1 February 2013

Nigeria: Mocking the Law


Cross sections of the Nigerian publicly were right to vent the outrage they at Justice Abubakar Mohammed Talba's ruling at the Abuja High Court in a case of stealing huge sums of money from the Nigeria Police Pension Fund preferred against some ex-officers.

In the conclusion to the case involving one of the accused persons, the judge found Mr John Yakubu Yusu, a former deputy director in the Police Pensions Fund Office, guilty of conniving with two others to steal 23 billion naira from the fund. Mr Yusuf had earlier pleaded guilty to the charge.

Delivering his ruling, Justice Talba sentenced Mr Yusuf two years' imprisonment. That jail term may look like a stiff but suitable punishment for a crime of such magnitude. For a country convulsing in paroxysms of frauds and thefts of public funds in practically every government institution, it seemed one step in the direction of imposing legal measures that could provide effective deterrence to other would-be treasury looters. Alas! Justice Talba's ruling cannot be considered a building block to such a wonderful outcome.

The umbrage that the members of the public, civil society groups and even respected jurists have expressed since the ruling became known was the aspect of it that allowed the convict to go virtually scot-free, by him paying a fine of just 750,000 naira. Mr Yusuf and his accomplices had faced 3-count charge during the trial. The fine was 250,000 naira for each count. It was therefore not surprising that Mr Yusuf paid his fine on the spot and walked away, a free man.

Condemnations for the light sentence have been swift, and they came from diverse quarters. Most of these consisted of outrage at the 'light' sentence Mr Yusuf got away with, although this included forfeiture of several items of property.

While officials of the government often restate the administration's vow to fight corruption and deal with those who engage in it, but doing little else to match words with action, the public's perception has always been that the judiciary would be the bulwark against the practice and salvage the situation.

Clearly, rulings like Talba's in the Yusuf case don't give much room for hope that the judiciary would live up to that expectation.

As Justice Mustapha Akanbi, former President of the Court of Appeal and one-time chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Related Offences Commission (ICPC), noted, by his ruling, Justice Talba was tacitly encouraging corruption.

The scathing criticism that trailed the ruling may also have stung the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to action, when it rearrested Yusuf and arraigned him before another court on different charge, this one relating to issues of declaration of assets.

The EFCC record in carrying out its mandate has not been inspiring, a disappointing turnaround given the high expectations that greeted the change of guard there last year.

In fact, if the agency had been diligent and robust in its prosecutorial functions, most of the high profile cases, involving former governors and other senior government officials, would not be in the messy anticlimax that they are today.

Various branches of the judicial system in the country have frowned on the nebulous practice of plea-bargaining in cases involving officials accused of massive stealing from public coffers.

The procedure was applied in the determination of cases of the disgraced former Inspector General of Police, Mr Tafa Balogun, who was convicted for the theft of hundreds of millions of naira of police funds, and the former Managing Director of the defunct Oceanic Bank PLC, Mrs Cecilia Ibru, who was found guilty of mismanaging depositors' funds, among many others.

Officials of the Federal Ministry of Justice have somehow found the practice attractive; but it is one with doubtful utility in the Nigerian criminal justice system. The National Judicial Council (NJC) should step up its efforts at building capacity in the judicial system. It should review the Yusuf judgement and determine whether Talba's ruling, which really represents a mockery of the law, was in accordance with the weight of evidence before the court.

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