OPINION: FG’s pyrrhic victory against corruption – by Uche Igwe
Corruption is the single factor that has the most catastrophic consequence on our national development. It amounts to idle repetition to say that currently, pervasive corruption has afflicted all levels of government in Nigeria. The raging debate around the use and abuse of plea bargain has thus raised fundamental issues about the celebrated lip service in the war against corruption in Nigeria and the helplessness of our anti-corruption agencies . For those who do not know, a plea bargain is simply an agreement between a criminal prosecutor and a defendant whereby both parties agree to get into a deal such that the defendant agrees to plead guilty in return for some leniency and concession from the prosecutor. It involves the defendant entering guilty plea to a lesser offence or to only one or some of the counts of a multi-count indictment, in return for a lighter sentence than that possible for a graver charge. Prominent legal scholars such as Dr. Chidi Odinkalu, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, have justified the utility of this concept in the speedy disposition of many pending criminal cases in courts. However, many people disagree with him, especially as it relates to cases of corruption. The late radical jurist, Justice Kayode Eso (retd.), once lampooned the idea of plea bargain as an open instrument for the celebration of graft. A former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Dahiru Musdapher, also considers it as an obnoxiously dubious and fraudulent concept that amounts to granting undue leniency to criminals. Nevertheless, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission insists on the use of plea bargain in national efforts towards the recovery of stolen assets and has recently submitted a bill to the National Assembly to widen the scope of its application. EFCC officials argue that the application of plea bargain assisted them to reach a speedy conclusion of high profile corruption cases such as those that involved an advance fee fraud kingpin, Emmanuel Nwude; a former Inspector-General of Police, Tafa Balogun; a former Bayelsa State Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha; a former Edo State Governor Lucky Igbenidion; and ex-banker Cecilia Ibru, in a cost-effective manner. It was reported that these individuals willingly forfeited ‘some’ of the properties allegedly acquired with stolen funds but the level of transparency of the negotiations can only be a matter of endless conjecture.
What the EFCC appears to be saying is that public office holders can go ahead and loot the treasury and when you are caught in the till, you can simply make a deal. Surrender part of what you have stolen, negotiate a lenient sentence and go home to enjoy the rest of your loot. For instance, after allegedly handing over about $1.2bn (N180bn) in cash and assets, Mrs. Ibru was handed six months imprisonment which was mostly spent on a cosy hospital bed in Lagos. Observers are shocked that the corruption watchdog does not consider how such a method will act as a deterrent or motivation for potential offenders. It is only in Nigeria that indicted public officials walk around freely and even wield expansive political influence. What a country!
One must say that the promoters of plea bargain do have a very solid reformist argument that is valid in law. However, their zeal betrays a naïve confidence in the Nigerian judiciary. Is this not the same judiciary where Justice Marcel Awokulehin, who discharged and acquitted Chief James Ibori and his co-travellers, still holds sway? Where justice is still available to the highest bidder? Is it any news that the Nigerian judiciary is believed to play a huge role in frustrating the war against corruption by issuing suspicious injunctions even on weekends?
A former Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission recently yelled that executive interference in the operations of the EFCC and ICPC had resulted in adverse consequences on the war against corruption in Nigeria. Really! That could provide some insight. So, where is this coming from? The push for the adoption of plea bargain sounds to me like an official surrender of troops of the Nigerian anti-corruption army to a superior firepower of the corrupt elite. How can those who have been mandated to prove cases of corruption beyond every reasonable doubt now stoop to start making a deal with those who they are supposed to prosecute and possibly put in jail? It is either corruption is finally winning the war eventually or one is just being naïve?
Even a cursory look at the list of beneficiaries of plea bargain will reveal that they belong to a particular class in our society. We have been told that the next set of deals that may be negotiated is that between the EFCC on one side and Mahmud Tukur, son of the Peoples Democratic Party Chairman, Bamanga Tukur; and Abdullahi Alao, son of Ibadan-based businessman, Arisekola Alao, for allegedly embezzling N1.9bn obtained from the Petroleum Support Fund purportedly for the importation of petroleum products. So, where is the slogan that there will be no sacred cows? How come such deals have not been extended to many awaiting trial inmates who have been detained endlessly in our over-crowded prisons and even forgotten? Or, is the deal-making specifically designed for the rich and the affluent?
Finally, we must consider the concept of plea bargain very critically before we allow the EFCC and their apologists to surreptitiously smuggle it into our statutory laws. Such an action could reverse some of the gains we claim to have made in the war against corruption. The exclamation of Justice Musdapher implying that this concept is a flagrant subordination of public interest that could ridicule our legal system sounds too important for us to ignore. The congestion in our courts can be eliminated with policies that prevent judges from granting frivolous applications. We must remember that countries that have utilised plea bargain are those where public officials take asset declaration seriously. Not our own where even our President does not give a damn about it!
– Uche Igwe (firstname.lastname@example.org)