The Ex-Governor James Ibori Case Reveals a Structural Weakness in the State System of Governmental Checks and Balances in Nigeria.

According to a BBC Africa News report, James Ibori, a former governor of one of Nigeria's oil-producing states, has pleaded guilty in a UK court to 10 counts of money-laundering and conspiracy to defraud. The British police accuse him of stealing $250m (£160m) over eight years.[1] The prosecutor called him a “thief in government house".

Weak State Unicameral Legislatures with Inadequate Checks and Balances in Place.

Ex-Delta State Governor James Ibori is not the first nor will he be the last to be accused of theft of huge public funds meant to be used to pay for services and expenses related to state government operations in Nigeria. But why is this situation so prevalent in Nigeria?

The answer to this question can be partially found in the structure of the state system of government, with a very powerful Executive and a weak Legislative and Judicial arm.  The Legislature is especially weak at the State and Local Government level in Nigeria. This may be in part due to the fact that it is unicameral as opposed to bicameral in nature.  In a bicameral legislature there are two houses in place -- the House of Representatives (or Assembly) and the Senate. In a unicameral Legislature there is only one House of Representative.  The unicameral legislature has a tendency to be weak especially when it is dominated by one party and the Executive (Governor) is also from the same party. In this circumstance, most legislation and resolutions introduced by the Executive simply sail through without much opposition. The inherent and difficult challenges that an Executive would typically face, for example,  in trying to pass a state budget or get legislation approved is lacking in the unicameral legislature. This is because in a state unicameral legislature, there are insufficient checks and balances from the opposition. Under these circumstances, an Executive could seek and obtain approval for a dubious budget without stringent budgetary scrutiny and legislative spending oversight.

Legislative Power of the Purse

The point this author wants to call attention to is that in any democratically run constitutional order, the “power of the purse” should lie with the Legislature not the Executive. In a democratic constitutional order which Nigeria purports to operate, no money can be drawn from the state treasury without proper funding appropriations, that is, spending authorizations from the Legislature. This fundamental empowerment of the Legislature with the power of the purse is at the foundation of any real effective constitutional order.


As a scholar, the James Ibori case reveals a great weakness in Nigeria’s state government organizational structure. There is a significant lack or weakness in the state governments system of checks and balances between the three arms of government -- Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. The James Ibori situation could never happen in the Unites States or most western countries because the Governor (Executive) would never be able to lay hands on such huge amount of State monies (funds) without proper accountability to a bicameral legislature. The Governor or Executive only spends what is approved for him/her in the state budget as enacted by the legislature. Any discretionary spending (Add ons) must also be authorized by the legislature.

The Ibori saga of theft of public funds indicates that Nigerian State Legislatures are weak in performing their budgetary and legislative oversight function. How does one explain and account for the huge amount of the people’s money that many Nigerian state governors get from their legislature and spend and give away freely as if it is their own money without budgetary oversight from the legislature and completely in many instances outside the confines of their approved state budgets?


In conclusion, Nigerian state legislatures must do more to assert their authority as it relates to the “power of the purse” vis a vis the Executive. Also Nigerian State Legislatures must also insist on exerting their legislative oversight function and prerogative over Executive spending of state funds. State Governors can only spend what is enacted in their state approved budgets and any unspent budgetary funds must be accounted for and reauthorized annually by reappropriations from the state legislature. The lesson in the Ibori case is simple, it shows that one man was able, by default or neglect of the legislative arm of state government to effectively perform its oversight function, to lay hands on huge amounts of unmonitored public funds. Having control over the state purse, he unilaterally was able to freely spend and siphon state budgetary resources into his personal accounts overseas for his personal use and self-enrichment.

By Tom Okure, Ph.D

Author and Public Policy Commentator.

President and CEO

Inter-Continental Management Systems Inc

New York, USA

[1] For details see BBC Africa News report dated 27 February 2012  titled “Nigeria ex-Delta state governor James Ibori guilty plea" 


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Comment by Dr. Tom Okure on April 16, 2012 at 7:31pm

The Ibori case also highlights a systematic failure of the Nigerian Judiciary to effectively prosecute corrupt politicians. It reveals significant flaws in the judicial system and the very real urgent need to reform the judiciary to make it more effective.  For governor Ibori admission of quilt by changing his plea before a London Court enables him to avoid a full blown fraud and money laundering trial which would have put him in jail for a very long time.

While the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is delighted to be vindicated over the Ibori sentencing which will soon take place, let us all not loose sight of the fact that several criminal charges against Ibori are still pending before Nigerian courts without any resolution in sight. These cases according to the EFCC indicate that the former Governor did not act alone but had many accomplices who assisted him to launder stolen Delta State funds. Under the present circumstances, several questions that need resolution come to mind. What should become of the status of the pending charges against Ibori and his accomplices in the Nigerian Judicial system? Should Ibori while serving his jail sentence in a London jail be tried in absentia in Nigeria and sentenced to await another jail term upon completion of serving his jail term in London? Does the EFCC really have the gouts to persist in bringing Ibori and all his accomplices to book notwithstanding the length of time it may take to accomplish such a arduous task? Only time will provide answers to these questions.

For now, the EFCC and jubilant Nigerians craving for justice look forward to the sentencing of Ibori in London soon and the return of the stolen funds from the Delta State government treasury. One more analytic observation as we await the return of the Ibori loot. Is there a plan in place to protect any repatriated funds from the Ibori loot from London from being misappropriated? How can we ensure that the retuned loot is properly budgeted and expended wisely on behalf of the Delta State people so that it does not end up being stolen all over again?  

Comment by OBIAJE PETER EDIGAH on March 1, 2012 at 10:33am

u can never step into a great man shoe and not be harmed. that is the nice decision taken by him. he should have done that long ago.

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