documentBy Tunde Asaju
I am pleasantly amused by the protests and reactions, which greeted my ruling on the N32.8 billion fraud perpetrated by one John Yakubu Yusuf at the Police Pension Funds. Those who have the time and means to check postings on social media have told me that I am the subject of posts and tweets. Caveat emptor - libel even on the Internet is a tort in our legal system and actionable in law.
I am not unaware of the fact that a N750,000 fine as alternative to two year jail sentence for a crime running into billions might sound ludicrous especially in a country where money is needed for social transformation. I am a believer in the Bentham theory that people's money must be used for the transformation of the society in which they live and where the wealth is generated. In courts unfortunately we work on facts and not on the expectations of society no matter how noble lofty they are.
I am also not unaware of the fact that matters affecting the police have, of late, attracted needed interests. Were we not appalled when the doors of the Police College, Ikeja were flung open and the conditions in which our law officers are raised found to be appalling and gnawing to our collective conscience? Indeed, they puncture the canisters of fresh air supplied by our political class.
As a judge, I am increasingly disturbed by the elevation of looting to a directive principle of state policy. Again, once in court, I am obliged to leave my biases and opinions at home and make rulings on points of law. In the particular case that concerned Yusuf, though there were many charges, most of them were spurious and cannot be proved by the prosecution. In our laws, he who accuses must prove his accusations beyond reasonable doubts.
On the counts that could be proven, there is a maximum sentence and an option of fine or both. But the accused entered into a plea bargain. This means that he agreed not to waste the time of the court and the resources of state; to forfeit some assets and in return escape stiffer penalties for his crimes.
I know that because I am called the Taliban, some of you think the convict should have been sentenced to die by stoning in the public square. This is ultra vires of what the law stipulates and would have been vexatious and repugnant to legal justice and so I am not sorry to disappoint you.
By their very nature, plea bargains are not done with the connivance of the courts. They are done outside the court system and judges are simply apprised of the agreement to mitigate ruling. I recall that it was applied in the case against James Onanefe Ibori and Lucky Igbinedion. It was applied to the case of Tafa Balogun before he spent six months in the amenity ward of the National Hospital. It was used in the case against the amazon of corruption, Cecilia Ibru and to the grandfather of political corruption Thief Bode George. Now, was I, ipso facto influenced by these instances in this particular case? Not necessarily, cases are decided on facts first and precedence is only incidental.
I understand your outrage but it is not the duty of the bench to reform the law or hand down sentences that have no backing in law. That is the responsibility of society and the legislature. As citizens, you all have rights to call for a review of our arcane laws because Britain, where they were borrowed from, has moved on. You do this by sponsoring bills to the National Assembly or by working with your legislature. Now the question is how many of you have done that?
On their own, the legislature can initiate these amendments. Are they slack in doing this because they know they might be caught in the web someday? This is a speculative conjecture, but judges deal with facts. If the lawmakers are more interested in creating unviable states to satisfy some parochial tendencies without opposition, that shows where you, as a society puts your best interests. Don't blame me or the judiciary for that, turn the mirror at yourselves.
As the law stands, if, while armed with a knife a man robs another of ten kobo and is found guilty, he will die by the gallows except he can afford legal fees and hires a good lawyer to defend him. On the other hand, if a pen robber empties the foreign reserves and enters into a plea bargain, s(h)e may get a slap on the wrist. That is not the fault of the judge; that is the law.
I understand your agitations have forced my bosses to promise an inquest. I wish the other arms of government are subject to such caving in under pressure; perhaps our society might be better though I am not a supporter of mob rule. I am not afraid of being probed and promise the probe my full cooperation. In the meantime, I have discharged my duties as a judge truthfully with no manner of favour to any. I have discharged my duties in accordance to my oath of office, so help me Allah.