welcome him home.
Davidson Okparamidevi, who worked on Ibori’s two successful gubernatorial runs, said the jailed ex-governor’s popularity in the region is indisputable. “Ibori became so popular because of his clear-cut achievements that have impacted positively on the lives of the entire Deltans. The list of the achievements that have impacted on the people is inexhaustible,” he stated.
He said Ibori is one of the few leaders in Nigeria that has actually built roads, infrastructure and health facilities. He says President Goodluck Jonathan, who is expected to run for re-election in 2015, would do well to get Ibori back and offer him a presidential pardon.
In recent months, Jonathan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party has lost several prominent leaders, including five state governors. Continued insurgency in the north and chronic poverty nationwide has also damaged the president’s popularity.
“So if Ibori shows up it will be a boost. A real boost to Goodluck Jonathan to office,” Okparamidevi said.
Other Niger Deltans are more skeptical, saying Ibori’s popularity may not be not as solid as people think. Onyiye Gandhi is a lawyer in the oil-rich but desperately poor city of Warri in Delta state. “His rise, which could only have been possible under the warped Nigerian system, now threw him suddenly into leadership in an area of massive oil wealth. Wealth with which he bought patronage, loyalty and a massive followership,” he said.
But Gandhi adds that in Ibori’s hometown, Oghara, locals have a “feverish” love for their former leader. Once impoverished, Oghara is now an urban center with one of the best hospitals in the region, he stated.
But adoration in Oghara, he added, may not mean that if Ibori is sent home, he will be set free.
“Giving him freedom would indict Jonathan and confirm the allegations that are very massive among Nigerians that his government is very corrupt, and pampers corruption,” said Gandhi.
Watchdog group Transparency International said Nigeria is one of the world’s most corrupt countries and billions of dollars of oil money a year has been reported stolen.
But at the bar, supporters said they do not believe it was their man that stole the money.
The British-Nigerian prisoner exchange was announced in early January and hundreds of Nigerians in British prisons could be sent home, as well as one British citizen in Nigeria.
Amnesty International said it is “extremely concerned” that poor conditions in Nigerian prisons could make the swap inhumane.
Nigerian analysts say if Ibori is sent home but not freed, there is no way he will serve his the rest of his sentence in a dirty cell.
Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from the Niger Delta