By Ishola Balogun
To so many people, the conviction of Mr John Yakubu Yusufu for two years with the option of a paltry sum of N750,000 is more of a tasteless joke than a bitter reality.
While Yusufu diverted N23 billion Police Pension Fund, Adepoju Jamiu, 23, living in Ondo who was accused of stealing a China Blackberry phone worth N17, 000 was not so lucky as the Ikare Magistrate Court sentenced him to three years imprisonment without an option of fine.
Like Yusufu, Jamiu also pleaded guilty to the charge. Just last year, somebody stole a bush meat in Edo state and he was sentenced to three years imprisonment. But how can we compare that with the pension thief who stole billions and denied pensioners from their benefits and yet got his freedom after paying a paltry sum from his wallet.
Recall that the former Governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion who was found guilty by a Federal High Court in Enugu of embezzling N2.9 billion, got his freedom after paying a fine of N3.5million. Although he was made to refund about 500 million and forfeited three of his properties to the government.
Similarly, the former Managing Director of Oceanic Bank got a six-month jail term having been found guilty of fraud. She was also made to forfeit over N150 billion in assets and cash.
As a result of the biting public outcry on the judgement, Saturday Vanguard sought the opinion of all classes of people on the issue.
For those who have studied the trend and how lawyers manipulate the technicalities of the law, they are not stunned by the development. To them, it only proved further that the much talked about fight against corruption by this administration is only a fluke and a mockery of the judiciary system.
Front line lawyer and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Femi Falana said the development did not come to him as a surprise because it followed the pattern of previous sentences on most of the big scam in the country.
According to him, “This development follows the particular pattern of treating the rich with kid gloves while other people are being railroaded to jail. In previous cases, it has always been light sentences for the rich, like the case of former Governor Lucky Igbinedion who was asked to pay a fine of N3million; Cecelia Ibru was asked to forfeit to the government hundreds of millions of naira.”
On the penal code which the House of Representatives has vowed to change, the human rights lawyer said the Senate would have reduced the punishment for the offence essentially to guarantee a safe landing for the offenders.
“All the senate has done essentially is to produce a safe landing for the offender which is a problem.” Querying the rationale behind new law, he stated that there is no need for a new law on criminal justice.
“There was a judgment of Lagos High Court which has said that while the death penalty may be said to be guaranteed or recognised by the constitution, the manner of execution of any human being either by hanging or electrocution or by any other means, you cannot execute the judgement because it offends the right to dignity of the person because if you put a rope on his neck, it is barbaric and unconstitutional and it is illegal.
So, also the 2011 law on terrorism which is stringent to include life imprisonment. So, we don’t need new laws to deal with terrorism,” he stated.
The former governor of Edo State, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, however expressed shock when he heard about the judgement. “I was shocked when I heard the judgement. Somebody first threw a joke to me saying it pays to be a thief.
He said the person who stole the police pension fund will not go to jail but he only got a N750,000 fine. I was shocked.
“The next morning, it was confirmed when newspapers published the story. I felt so concerned that I had to call a friend who is a lawyer. But the lawyer told me the offence to which the man was charged has a maximum of two years imprisonment.”
The former governor maintained that some aspects of our laws as they relate to the penal system must be looked into adding that there was need to create special court for corruption charges. “In any case, I think the judge would have insisted that the man goes to prison. I think something is wrong with our laws and it is bad that we make a mockery of our judicial system.
“There are so many technicalities that make everything laughable. Other people are watching and it is in the same society that somebody was discussing a death penalty for kidnappers.
Somebody who kidnaps can have a death sentence while somebody who stole billions of naira or facilitated the theft of money belonging to pensioners who couldn’t send their children to school because they are not getting their pension as and when due can get two-year jail term with an option of fine of N750,000? It doesn’t make sense.
We must look at our laws again and make necessary amendments. We should also create special courts for corruption charges. Again, the judicial procedures must be changed to make it more simplified.”
Commenting on the judgment, Falana blamed the court stressing that it implies that the court displayed solidarity in this case.
He maintained that a few Nigerians have hijacked the criminal justice system in the country. “The powerful rich in Nigeria have hijacked criminal justice in Nigeria with connivance of the bar and the bench. So, it is important for Nigerians not to isolate a few of these cases, but they have to be examined holistically.”
On the new charge against Yusufu, Falana said the commission will do better this time in seeing that justice is done adding that the punishment for the new offence which is failure to declare assets attracts five years imprisonment.
Abia State Attorney-General, Barrister Kalu Umeh, explained that the judge must have related the offence under the law which the man was charged. “Why it is generating so much outcry is because so much has been talked about the amount involved.
But one can say it is abysmal and it does not reflect the seriousness of the offence but I think it was as a result of not having good penal system.
“However, I will say that everybody knows that there is a need for us to fight corruption and if people are found guilty of this kind of offence and let go with this kind of judgment, then that does not show that we have proper penal system.
Something is wrong with the system. I understand that he was asked to forfeit some of his property but apart from property forfeiture, there is the need to set example as a deterrence to others.”
He stated that the judge may be absolved of blame in the sense that he interpreted the law the way it is. “If the judge is found to be right meaning that he rightly interpreted the law, what we need to do is to go back to the drawing board to amend those things that are wrong.”
On the option of fine, he added that it all depends on the facts before the judge adding that the prosecution has the right of appeal as a remedy to the situation if unsatisfied.
“Justice is not only for the few, it is for the society. The money the man diverted is public money and that is why we have this outcry. It is also a challenge to our lawmakers to go back to the table in a bid to strengthen our penal system so that anybody found guilty of corruption will be appropriately dealt with.”