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Financial Times: Ibori held in Nigeria graft inquiry: investigators… probing payments by Royal Dutch Shell…

By Matthew Green in Lagos
Published: December 13 2007 02:00 | Last updated: December 13 2007 02:00

Nigerian investigators yesterday arrested one of the country’s most powerful political figures. James Ibori, who is also being investigated by UK police for suspected money laundering, is accused of stealing state funds during his eight-year tenure as governor of the oil-producing Delta State, one of Nigeria’s richest.

Campaigners had complained that the government of Umaru Yar’Adua, the president, who has launched a campaign to crack down on corruption, has been slow to arrest Mr Ibori and other former governors accused of looting state funds since taking power after elections in April.

But Nuhu Ribadu, chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which arrested Mr Ibori, said the arrest showed nobody in Nigeria was safe from prosecution, no matter how rich or influential.

“It’s a clear message to everybody that we are damn serious about fighting corruption,” Mr Ribadu told the Financial Times. “Nobody is going to be above the law.”

Civic groups had repeatedly accused figures in Mr Yar’Adua’s government of shielding Mr Ibori from prosecution as a reward for his role in supporting the presidential election campaign earlier this year. But activists said the arrest suggested that anti-corruption officials were beginning to gain the upper hand in their battle to prosecute politicians.

“This is a real sign that the government is getting serious about fighting corruption,” said Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development advocacy group in the capital Abuja.

The EFCC is also investigating many other former governors from among Nigeria’s 36 states, including five others who were charged with corruption shortly after they stepped down in May.

Like other former governors, Mr Ibori lost immunity from prosecution when he stepped down as governor of Delta State. Mr Ribadu said officers from the EFCC and Nigerian police arrested Mr Ibori yesterday morning. He faces 103 counts, including abuse of office and money laundering.

Mr Ribadu said Mr Ibori had returned to Nigeria from Dubai on Friday, before the EFCC “lured” him to Abuja in a covert operation. He did not give further details, saying only that Mr Ibori was co-operating with the authorities. Mr Ibori is due to be arraigned in court today. A UK court has frozen $35m (€24m, £17m) of assets that prosecutors claim were laundered by Mr Ibori in Britain via banks, property and cars.

Nigerian investigators say they are also probing payments by Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron to a company owned by Mr Ibori. The companies deny any wrongdoing. Mr Ibori was not reachable on Wednesday. In October, he said he would not comment on the investigation by UK police while it was still before the courts.

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