In this interview, Debo Adeniran, Executive Chairman, Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL), faulted the constitution, bemoaned the weak posture of government in the war against corruption. Excerpts:
How has the Nigerian law made it so easy for people in the civil service to steal money?
Over the years, especially since the advent of our nascent democracy in 1999, our leaders have acquired the notoriety for flouting our law with impunity. The elite Constitution so to say, that was put together by some military boys, was done in the interest of the ruling class. Regardless of the spurious claims by our leaders that they have been fighting corruption tooth and nail, the evidence is there that corruption is still endemic in our nation. This could not be divorced from the lapses in our constitution. The Plea Bargain, as it is practiced in our nation, is a means to encourage corruption. I simply see it as pleading and negotiating with public officials convicted of corrupt practices to return some amounts of money they stole to gain their freedom and go to spend the remaining part of the looted funds. It is just like catching a thief that broke into your house and you started bargaining with him to return part of your property he stole and keep the rest. How ridiculous! It is only in this part of the world we dialogue with everyone, even thieves that bleed our national treasury white. The case of former Governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion cannot be forgotten in a jiffy. He defrauded his state of a sum of N2.9bn and made to pay a fine of a paltry sum of N3.5m.
Likewise, the slap-on-the-wrist punishment stipulated in our Penal Code Act makes a mess of our fight against corruption. It does not impose adequate punishment commensurate with the magnitude of offence committed. Most times, the punishment could not deter the would-be corrupt public officials. For instance, in the case of the Police Pension Board Assistant Director, Mr. John Yakubu Yusuf, if the judge had awarded the convict a 2-year jail term for each offence and fine of N750: 000.00, it would still not be enough to punish the kingpin of a syndicate that swindled the poor police pensioners to the tune of about N37 billion.
The Plea Bargain and the Penal Code Act are nothing but corruption because they provide leeway for corruption perpetrators to escape stiffer penalties, which also encourage others to perpetuate more corruption it.
Why it does usually take so long to get conviction against people alleged to have stolen government money in Nigeria?
The safest thing to steal in Nigeria is government money, and if you must fleece our common patrimony, please do it to the tune of billions because that is when you gain national recognition and you could be given chieftaincy title in your village the next day. Our law and its interpreters have made punishing corrupt people a herculean task. In saner climes, millions of dollars could be spent to bring a thief who stole one dollar to book, but ours is a nation that citizens' minds have been conditioned to believe that theft of our common patrimony is not morally wrong. The custodians of the law are not making conviction of corrupt public officials easy. Many of the indicted public officials employ the service of the senior lawyers in the rank of SAN to fight their cases whereas the budget of the anti-graft agencies cannot even afford the service of a young lawyer. The SANs make frivolous injunctions just to delay the prosecution of their clients until most cases are thrown out of court. Some senior lawyers even obtain order of perpetual injunction from being investigated and prosecuted for their clients, which is the case with the former Governor of Rivers State, Peter Odili and the incumbent Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Raji Fashola.
In other parts of the world, did civil servants make so much money to acquire properties like we see them do in Abuja?
It is usually not easy to steal in other parts of the world because of their systems. To be sincere, corruption is a global phenomenon so it is not limited to Nigeria or Africa alone. It is its magnitude that differs from clime to clime. Corruption flourishes in an atmosphere of secrecy, hence the lack of accountability on the part of our leaders is what gives them opportunity to gather so much wealth to acquire properties, not only in Abuja, but even outside the country. They explore the lapses in our weak system to enrich themselves at the expense of the hapless and helpless Nigerians. Taking the case of Halliburton Scandal as an example, whereas the nationals of foreign countries that participated in the bribery have been adequately punished in their countries, Nigeria is yet to punish a single Nigerian, not even the small fries.
What kind of law applies in other nations against this kind of stealing of public funds?
The Minister of Justice, Mr Muhammed Bello Adoke has been defending plea bargain as the world's best practice. His argument is that the emphasis is on recovering our looted funds, not on apportioning criminal responsibility. As plausible as Mr Adoke submission might sound, the question to ask is what is the ratio of the loot recovered under this plea bargain compared to the amount kept by the corruption offenders? Even the plea bargain, as it is practiced in other countries, still mete out adequate punishment to anyone found culpable of corruption offences. The UK trial of James Ibori is a good testimony. Despite his entering into plea bargain with the court, he was handed 13 year imprisonment with the forfeiture of his assets.