It was bizarre to read a tribute written and signed by the convicted former governor of Delta State, James Onanefe Ibori, who is currently serving time in a London jail for money laundering. The tribute was for the late Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha, former governor of Bayelsa State.
The first thing that struck me about Ibori’s wacky tribute published in the Vanguard of Saturday, 9 April 2016, was how a humiliated former high profile governor, who is now languishing in jail in a foreign land could find time to compose such a touching tribute to Alamieyeseigha, a man who also had issues with the courts in Nigeria and the United Kingdom. Ibori should have used his time productively to reflect on his own tribulations.
Ibori must know something about the innocence of Alamieyeseigha, which the UK courts did not recognise and which the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in Nigeria did not know.
I am fully aware of the principle that states that nothing negative or critical should be said about the dead because they cannot defend themselves. Fair enough! However, Alamieyeseigha was not an ordinary politician. In deconstructing the man and his troubled times, we have to be fair-minded.
Within the Nigerian political space, Ibori and Alamieyeseigha represent two extraordinarily colourful characters, who never believed they did anything wrong to their fatherland and did not infringe on any foreign country’s laws. Nevertheless, there are comparative elements between the two men. Ibori was convicted of money laundering in the UK and is currently serving time. Alamieyeseigha was undergoing trial for money laundering in 2005 when he did the unthinkable. He jumped bail and returned triumphantly and mysteriously to Yenagoa where he was celebrated as a fictional superstar governor, who had escaped from the lion’s jaws in London.
One riddle that helped to magnify the myth about Alamieyeseigha was how he managed to jump bail and return home without being detected by British security officers. During his lifetime, Alamieyeseigha was referred to as the “Governor- General” of the Ijaw nation. Asked about how he jumped bail in London and returned safely to Bayelsa, as a disguised damsel, he was characteristically vague, hazy, and evasive. His response was: “I don’t know myself. I just woke up and found myself in Amassoma.” Anyone who believed that imprecise answer would believe anything.
Regardless of what anyone might say, Alamieyeseigha’s sardonic treatment of the British law in 2005, including the guilty verdict passed on Ibori by a London court, as well as convictions of high profile political leaders in Nigeria have done more serious damage to Nigeria’s standing in the international community. This flies in the face of the popular belief that Nigeria’s image is continually sullied by small time criminals, intercontinental pickpockets, crooked citizens, drug traffickers, commercial assassins, and armed robbers.
If Ibori, Alamieyeseigha and a few other former governors convicted and given light sentences by duplicitous Nigerian magistrates and judges could behave in such a deplorable and pathetic manner, you would be almost certain that ordinary citizens would engage in worse crimes. Unfortunately, criminal behaviour by high profile Nigerian politicians has a way of rubbing off negatively on every other citizen. That is the penalty everyone has to pay. However, the greater harm would have been done by these politicians to themselves, their personal profile, their family names, the image of the country, and the level of respect that should be accorded to their relatives.
In his tribute last weekend, Ibori lamented the demise of Alamieyeseigha, a man he portrayed as a brother. He began his tribute with these words: “DSP, I write this with a mixture of a heavy heart and compelling sense of pride. Even as I mourn, I find comfort in the love, admiration, reverence and even veneration that have gushed out for you from all parts of Bayelsa, the entire Ijaw nation, and beyond, despite the political persecution and orchestrated disinformation that culminated in the public hysteria against you.”
Ibori also attempted to identify common elements between Bayelsa and Delta states and the various roles both of them played as governors in bringing economic development to their states, in restoring order to their dysfunctional states, and in empowering youths, who suffered socioeconomic deprivations. Ibori wrote: “How can I ever forget the role you played in resolving the chaos and disorder in both states in 1999? Youth militancy, occasioned by deep resentment of the Federal Government’s political manipulation and interference in the Niger Delta, troubled both states. Unemployment, neglect, degradation of our ecosystem, oil pollution and poverty pushed our youths to convene a conference which gave birth to the Kaiama Declaration. Delta State was overwhelmed by the Ijaw/Itsekiri crisis… You secured the peace that was essential for us to settle into governance.”
