By Rotimi Fasan
THE conviction and sentencing of erstwhile chairman of the Nigerian Ports Authority, Chief Olabode George and five other members of the NPA board under him to two and half years in prison each, seems to have elated many Nigerians.
Chief George and his co-convicts were found guilty of abuse of office, disobedience to lawful authority and financial impropriety to the tune of N84 billion. The news seems to have caught Nigerians unawares. This, I presume, was not because Nigerians were unaware that investigations into the NPA contract scandal were due for judgment.
The case had been on even while Olabode Georgeâ€™s supposed godfather and benefactor, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, was still in office. Joseph Oyewole, the trial judge, had deferred judgment till October 26 even when both the prosecution and defendants had concluded their addresses since September 15.
That many were caught unawares was a function, I suspect, more of the belief among Nigerians that no former state official, especially a senior member of the ruling party, could be convicted for corruption offences.
The series of â€œpaddy-paddy governmentâ€, administrations run on the basis of cronyism and allegiance to cultic codes had ensured that no member of such cultic clubs of politicians suffered as a consequence of offences committed while in office.
For this reason more than anything else, Nigerians have been both sceptical of and learnt to distrust any corruption probe initiated by government as was the one that led to the conviction of the NPA leadership under Bode George.
This was the reason for the apparent shock that greeted the announcement of the conviction. But many were soon to replace disbelief with elation, praising the judgment in a manner that could have led a watcher on the sideline into believing that Nigerians derive sadistic pleasure in the downfall of their leaders.
Itâ€™s nothing new or strange, though, that so-called masses tend to chafe at the scandalous activities and enjoy the eventual fall of powerful or famous people. Nigerians are by no means unique in this regard and it is not always because people hate the famous or powerful as that they hate the sense of impunity with which such frontliners tend to conduct themselves.
Thus when the news got abroad that a leader of Nigeriaâ€™s ruling PDP had been sentenced to two and half years in prison many chose to disbelieve the evidence before them, seeking confirmation from others they imagine might tell them something they, the people, didnâ€™t know. With confirmation came elation and praise for the â€˜activistâ€™ judge.
To be sure, Justice Oyewole displayed rare courage in the manner he handled the case. Yet, a cursory look at the roll of high profile cases he had handled in the past, including the EFCC/Emmanuel Nwude and Anajemba case, the Reverend Emeka Ezeugo aka, Rev King case and the Major Hamza Al Mustapha case among others demonstrate his no-nonsense pedigree.
So then we must praise Justice Oyewole. But in praising him we must, like Oliver Twist, ask for more- ask if two half years can actually be enough punishment for misappropriating N84 billion. This is the question that continues to worry many Nigerians.
In this era of corruption in high and low places, when many are content to join the bandwagon of Nigeria-wreckers, a man thatâ€™d turn his back on such lucre and insist on justice, even if only symbolically, deserves the praise of all.
One, however, cannot help but wonder if the state couldnâ€™t have done more to recover the looted money that is but a few million less than a trillion Naira! That can go a long way in bringing needed infrastructure to the life of hundreds of millions of Nigerians.
How much is a two-and-half-year sentence, many ask, to a group with such arsenal of wealth to fight back and ensure they continue to live like monarchs even while behind bars?
There are many such cases of wealthy convicts and/or detainees who have become virtual lords behind bars. And for examples of such group, we need not look beyond the group of persons listed above whose cases have at one time or another been handled by Justice Oyewole himself.
Both Al Mustapha and Rev. King are notorious for their â€˜big manâ€™ lifestyles in jail. What is more, a group of people with close to a trillion Naira in safe custody could afford to consider a two-and-half-year sentence a minor irritant that could and should be taken in their strides.
Before you know it, the sentence is over and they are back on the streets strutting as saints where they are not employing their vast wealth in creating a political dynasty of surrogate children whose goal would be to conclude the unfinished business of their benefactors- loot the treasury.
Today we hear of politicians sponsored for elective offices by persons, the sources of whose wealth would make Anini squirm in shame.
Such ex-convicts and would-be convicts are todayâ€™s godfathers and godmothers of our leading politicians. It is perhaps in recognition of the potential for such misuse of purloined wealth that Justice Oyewole gave no option of fine in his judgment.
The stigma of conviction for corruption might hopefully do what money might have made impossible: undercut any sense of importance in flaunting stolen wealth.
So far the only people visibly unhappy with the judgment are, not unexpectedly, politicians, many of them members of the ruling PDP who describe the judgment as too harsh.
Considering the many cases of impunity in the past, punishing a crime like the one perpetrated at the NPA, must seem harsh indeed. But while many poor Nigerians spend years behind bars for stealing tubers of yam, to say nothing of China where similar offence as the one committed at the NPA would attract a death sentence, the NPA convicts should thank their stars and rededicate themselves to worthier causes.