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The Ibori phenomenon

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WEEKEND with Ibraheem Sulaiman

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'The Imam (Head of State) shall pay the indigenes their allowances until he  covers all of them, male and female, minors and adults, on the basis of the  amount they need, and the nature of their needs. If the money is more than  enough, the surplus shall be kept in the treasury for what may possibly occur  in form of calamity...'   —Shehu Abdullahi Fodio


The idea espoused above some two hundred years ago by Abdullahi Fodio, one of the most illustrious leaders of our land, would seem utopian in this era of democracy. But for him, as one of the rulers of the Sokoto Caliphate, it was a cardinal principle of the Islamic system of government that every citizen has a rightful share in the collective wealth held in trust by the state and should therefore be given in the appropriate manner. The principle was tested, it worked, it was beneficial. The principle is borne out of the imperative of proportionality, the imperative of balance, so evident in human creation and in the cosmic order. Whatever is not balanced, as we experience in all things, falls. If the wealth that sustains the people is not shared in a manner consistent with the absolute need for balance and proportionality, if, for example, as in the human body, one hand is outrageously longer than the other, or if the head does not fit the body because it is either too big or too small, the final outcome will not be pleasant and will not work. If therefore the lucky few get all they want and the predominant majority get too little or nothing at all, the result will be a nation that is not balanced, a nation that violently breaches the law of proportion, and therefore must fail.

Similar concept, as Tina Rosenberg frames it, 'To beat back poverty, pay the poor,' is being put to work today in over forty countries across the world, and it is working, it is beneficial. 'Until recently, Brazil was the most unequal country in the world,' she writes in The New York Times [3/1/11] 'Today, however, Brazil's level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country.  Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent. Contrast this with the United States, where from 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the increase in Americans' income went to the top 1 percent of earners. Productivity among low and middle-income American workers increased, but their incomes did not.' The ultimate goal of giving the poor their due in both cash and kind is to achieve 'zero hunger' and 'zero poverty.'

The meaning of democracy, we are told again and again, is that sovereignty belongs to the people, power belongs to the people! But the critical question is this: Who owns the wealth of the State? It is becoming ever more evident from the present practice of democracy, most especially in Europe and America but even more so in places like Nigeria, that while the people may create governments through the exercise of their sovereignty and their will, yet their collective wealth is hardly within their control, but lies instead effectively in the hands of a tiny minority that captures and exercises governmental power by virtue of its wealth, and then perpetuates its monopoly of wealth by virtue of its power. Pushed to the fringes the people can only watch helplessly as the masters feast on their resources with total abandon. So, invariably, democracy metamorphoses effortlessly into plutocracy, that is, a state or government in which the wealthy class rules, and the notion that 'power' and 'sovereignty' belon to the people looks like a cruel joke. There is, therefore, an enduring merit for a nation to accept the principle that in its resources there must be, as the Quran puts it, [70:25-26] a due share for all those in need of help and all those deprived of the good things of life, in other words, all those that are, for one reason or another, less privileged.

The story of James Ibori should open our eyes to the type of democracy we practice in our country. James Ibori, to refresh our memory, has recently pleaded guilty in a London court on charges of fraud and money laundering. British authorities estimate that he stole about £250 million from the treasury of Delta State when he was governor.  He has a private jet worth £12 million, owns a fleet of armored vehicles, owns several properties apart from those owned by his wife, sister, mistress, runs an expenditure on his credit card worth £126000 monthly. His assets worth $35 million were frozen in UK in 2007. Before he became governor in 1999 he had been a hardware keeper in London on a salary of £12000 per annum. He was caught by his employer for allowing his wife to steal goods and both were convicted. He was also convicted for possession of a stolen credit card in UK. 'In retrospect,' says Daily Trust,[6/3/12] 'it is not far fetched to suggest that a man who was named James Ibori and convicted by Gwagwada magistrate's court in 1995 for stealing building materials was indeed the same Ibori that pleaded guilty in London.'

James Ibori became prominent in the shaping of the course of democracy in Nigeria. The extent to which he bank rolled the election of 2007 is not very clear, but what can not be denied is that he was a preeminent player in the emergence of the dispensation which, whatever the controversy, is ongoing. If things had worked a bit differently James Ibori would have been President of Nigeria. So Ibori must be viewed as a generic term for democracy in Nigeria. Ibori thrives in every part of Nigeria waiting for an opportunity to take over the reigns of power, and surely the resources meant for the common weal will be completely at their disposal. The Ibori Phenomenon, robust and viral, lives on.  'By some curious twist of fate,' Punch comments [6/3/12] 'the states with the highest resources have produced the most questionable leaders and the most celebrated thieves as illustrated by the cases of Ibori and former Bayelsa State governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha.' And even though Nigeria's material resources may increase many times over the living conditions of the people will continue to worsen. When the treasury depletes, the masters will do as they do in Britain, tax the poor, even snatch the milk meant for the baby.

The critical question for Nigeria is not just why so much is being looted by so many from the coffers of Nigeria but why is it so easy to do so. There does not exist, so it seems, the sense that these resources belongs collectively to a particular nation, to a living people. So long as Nigeria is a treated as a no man's land as far as its resources are concerned, its fate will remain unchanged, and the achievements attained by other nations, which are not otherwise beyond its reach, will continue to elude it. If sovereignty belongs to the people, why does does the collective wealth belong elsewhere?

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