Two judgements delivered within the last one week by two different courts send powerful messages to both the poor and the rich in the country. On Wednesday, in Abeokuta, a magistrate court headed by Idowu Olayinka sentenced 49-year-old Mustapha Adesina to two years in prison for stealing vegetables valued N5, 000.
This Monday, in Abuja, a former director of the Police Pension Board, Yakubu Yusuf, who admitted he stole N32.8 billion, received an even lighter sentence from Justice Abubakar Talba of the FCT High Court: two years in jail or payment of N750, 000 fine. In other words, the latter convict was told to pay 0.0015 of what he stole and walk home free while the former, who probably could not pay the N10, 000 fine given him as an option, would spend two years in jail.
With these contrasting judgements, no one needs to be reminded anymore that justice in Nigeria is a travesty. Little wonder why the prisons are brimming with the poor and the unknown while the rich and the powerful who commit more grievous crimes get away scot-free. Indeed, convicts like Yusuf have become the new normal. Former Edo State governor Lucky Igbinedion, who was found guilty of stealing N9 billion, was fined N3 million after a fraudulent process called "plea bargaining". Cecilia Ibru was said to have crippled Oceanic Bank plc after stealing more than N190 billion, but she spent just four months, not in jail but in a hospital; there are now even reports that she has reclaimed most of her properties that had been confiscated. Former inspector-general of police Tafa Balogun stole N17 billion but was sentenced to six months in jail - and he spent most of the term in a hospital too.
Those are among the few celebrated cases that ended up in the court slapping the influential convicts on the wrist. The cases of many others have either been buried in endless litigations or forgotten altogether. The man who stole vegetables - most likely out of poverty and probably to feed himself and his family - will spend two years in jail while all the suspects in the murders of Bola Ige, Marshal Harry, Aminoasari Dikibo, Funsho Williams, Dipo Ojerinde and others have been freed.
While members of the executive arm of government are the usual culprits in embezzlement of public funds, it could be safely concluded that the Nigerian judiciary is the greatest cog in the country's wheel of progress. For all the public outcry against corrupt judges, the temple of justice in this country is still tainted with the putrid smell of corruption. Almost always, it is chicken thieves who steal to stay alive that get sentenced while those who steal billions of naira can buy their way out of trouble. Knowing that it is money that can set them free, treasury looters have learned to steal very huge sums: "the bigger the loot, the safer."
These days, Supreme Court judges are given the privilege of nominating and appointing the minister of justice/attorney-general of the federation, and ditto for many states. This has ensured that corruption is kept alive at the expense of the country and the ordinary people of the land.
Clearly, justice has been exiled from the Nigerian soil. Only last week, a court in South Africa convicted MEND terrorist Henry Okah after a trial that lasted three months. His accomplices in Nigeria are still undergoing trial; it was after the South African court found Okah guilty that the Nigerian court hurriedly found one of the suspects standing trial for the October 1, 2010, bombing, Edmond Ebiwere, guilty. And, a little over a year ago, it took a court in the United Kingdom to send ex-governor James Ibori to jail. The former governor of Delta State had been discharged and acquitted by a Nigerian court for the same offences. Nigerians have not forgotten Michael Aondoakaa, the most roguish attorney-general of the federation so far; he has been banned from entering the United States for crookery but the Nigerian authorities have not got the message the US is sending.
Is it strange, then, that no "big man" in Nigeria is in jail today in spite of the monumental corruption witnessed every day? No. What exists in the country is like a cult of the rich and influential who control the executive, legislature and judiciary. Convict Yusuf is lucky to belong to that club. And it has earned him the freedom he needs so much. Out of the N32.8 billion he embezzled, he would have lost less than N1billion through forfeiture of his properties, payment of a fine and getting "justice" done speedily. He may even buy back the confiscated properties with the balance of the looted billions remaining with him. And he will enjoy the rest of the money in the most beautiful cities of the world - and live happily ever after.
The vegetable thief from Abeokuta must be full of anguish now, knowing that Nigeria is hellish to poor thieves but magnanimous to the rich ones. In this country, the judiciary has since ceased to be the last hope of the common man; it has become the last refuge of crooks. Is it surprising then that many of our young people are carrying arms against the state via one terrorist group or the other?