By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - A British prosecutor on Monday charted the extraordinary rise of James Ibori from a petty thief in London to a powerful governor in Nigeria, describing a web of bogus firms he used to buy mansions and luxury cars in Britain with his stolen millions.
Ibori, who was governor of the oil-producing state of Delta in southern Nigeria from 1999 to 2007, has pleaded guilty to 10 corruption charges, admitting he stole approximately 50 million pounds ($79 million) from Delta state's coffers.
The case is being avidly followed in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, where Ibori used his clout and wealth as governor of Delta to position himself as a power-broker in national politics.
He is the most high-profile Nigerian politician to be successfully prosecuted for corruption, a problem that has blighted the country since independence from Britain in 1960.
"From the moment Ibori was elected, he set about enriching himself at the expense of some of the poorest people in the world," said prosecutor Sasha Wass at the start of Ibori's two-day sentencing at Southwark Crown Court in London.
"His greed increased exponentially during his governorship, as did his arrogance," she said, before launching into a detailed account of how he acquired a Bentley, a Jaguar, a Maybach 62 and a portfolio of six foreign properties including mansions in England, the United States and South Africa.
Ibori sat in the dock behind a glass partition, flanked by a police officer, while Wass spoke. It was a humiliation for a man accustomed to being addressed as "Your Excellency" and used to being courted by crowds of people seeking his patronage.
The main charges to which he pleaded guilty on February 27 were money-laundering and conspiracy to defraud, for which the maximum penalties are 14 and 10 years in prison respectively. Judge Anthony Pitts is expected to hand down Ibori's sentences on Tuesday.
London's Metropolitan Police, which has been investigating him since 2005, estimates he embezzled at least 150 million pounds during his eight-year tenure.
An attempt by Nigeria's homegrown anti-corruption force to prosecute Ibori after he stepped down was unsuccessful, but he was arrested in 2010 in Dubai on a British warrant and extradited to London a year later.
Ibori's criminal career started small, when he was caught in 1991 stealing from a till while working as a cashier at Wickes, a home improvements store, in London. In 1992, he was convicted again, this time for handling a stolen credit card.
Ibori then returned to Nigeria where he became involved in politics. Wass said that in 1996, he fraudulently changed his year of birth in his passport from 1962 to 1958 to make it harder for anyone to uncover his UK criminal convictions. If disclosed, they would have disqualified him from running for state governor in 1999.
As a founding member of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), which has ruled Nigeria since the 1999 transition from military to civilian rule, Ibori swiftly established himself as a rich and powerful figure in the new ruling elite.
Officially, his salary as governor was 4,000 pounds a year, but within two years of taking office Ibori paid 2.2 million pounds in cash for a house in upmarket Hampstead in north London. Other properties purchased later included a country mansion in Dorset, southwest England, close to Port Regis, the private school where his three daughters were being educated.
The Jaguar and Bentley were kept at his Hampstead house, while the Maybach 62 was shipped to his South African address.
In 2007, when British police froze some of Ibori's assets in a London court, he was attempting to purchase a private Bombardier Challenger jet worth $20 million for his private use.
"From starting off as a petty thief with his hand in the till at Wickes, who could not afford his monthly mortgage repayments, he ended up as a property tycoon who led the lifestyle of royalty," said Wass.
In 2010, Ibori's wife, mistress, sister and lawyer were convicted and sentenced to prison terms during two separate trials in London for their role in helping him launder his money.
Ibori and his associates used a baffling array of shell companies registered in places like Gibraltar or the Virgin Islands to siphon money to and from bank accounts in Nigeria, Britain, Switzerland, the United States and elsewhere.
One Barclays account held at a branch in Knightsbridge, a posh area of London, was used to deposit wads of cash that over time amounted to over one million pounds. Other international banks named by Wass in her detailed account of Ibori's transactions included HSBC, Citibank and Schroders.
"What is striking about this case is how seemingly easy it was for Ibori to access the British financial system. The likes of Barclays and HSBC were taking money from him and his associates which raises serious questions about what checks they were making," said Robert Palmer, of anti-corruption group Global Witness, who was in court during Monday's proceedings.
Ibori's senior defense counsel, Nicholas Purnell, began outlining what he said were mitigating factors for the court to consider. He said Ibori had shown courage by pleading guilty and had done some good things for Delta state when he was governor.
Purnell is due to complete his submission on Tuesday before sentencing.
($1 = 0.6295 British pounds)
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)