IN early 1998, middle-aged Chief James Ibori, with an infectious smile and sacks of money, burst into the political sphere of Delta State like a tsunami. He swept through the state with a well-coordinated governorship campaign that left his opponents gasping for breath.
He became the Odidigborigbo (an awesome object with great force, not dissimilar to an elephant).
Ibori had announced his presence in the political space that he would later dominate for over a decade in 1996 as a leading member of the Grassroots Democratic Movement (GDM), founded by the late Alhaji Musa Yar’Adua, as a protégé of former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. He had earlier contested and lost the race for a seat to represent Ethiope Federal Constituency at the National Assembly in 1991 under the platform of the National Republican Convention (NRC).
He ran and won the governorship election under the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
On May 29, 1999, the cherub face Urhobo-born Ibori, from Oghara in Ethiope West Local Government Area of the state was inaugurated the 2nd elected governor of the oil-rich state at the Cenotaph, Asaba.
Like most of his colleagues, Ibori inherited a state that was impoverished and badly in need of infrastructure development.
To his credit, he tackled the challenges head-on with the construction of strategic roads, building bridges and implementing other landmark projects during his first tenure.
Even his critics agreed that Ibori built more roads in eight years than those constructed in the state since the foundation of Nigeria.
He started and completed a new Government House Complex in Asaba, the administrative capital, and went on to build a Governor’s Office Annexe in Warri, Delta’s economic hub.
In the area of education, Ibori upgraded the Delta State University (DELSU), Abraka from a glorified high school in pre-1999 and moved the institution to its permanent site.
The former governor also established and built three polytechnics in Ozoro, Otefe-Oghara and Ogwashi-Uku, as well as the School of Physical Education in Mosogar, the home-town of one of his strongest – Chief Ighoyota Amori.
In April 2004, former President Olusegun Obasanjo spent three days inaugurating major projects including strategic bridges of Bomadi Bridge, which for the first time, opened up Ijaw communities to vehicular traffic, Asaba-Asse and Omadino bridges.
The Olomu Birdge, which he initiated, became controversial before it was completed by his successor in 2010.
Other projects inaugurated were the Ughelli and controversial Ugbologboso modern markets, the dualised Warri/Effurun Airport Road and several others.
Before then, he had constructed a four-lane NPA Bypass Road, NNPC Housing Complex Link road, tarred Emebiren, Okere-Ugborikoko, dualisation of Okere Road and dozens of roads in Effurun and Warri, Agbor, Ughelli, Asaba and Sapele among others.
In the health sector, assisted by Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, whose emergence as governor in 2007 contributed to his problems, Ibori revolutionised healthcare delivery in the state.
The Warri General Hospital as well as those in Sapele, Ughelli, Abraka, Effurun Agbor and Asaba, among others were given the over-due facelifts.
He also started the Delta State University Teaching Hospital (DSUTH), which like many other projects under his administration, was considered most appropriate in Oghara country home, despited being about 50 kilometres away from the university it is meant to serve.
In the area of sports, the Warri Township Stadium was renovated and upgraded, a modern sports complex was built from scratch in Asaba, along with five other stadia in Sapele, Oleh, Ughelli, Ogwashi-Uku and Agbor.
But the concentration of development in his home town attracted criticisms from other parts of the state.
For instance, the Central Senatorial district of the state boasts of the best road networks with some communities being linked by more than one road when others in the riverside areas lacked access.
Ibori also over-saturated Oghara with projects such as the Econet (now Airtel) training school, DELSUTH, INEC training school, Otefe Polytechnic, Nigerian Navy School of Logistics, which he initiated but was completed by Uduaghan.
He even relocated the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Orientation Camp from Iseele-Uku to Oghara. The relocation was however reversed by Uduaghan.
While he was busy building infrastructure across the state, Ibori also built his political structure. He developed shrewd and effective political machinery, which rewarded loyalists while showing opponents that disloyalty comes with a very high price.
The quartet of Ighoyota Amori, who was Commissioner for Education, Dr. Uduaghan, Chief James Manager (now a Senator), Dr Arthur Ifeanyi Okowa (also a serving Senator) and Chief Pius Ewherido, among others, grew in stature as members of Ibori’s ‘kitchen cabinet’
Ewherido, who is now a Senator representing Delta Central Senatorial District, fell out of favour as a result of a failed attempt to impeach Ibori in 2002.
Nevertheless, arguably the greatest success achieved by Ibori in his eight-year in office was ending the ethnic war between the Ijaw and Itsekiri ethnic groups in the Warri area of the state.
The war was sparked off when the headquarters of Warri Southwest Local Government Area of Delta State, which was first sited in Ogbe-Ijoh, an Ijaw community was controversially moved to Ogidigben (Escravos), an Itsekiri community.
The resultant seven-year fratricidal war led to the death of thousands, especially on the side of the minority Itsekiri ethnic group, destruction and looting of oil installations and razing of dozens of communities.
The crisis dominated and debilitated most of Ibori’s first term before he got the two warring on the dialogue table.
He also set up a unique Conflict Resolution Ministry, headed by Comrade Ovuozorie Macaulay.
His uncanny political approach ended the crisis in the mid-2000.
Ironically, most of the funds allegedly stolen by the former governor were taken under the contentious security votes.
The methods adopted by the former governor, which included the appointment of warlords and key players into government, while drawing most of the combatants away from the battle field, also drew criticisms that he empowered criminals and thugs to the detriment of the law abiding residents.
The path to Ibori’s downfall actually began in 2003, shortly before his 2nd term campaign, with the reopening of the ex-convict story.
The allegation was raised by a faction of the PDP known as the Derivation Front. Its target was to get him barred from running for a second term.
The allegation opened many cans of worms that would later consume him. Unfortunately, Chief Edwin Clark, who became his arch nemesis, was one of his strongest defenders during the ex-convict saga.
The Ijaw leader addressed several press conferences and took paid advertisements to defend him as a victim of the struggle for resource control.
He did not help his cause with some daring political faux pas, including attempting to get the then Vice President Atiku Abubakar to challenge his boss, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo for the PDP ticket in the primary for the 2003 presidential election.
But the final straw that nailed the Camels’ back was his role he played in the emergence of his cousin and friend, Uduaghan as his successor.
Prior to the 2007 governorship election, his country home in Oghara became a Mecca of sort for those angling to succeed him. Unknown to them, Ibori had already settled for his cousin and childhood friend, who served him under him as health commissioner and later Secretary to the State Government (SSG).
When the chips were down and it become obvious where his interest was at the Ogwashi-Uku primary of the party, a number of his allies, including Chief Ovie Omo-Agege, whose meteoric rise to huge fortune was reportedly aided by Ibori, Chief Pius Ewherido and other members of the party, had spent too much of their resources in the race to backed out.
Clark, who defended Ibori during the ex-convict imbroglio, became the arrowhead of the opposition.
He was the centripetal force that drew the opposition together in the fight to break the strong hold of Ibori on the state’s politics.
The Ijaw leader, whose Warri home was razed down during the Ijaw/Itsekiri crisis, was miffed by the fact that Ibori chose not only his cousin, but an Itsekiri as his successor.
The octogenarian backed a dark horse, who lost woefully in the primary.