By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA — One of the eight civil servants accused of complicity in the illegal diversion of over N40 billion from the Nigeria Police Pension Funds, Mr. John Yakubu Yusufu, yesterday, confessed before an Abuja High Court that he connived with the others and stole only about N23 billion. He was, however, sentenced to two years imprisonment with an option of N750,000 fine.
Yusufu who pleaded guilty to a three-count charge preferred against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, begged the court to temper justice with mercy, saying he had already forfeited 32 of his choice property to the Federal Government.
The accused person who was hitherto facing trial alongside a Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, Mr. Atiku Abubakar Kigo and six others, made his confession shortly after the EFCC re-docked them on a 20-count amended charge.
Besides Kigo, the other accused persons who took turns and pleaded not guilty to the amended charge which was read to them, yesterday, were Esai Dangabar, Ahmed Inuwa Wada, Mrs. Veronica Ulonma Onyegbula, Sani Habila Zira and Christian Madubuke.
Though six of them were initially arraigned on March 29, 2012, and subsequently remanded in prison custody. However, the prosecuting agency, yesterday, joined the duo of Madubuke and one Mrs. Uzoma Cyril Attang, following fresh proof of evidence which allegedly established their culpability in the pension fraud.
Owing to the absence of Attang in court, yesterday, EFCC applied that her name be temporarily expunged from the charge to enable those that were in court take their plea. No reason was however given by the anti graft agency why she was not in court.
Mrs. Attang who is still in service as Director of Finance and Accounts in the Ministry of Communications had been on a hide and seek game with the Code of Conduct Bureau which dragged her before the Code of Conduct Tribunal on a five-count charge of having property which her salary could not have acquired.
She was a Director at the Police Pension Office between 2007 and 2008. Within this period, Attang who worked closely with Yusufu was discovered by the Bureau to have acquired choice property in Lekki, Victoria Island and Ikoyi, all within Lagos metropolis as well as in Abuja.
One of her bank accounts, according to the charge slammed against her, had a credit of N500 million which source she could not explain. The charge was, however, later withdrawn by the Sam Saba-led board of the CCB.
Meanwhile, trial Justice Abubakar Thalba had on April 3, 2012, released the accused persons on bail after they deposited N10 million each, as well as produced two persons in Grade Level 14 in the civil service that stood as sureties for each of them, conditions upon which they were also allowed to go home yesterday.
How they diverted funds
Sequel to the admittance of guilt by the 8th accused person, yesterday, the trial court convicted him on counts 18, 19 and 20 in the charge wherein the EFCC revealed how he connived with the other accused persons between January 2008 and June 2011 at Abuja, and diverted funds belonging to Police Pension Office domiciled in its account with FirstBank of Nigeria Plc and thereby committed an offence punishable under section 309 of the Penal Code Act, Cap. 532, Laws of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Nigeria 2007.
The prosecuting counsel, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs, had told the court that when the convict was posted to the police pensions office, “he met this unwholesome practice perpetrated by the other accused persons and continued in it.
“He even raised cheques on so many occasions which are all in the proof of evidence. Also, the property that were traced to him are all listed including N325 million that was found in his account. We urge your lordship to declare that the money and property be forfeited and remitted back to the Police pension fund.”
Counsel pleads for convict
Before Jacobs could regain his seat, counsel to the convict, Mr Maiyaki Theodore Bala, urged the court to note that his client did not only show remorse but never wasted the judicial time of the court.
Describing him as a first time offender with no previous record of convictions, Bala told the court that his client has a wife and three children, adding that he has aged parents that depend on him for their sustenance.
Claiming that the convict is suffering from a chronic heart condition that has aggravated to high blood pressure, Bala told the trial court that Yusufu is a community head who he said has many school children that depend on him for scholarship, “all these people depend on him for their survival and wellbeing including payment of school fees.
“It is our prayer that justice is tampered with mercy by sentencing him with the least possible terms or even exercise of discretion under section 309 of the Penal Code Act to fine him. This will encourage the others to take courage to admit guilt where one exists.”
EFCC demands stiff sanction
Although EFCC counsel did not oppose his plea of allocutus, he, however, urged the court to impose “such sanction that will send out a clear message that the era of impunity is gone. Having regard to the money involved and public trust reposed on the convict, which he breached, it may not be okay to just impose fine in this instance. We need to assuage the feeling of the Nigerian public especially the pensioners who have greatly suffered.”
In his ruling, Justice Thalba who maintained that the court has the absolute discretion to determine what should be regarded as the appropriate sanction for the offence, said he considered the plea made by the convict and the fact that he has already forfeited his assets.
Consequently, he sentenced the convict to two years imprisonment on each of the three-count charge which he said was equivalent to N250,000 fine each, adding that the sentence would run concurrently.
He said: “The court has a duty to do justice for not just the convict, but for the society al large. Today Nigeria is bedevilled with the cankerworm of white-collar crime which has subjected the citizens to abject poverty. It is not in doubt that the standard of living of an average Nigerian is declining day by day.
“Consequently, on count-18, I hereby sentence the convict to two years imprisonment or fine of N250,000, on count-19; I sentence him to two years imprisonment or fine of N250,000, likewise, on court-20 I also sentence him to two years imprisonment or fine of N250,000. The sentence will run concurrently and I further make and order for final forfeiture of his assets to the Federal Government.”
However, the court adjourned hearing on the case against the other accused persons till February 25, March 25 and 26.
EFCC protests against sentence
Meantime, immediately the sentence was handed by the trial judge, EFCC, through its counsel, lodged a formal complaint before the court, saying it was not pleased with the option of fine that was given to the convict.
Although its counsel, Jacobs, declined to disclose whether the agency will proceed on appeal, he however expressed his displeasure, fuming that it was not part of the agreement the commission had with the convict when he conceded to plead guilty to the charge against him.