Nigeria seizes powerbroker in £196m fraud case

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The Independent Online

Nigeria's president Goodluck Jonathan gave his first clear signal of intent in the fight against corruption as one of the country's most powerful men was arrested yesterday.

James Ibori, who is accused of stealing $292m (£196m) of state money while he was governor of the oil-rich Delta State, was detained by police in Dubai.

At the same time Mr Jonathan, who was only sworn in last week, appointed a comparative unknown as his vice-president, suggesting he may defy his own party and run in next year's election.

Analysts have been watching to see whether the new President would name a powerful number two from the Muslim North, who would then be an automatic choice for the ruling Peoples Democratic Party at the upcoming election. But the appointment of Namadi Sambo, governor of the state of Kaduna and a recent arrival into politics, suggests Mr Jonathan will be looking to keep the top job next year, analysts said.

Mr Ibori is one of a handful of mega-rich powerbrokers who have been involved in Nigeria's behind-the-scenes power struggles. One of the powerful panel of elders in the ruling party, he is also wanted for questioning by police in Britain where several associates including a former mistress are already on trial.

Faridi Waziri, the head of Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), said he had been taken into custody after an Interpol arrest warrant was issued. "We are consulting on the next line of action, whether the Metropolitan Police will want him to stand trial there in London," Mr Waziri said. We also have a case here pending against him."

The combined moves yesterday appeared to show that Mr Jonathan – who was criticised until recently as a non-entity – is willing to clash with his colleagues in the ruling party.

Nigeria's first President from the oil-rich Niger Delta, Mr Jonathan was sworn in last week after the death of Umaru Yar'Adua. The southerner has been acting president since February when his boss, a Muslim from the northern state of Katsina, was finally deemed unfit to govern following a long illness and absence in Saudi Arabia.

Party officials from the PDP were quick to warn Mr Jonathan that they would oppose any efforts to prolong his role as caretaker president as it would conflict with the informal agreement that they would rotate the presidency between the north and south.

The President prior to Mr Yar'Adua was Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian southerner, who served two terms. So the northern wing of the PDP believes it is still their turn in the presidency.

However, there is growing support within Nigeria, especially in the Delta, and strong encouragement from Western diplomats, for Mr Jonathan to remain.

Mr Ibori, who will now be sent back to Nigeria to face fraud charges, was among the President's strongest opponents. A fellow Delta Nigerian, he helped to bankroll Mr Yar'Adua's rise to power in 2007 and has stayed close to unpopular former First Lady Turai.

In 2007, Mr Ibori was charged by the EFCC with looting more than $85m during his eight-year tenure in Delta State. Governors in the three main oil-producing states enjoy effective immunity from prosecution while in office.

That case was dismissed by a regional court in Asaba. Mr Ibori had a separate new court house built to hear the case and had senior federal government figures lead his defence.

Several of Mr Ibori's associates are also facing money laundering charges in Britain, where a court froze $35m of his assets on suspicion they were the proceeds of corruption.