By John Bulus
The N750, 000 awarded to former Director in the Police Pension office as fine against the embezzlement of N23 billion by an Abuja High Court raises questions on the relevance of plea bargain concept in law in the now criminally infested society.
Saturday Vanguard’s JOHN BULUS in this special report compiles some controversial cases of plea bargain in the Nigerian Legal System in the recent times.
Is Justice for sale in Nigeria? Does plea bargain still have a place in the Nigeria legal system? Does stealing “big” attract insignificant punitive measures and vice versa?
Should Judges in the temple of justice give verdict on the templates of law or just on their discretion? In any case, how relevant is our penal code to the realities of the modern times vis-à-vis criminal tendencies of some Nigerians? Outside the legal issues, what happens to the moral contents of both the Judges and the jailed in the light of the “huge” offence committed? Indeed, these are some of the avalanche of questions that have been agitating the minds of many Nigerians in the wake of the judgment handed down by the Justice Abubakar Thalba of an Abuja High Court to Mr. John Yakubu Yusuf on Monday, January 28, 2013.
Mr. Yakubu was a former Director in the Police Pension office.
He was accused of complicity alongside 8 other civil servants in the illegal diversion of over N40 billion from the Nigeria Police Pension Funds and has been standing trail since mid last year. But on Monday, he confessed to have connived with the others to steal the Commission’s N23 billion.
Consequently, Justice Thalba in the exercise of his discretion sentenced the accused for 2 years on a three count charge he pleaded guilty to which he said was equivalent to N250,000 fine each, adding that the sentence would run concurrently. Put in another language, Mr. Yusuf outside the seizure of his property was asked to pay only N750, 000 for stealing a huge sum of 23 billion Naira.
Justice Thalba said: “The court has a duty to do justice for not just the convict, but for the society at large. Today Nigeria is bedeviled 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 count-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.”
But since the judgment was made, a conflagration of wild protests and outcry from the members of the public has trailed it. Even though, opinions have differed on the issue, many Nigerians still believe that such punitive measure is not commensurate with the offence committed.
In any case, some have recalled the plight of some pensioners who have had to contend with the artificial burdens such diversion of monies meant for their pension caused them. Yet again, some analysts say it encourages theft and embezzlement of public funds.
In a protest in Abuja, the Executive Secretary of Anti-Corruption Network (ACN) and former member of the House of Representatives, Hon. Dino Melaye group alongside the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) and Association of Unemployed Youths of Nigeria (AUYN) said, “We are collaborating now with Nigerian students and others interested in fighting corruption and part of our strategy is to ensure that we shout ‘barawo’ in the North; ‘ole’ in the South-West and ‘onyeoshi’ in the East of this country among others on corrupt people.”
A petition which the group claimed it submitted to the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloma Mukhtar, and copied to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke on the matter reads in parts:
“How else can we describe a situation where Mr John Yusuf, a man involved in over N27 billion pension scam was let off the hook with N750,000 only as fine option of two years jail term? We recall that a Magistrates’ Court recently sentenced a man to two years jail term without option of fine for stealing a goat worth five thousand naira. You will also agree with us that China is the largest economy today, yet it punishes cases of corruption to serve as deterrent with capital punishment (death).
“We once again call for eradication of plea bargain. It is evil, nonsensical, archaic and detrimental to our avowed fight against corruption. We advocate the China option of capital punishment for corruption, in which the family of the convicted and executed persons pay the bill for execution”.
Similarly, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Federal University of Agriculture (FUNNAB), Abeokuta, also condemned the judgment on the police pension fund.
The association, in a statement issued on Wednesday said: “The union weeps for a nation where a person can be accused to have stolen over N20billion in pension funds. The accused pleads guilty and agrees to have stolen N2bn and the court judgment is only a fine of N750, 000.
“We are surprised that the accused, who was found guilty any way, did not only receive a presidential handshake as appreciation for such act of patriotism and national service. What a shame! What a descent from decency we have slid to!”
Meanwhile, the judgment has recalled to mind some other controversial verdicts of apparent insignificant jail terms given by the judiciary in the recent times which did not go down well with majority of Nigerians due to the volume of the offence committed. Some of the judgments and the jailed or acquitted included:
Tafa Balogun was the former Inspector General of Police, IGP, during the President Olusegun Obasanjo era. He could be rated as the first Nigerian official who was prosecuted by the Economic and FinancialCrimes Commission (EFCC).
