| credits: nigerianbulletin.com
On Monday, a Federal Capital Territory High Court handed down the first conviction of persons involved in the theft of N32.8bn Police Pensions Fund.
However, in what seems to have turned out to be another wild goose chase in the President Goodluck Jonathan administration’s anti-graft war, the convict received what is tantamount to a slap on the wrist, considering the amount of money involved and the attendant moral issues, and not forgetting the implications for the nation’s image in the comity of nations.
A director in the Police Pensions Office, Mr. John Yusuf, alongside six others, was convicted for converting public fund to their personal use, an offence punishable under Section 309 of the Penal Code Act, Cap 532, Laws of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Nigeria, 2007.
Yusuf had used the purloined fund to amass 13 houses in the FCT and Gombe State; while he also had N325m stashed in his bank account.
Initially, Yusuf had made a “not guilty” plea, which he later changed to “guilty,” obviously in return for a light sentence, which he got.
Under the extant laws, each of the three counts of offences carries a paltry two-year jail term or an option of fine in the sum of N250,000. The two-year jail terms run concurrently. And if he is able to pay the N750,000, he will be a free man.
The presiding judge, Justice Abubakar Talba, handed down the sentence on Monday, after Yusuf had successfully utilised the doctrine of plea bargain – a process that has been bastardised in recent times by influential but corrupt public office holders in Nigeria. The list is only getting longer.
It may be recalled that on December 19, 2008, an Enugu High Court fined former Governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion, the sum of N3.5m, after he had entered into a plea bargain with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
Igbinedion had faced 191-count charges which were, on December 17, 2008, narrowed down to one after his plea bargain.
The final accusation against him was that he “neglected to make a declaration of your interest in the Account No: 4124013983110 with a new generation bank … in the declaration of assets form of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and you thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 27 (3) of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Act 2008.”
Though Igbinedion walked away a free man, the international community was not amused; and on January 12, 2013, the United States Government effectively barred him from entering its territory henceforth.
Concerned Nigerians cannot forget the sentencing of the former Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the now defunct Oceanic Bank, Mrs. Cecilia Ibru, who, alongside three other senior banking executives, was involved in a multibillion-dollar banking scandal.
While investors and depositors groaned in agony, Mrs. Ibru acquired properties all over the world, from Nigeria to Dubai, using their money.
She denied the charges. And, although sentenced on October 8, 2010 on a 25-count fraud case and ordered to refund N1.29bn, she spent her six-month jail term in a high-end hospital located in a swanky area of Lagos.
This is mockery of justice, when compared with the 150-year-jail term currently being served by Bernard Lawrence Madoff, American former businessman, stockbroker, investment advisor and financier who pleaded guilty to 11 federal felonies and admitted to turning his wealth management business into a massive Ponzi scheme – which defrauded thousands of investors of billions of dollars.
Time will fail us to talk about ex-governors James Onanefe Ibori and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who the Nigerian judicial system literally handled with kid gloves.
But then, what sort of judiciary is Nigeria’s? How come the principle of plea bargain has become a dirty tool in the hands of highly placed criminals, while disadvantaged citizens suffer the full weight of the law when they commit misdemeanours?
According to the legal dictionary, “a plea bargain is an agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and defendant, whereby the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a particular charge in return for some concession from the prosecutor. This may mean that the defendant will plead guilty to a less serious charge or to one of several charges, in return for the dismissal of other charges; or it may mean that the defendant will plead guilty to the original criminal charge in return for a more lenient sentence.”
While this system prevents a lengthy criminal trial, a situation whereby a criminal defendant undergoing felony theft charge is offered the opportunity to plead guilty to a misdemeanour theft charge is unhealthy for any justice system, as it sends wrong signals that it is profitable to steal.
Essentially, the process is unfair to the society where criminal defendants are involved, as in the case of these public figures, as its close relationship with rewards, threats and coercion potentially endangers the correct legal outcome.
Indeed, this tactic is prohibited in a country like the United Kingdom, where the prosecutor’s code states inter alia:
“Prosecutors should never go ahead with more charges than are necessary just to encourage a defendant to plead guilty to a few. In the same way, they should never go ahead with a more serious charge just to encourage a defendant to plead guilty to a less serious one.”
In complex cases such as major fraud trials like the ones under review, the overriding duty of the prosecutor is to see that justice is done. But in the Nigerian case, this is doubtful. So far, plea bargain has tainted the image of the Nigerian judiciary, as justice now seems to be for the highest bidder.
Just last Wednesday, an Abeokuta Magistrate Court sentenced a 49-year-old man, Mustapha Adeshina, to two-year imprisonment for stealing vegetables worth N5,000, with an option of N10,000 fine.
The nation cannot forget in a hurry the amputation of the right hand of Mallam Buba Bello Kure Jangedi – for stealing a cow. He was convicted under the Sharia law in 2000 by the administration of Zamfara State ex-governor (now senator) Ahmed Sani, who had been accused of fund misappropriation but who currently enjoys immunity as a public office holder.
The FCT High Court judge should uphold the plea of the EFCC counsel, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), that Yusuf be convicted and sentenced as appropriate. Only then can the image of the judiciary be redeemed from what has come to be seen as a ‘Justice For Sale’ syndrome.