ABUJA Britain has frozen assets belonging to a former governor of oil-producing Delta state in southern Nigeria who was a major financier of the Nigerian president's electoral campaign, diplomatic sources said on Monday.
The move against James Ibori is big news in Nigeria because Delta is one of three core oil states that are much richer than others, but where endemic corruption means there is little to show for the money. Like neighbouring Bayelsa and Rivers, Delta is plagued by poverty and violence.
Ibori also has close ties to the presidency in a country where having friends in high places has traditionally been a reliable shield from the law. The freezing of his assets is one of the strongest signals to date that such impunity is eroding.
He had accompanied President Umaru Yar'Adua on almost every stage of his electoral campaign and bankrolled much of it.
State governors lose their immunity from prosecution when their terms end. Ibori's tenure finished on May 29.
Nigerian newspapers speculated that, as in two previous cases, the British move against Ibori would be a prelude to his arrest and prosecution in Nigeria. If that happens, how the new president reacts will be a test of his stance on corruption.
"Ibori's properties and some of his assets have been restrained," said one diplomatic source who did not wish to be named in order to avoid prejudicing any future court case.
The Southwark Crown Court last Thursday granted a police application to freeze assets worth 17 million pounds ($35 million). Nigerian media reported over the weekend the assets included properties, cash and a private jet.
Britain, Nigeria's former colonial ruler, has for decades been a popular destination for corrupt Nigerian politicians to go shopping, buy properties and place their children in expensive private schools.
But the British authorities have cracked down on the trend and Ibori is the third Nigerian governor to fall foul of British law since a new Proceeds of Crime Act was introduced in 2002.
Two others were charged with money laundering in London but both jumped bail. One has since been convicted of corruption by a Nigerian court, while the other is on trial and has had some of his assets returned to Nigeria by British authorities.
British police have worked closely with Nigeria's anti-corruption Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), created in 2003, so the British crackdown is also seen as a reflection of changing attitudes within Nigeria.
Under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the EFCC was widely criticised for targeting his opponents while leaving his friends undisturbed.
Since Obasanjo handed over to Yar'Adua on May 29, the EFCC has begun prosecuting five former state governors as well as winning the conviction of one who had been previously charged.
This acceleration of the agency's activity has raised hopes that Yar'Adua was serious when he pledged to crack down on corruption. Nigeria is one of the world's most tainted countries, according to watchdog Transparency International.