In the charge preferred against him by the anti-graft agency under the Money Laundering Prohibition Act in 2005, Balogun was said to have incorporated some companies to loot the police treasury through bribes and kickbacks on contracts. Billions of naira were fraudulently withdrawn by him from the police account and transferred to the companies to buy shares and landed properties and foreign currency. Consequently, he was forced to resign.
During his trial, the Judge, Justice Binta Nyako in her judgment said she considered the fact that Balogun was a “first offender” and had “shown remorse” throughout the trial.
“I hereby sentence the accused to a term of six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 naira (3,846 US dollars) on each of the eight charges against him,” said Nyako.
The Judge also went ahead to say that the six months will run concurrently and according to her, 67 days already spent in detention during the trial was deducted.
Justice Nyako also ruled that “he will forfeit all his assets, shares and landed property acquired with the fund stolen from the police treasury. The assets totaled 150 million US dollars, including moneystashed in banks, shares in blue chip companies and 14 luxury buildings.”
But the jail term served by Tafa Balagun was nowhere closer to the wishes of many Nigerians who eventually could do nothing at the discretion of the Judge in her ruling.
She was the former Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Oceanic Bank International Plc, Dr. Cecilia Ibru. She was found culpable of embezzling billions of Naira with which she acquired property at choice places almost the world over in 2010. Mrs. Ibru was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment in a plea bargaining arrangement.
Like Balogun, Ibru spent only six months in the prison as she was convicted six months each on a three-count charge after the withdrawal of all the charges with the exception of the three charges which were counts 14, 17 and 23 to which she pleaded guilty. And the sentences also ran concurrently.
Her lawyer, Prof. Taiwo Osipitan (SAN), pleaded that she was coming from the hospital to the court and the trial Judge, Justice Dan Abutu, while delivering his judgment also directed that she should be returned to the hospital. In other words, Mrs. Ibru served her jail in the hospital and not in the prison.
Lucky Igbinedion was governor of Edo from 1999-2007. He was charged with embezzling 2.9 billion naira and he pleaded guilty to one count of corruption in a plea bargain at a Federal High Court in Enugu.
He was fined to refund about 500 million and forfeit three properties, including one in the capital Abuja according to the Judge, Justice A. Abdu-Kafarati that presided over the case.
The then spokesperson of the EFCC, Femi Babafemi who was not at home with the option of fine said “”We are quarrelling (with) the option of a fine. Such options would not serve as deterrent to others who might want to commit such crimes”.
He was a former governor of the oil-producing state of Bayelsa. Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, was sentenced to two years in prison in July 2007 in a plea bargain, but spent only a few months in jail as he had been in detention since December 2005. Alamieyeseigha was arrested with almost 1 million pounds in cash in his London home in 2005. He was charged by British authorities with money laundering but skipped bail and returned to Nigeria where state governors have immunity from prosecution. Most Nigerians are not happy with the period he served and how he served it.
Like Lucky Igbinedion, James Ibori was governor of Delta State between May 1999 and May 2007. He admitted 10 counts of conspiracy to fraud and money laundering.
Southwark Crown Court where he was tried was told the amount he stole from the people of Delta state was “unquantified”.
Ibori, who evaded capture in Nigeria after a mob of supporters attacked police, was arrested in Dubai in 2010. He was later extradited to the UK, where he was prosecuted based on evidence from the Metropolitan Police.
One of the counts Ibori admitted related to a $37m (£23m) fraud pertaining to the sale of Delta State’s share in Nigerian privatized phone company, V. Mobile.
Sentencing him, Judge Anthony Pitts told Ibori: “You lived modestly in London in the 1990s and no-one I think hearing at that time would imagine the multi millionaire high profile governor that you became some eight or nine years later.”
Judge Pitts said: “It was during those two terms that you turned yourself in short order into a multi-millionaire through corruption and theft in your powerful position as Delta state governor.”
It could be recalled that before Ibori’s conviction in UK, a Nigerian Court in Asaba, Delta State headed by Justice Marcel Awokulehin had dismissed all the charges brought against the former governor only for him to be found guilty of the same charges by a court in the UK.