In his endless adulation of Alamieyeseigha, Ibori wrote further: “DSP, the Ijaws and Niger Deltans salute you. We will honour you forever because we affirm you as our true leader who became a victim of a political ‘witch-hunt’… DSP, you were a double victim; they forced you to plead guilty, yet, the medical complications arising from the years of physical, psychological and mental torture killed you.”
In conclusion, Ibori wrote: “This is not the end, my friend. The prize we sought will still be won. Rest in Peace; great ‘General’”.
Ibori’s comments represent a tragedy of immense proportions and evidence of one man’s hallucinations about his importance in society. To be frank, Alamieyeseigha struggled for many years with one consistent narrative that circulated in the public domain. That version was provided by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the EFCC. However, in an interview he granted to The Guardian on Sunday and published in November 2005, Alamieyeseigha shed some light into the running battle he had with Obasanjo.
Right from the days of his trial in London and his harassment by the EFCC in Nigeria, Alamieyeseigha never hid his anger. He was angry with Obasanjo for various reasons. He alleged that Obasanjo punished him because of the role he (Alamieyeseigha) played in supporting Obasanjo’s archenemy, Atiku Abubakar. Alamieyeseigha said rather than assist to free him from incarceration by British security officials, Obasanjo compounded his predicament. He accused Obasanjo of furnishing British authorities with unfavourable character references that aggravated his problems in London. He also said his arrest, detention and trial in London represented indirect punishment by Obasanjo’s Federal Government for his blunt views on the contentious subject of resource control.
At the time the interview was published in The Guardian on Sunday, it was difficult to either believe Alamieyeseigha or dismiss his allegations outright, particularly in light of lack of verifiable evidence to support his claims against Obasanjo and the Federal Government.
Part of the reason many people did not believe Alamieyeseigha’s account of events or why he did not attract a lot of public sympathy had to do with the international profile of Nigerian politicians. Nigerian politicians are seen as certificated liars. They are notorious for denying the obvious. Even when a politician is caught with his fingers stuck in a cookie jar, he would deny it outright. He would say, instead, that he was only testing to see if his hands would fit into the jar or testing to see if the biscuits were still fit for human consumption. Essentially, our politicians never admit to unlawful activity. They don’t admit to misconduct or wrongdoing, even when they are caught in the act of committing a crime.
However, there were allegations made by Alamieyeseigha that tended to lean toward the truth rather than falsehood. For example, on the question of his support for Atiku Abubakar, Alamieyeseigha told The Guardian on Sunday: “The President told me that as long as I support Atiku, I will not know peace.”
Alamieyeseigha painted a picture of himself as a hapless victim of Obasanjo’s domineering style of leadership. He said: “I know what I’ve done for this man – Obasanjo – and how can I fight two governments? It’s even impossible to fight the Nigerian government alone, much more when they’re conniving with the British. I’m held hostage against my wish, and if people commit crime in their country, what they do is to run away, but I want to go back to Nigeria.”
It’s surprising that Alamieyeseigha probably did not understand that he was held in London because the Metropolitan Police alleged that he committed an offence under the British law in British territory. His detention and trial in London had nothing to do with his problems with Obasanjo’s Federal Government.
One must say that Alamieyeseigha’s defence of the money found on him by the Metropolitan Police was ludicrous to say the least. He said: “As the Chief Executive of a state with many students on welfare benefits, I always keep £110,000 in the house for statutory purposes, and I told the Police about this.” The argument was preposterous because there are many ways of taking care of students on welfare. A governor should not carry cash around. The money could be transferred into the students’ bank accounts. But even that assignment is unbefitting and not a task reserved for a state governor. The permanent secretary in the state Ministry of Education or the Commissioner for Education or even the Finance Commissioner could carry out that assignment.
Alamieyeseigha’s last years were tragic. He was reduced to a shadow of his former self. He might have been guilty as proclaimed by the courts or an innocent victim of political skulduggery, political deception, and cold-hearted behaviour by federal officials. Only Alamieyeseigha and his accusers know the truth. Ibori’s tribute will not mitigate the burden imposed on Alamieyeseigha’s image by his guilty verdict in Nigeria.