Nigerian judge dismisses landmark corruption case

AP News
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Posted: Dec 17, 2009 10:08 AM

A Nigerian judge dismissed a 170-count indictment Thursday that accused a former state governor and financial backer of President Umaru Yar'Adua of corruption and money laundering.

The federal judge threw out the indictment against former Delta state governor James Ibori, who oversaw the oil-rich region from 1999 to 2007. Justice Marcel Awokulehin dismissed the case for lack of evidence, according to court records.

Ibori represented an opportunity for Nigeria to hold to account government officials long criticized for lining their own pockets instead of helping the poor, especially in the restive Niger Delta. As an associate of Yar'Adua, he also stood as a test of the president's vow to crack down on corruption.

Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission arrested Ibori in 2007, accusing him of embezzling more than $60 million while governor. British courts froze $35 million of Ibori's assets at the same time, which were said to include a private jet.

In a statement Thursday, the crime commission described the ruling as a "hazy judgment." Femi Babafemi, a commission spokesman, declined to describe what grounds the judge used to dismiss the case, but said the agency would appeal the ruling.

"We believe we have a case based on the enormity of evidence we gathered," Babafemi said. "We are sure justice will be done."

The former head of the commission, Nuhu Ribadu, sought the charges against Ibori, a political ally of Yar'Adua. Although Yar'Adua said he would fight corruption even when it involved his friends, Ribadu was demoted and ultimately fired shortly after Ibori's arrest. Ribadu moved to the U.S. after a rights group said he survived a 2008 drive-by shooting and had been subjected to other threats.

Under Nigeria's federal system, states receive large shares of government funding and can prove tempting targets for graft. Nigeria consistently ranks as having one of the most corrupt governments in the world, with documented instances of everyone from local police officers manning checkpoints to top government officials seeking bribes.

That widespread corruption led U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to lump Nigeria with Cuba this week as governments "able but unwilling to make the changes their citizens deserve."