ABUJA (Reuters) – The British government has sent Nigeria 4.2 million pounds ($5.97 million) recovered from a former state governor who was jailed for laundering money in Britain, the West African country said on Tuesday.
James Ibori, who was governor of the southern oil-producing Delta State from 1999 to 2007, pleaded guilty at London’s Southwark Crown Court in 2012 to 10 counts of fraud and money-laundering. He received a 13-year sentence.
The 4.2 million pounds was stolen by Ibori and his associates but retrieved through operations led by British law enforcement agencies, who identified assets bought in Britain with illicit funds, the Foreign Office in London has said.
spokesman for Nigeria’s attorney general confirmed the money had been received.
The two countries established a memorandum of understanding providing a framework for the return of stolen assets to Nigeria in 2016.
The recovered sum is a small fraction of the almost £160m allegedly laundered by Ibori and his associates, according to analysis by Spotlight on Corruption, a UK anti-corruption charity.
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.
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 think-tank 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.”
Susan Hawley, executive director of Spotlight on Corruption, said UK was not yet “hostile to corrupt money.”
“It has taken 9 years from when Ibori was convicted to get to this point. The case illustrates how difficult it is to confiscate corrupt assets in the UK,” she said.
Nigeria has pledged 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.
Ibori returned to Nigeria in 2017. His arrival was met with celebration in his native south, where he remains popular.