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Beyond the thief and the judge

By Ochereome Nnanna
NIGERIA is a country of one week, one outrage. That of last week had to do with John Yakubu Yusuf, the Assistant Director in the Police Pension Office, Abuja, who was fined N750,000 and allowed to go home after confessing his role in the stealing of 32.8 billion naira belonging to his office, along with six other accused persons who are still standing trial.

Yusuf’s lawyer had approached the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) which was prosecuting the case, to enter into a plea bargain on behalf of his client. Yusuf confessed he stole 2.4 billion naira. He forfeited some 32 houses in Abuja and the sum of 325 million naira found in his bank account. In the end, the presiding Abuja High Court judge, Justice Mohammed Talba, convicted Yusuf on three count charges of stealing and abuse of office. He was sentenced to the maximum two years jail term or N250,000 per count which the Penal Code of Northern Nigeria prescribes for the charges under which EFCC was prosecuting him.

Rather than send him to jail, Talba decided to let Yusuf go home if he parted with the N750,000 fine. The convicted man paid immediately and was driven home in his posh Mercedes Benzes sedan. It seemed as though Yusuf and his lawyer knew ahead of time what the fine was going to be, and they were ready with it. The outrage started right there in court. EFCC’s lawyer, Rotimi Jacobs, (SAN) was shocked to tears. I found that surprising. As the Commission’s lawyer, was he not taken along when the plea bargain deal was brokered? Did the EFCC go behind him to do it?

Everything about this case is wrong. Why it that, 99 years after the Southern and Northern Protectorates were amalgamated; and 95 years after the Penal Code was enacted for Northern Nigeria while the Criminal Code became the legal basis of crime administration in the South, the dichotomy is the sustained? I ask this question, bearing in mind that the Judiciary is the only arm of government that has remained intact since the artificial creation of Nigeria. The Executive Branch has moved from the colonialists to indigenous civilians and from the military back to civilians, with a shift from Parliamentary to Presidential systems of governance.

North and South legal codes

Each of these shifts required lengthy periods for people to get used to the new unfolding dispensations. The legislature has been suspended and restored several times. But the Judiciary has remained unmolested by externally or politically induced change. Why has it failed to develop into an institution that every Nigerian can look up to for protection and justice? Why has it maintained separate legal codes for North and South?

Some lawyers have tried to mount a spirited defence of Justice Talba’s strange magnanimity. Their main plank is that the EFCC, seeking to reduce cost and reclaim as much of the police funds from Yusuf as possible, as well as getting more facts from him to nail his other adamant six accused accomplices, settled for a softer treatment for him. This, in all honesty, is the main spirit behind the plea bargain option all over the world.

However, Justice Talba, for whatever reason, in his eagerness to grant Yusuf a soft landing, shut his eyes to the impact of such a ruling on society at large.

Where is justice for the police officers and other ranks who as a result of the looting of their pension fund, are going to suffer when they retire? A policeman, who probably was forced to bribe someone to be recruited, bought his own uniforms and boots, studied in decrepit training institutions which we saw recently, endured dehumanising conditions of service and still served to the best of his ability. He will retire and cannot access his pension because a group of officials whose job was to manage his pension chose to steal it, and were not even jailed! For him the judiciary can no longer be trusted to do justice. Some might decide to go and extract justice by themselves, their own way, and thus plunge society into anarchy.

Talba also did not reckon with the fact that the six other accused persons and their lawyers were watching with keen interest how Yusuf’s case would end. Other officials still managing workers’ pensions and retirement funds, which run into trillions of naira, are also watching. Without a resounding deterrent factor in crime administration, corruption will become uncontrollable. Talba’s judgement greases the cogs in the wheels of crime and corruption.

The implication for the economy as a whole is obvious. A system that encourages corruption will never allow the common man to enjoy the benefits of good governance. Since the end of military rule in 1999, the economy of Nigeria has continued to grow. Annual incomes have bloomed from year to year due to rising prices of crude oil in the international market, and yet the poverty level is worsening. Corruption is the main culprit.

Corrupt economy

A corruption-riddled economy like ours tends to attract the wrong kind of foreign investors. It is the kind of economy where the big time hustlers and mafias direct their predatory attention to. They come in, hit and run. They use the weak judiciary and corrupt public officials to work against the system, make their killing and vamoose.

If we are really serious about playing in the economic big league in the world, we must upgrade the laws and overhaul the judiciary. The courts must become the temples of justice. Right now, the perception is that Nigerian lawyers and judges are not prepared to make the court a temple of justice but an arena to make money, pander to the interests of the rich and powerful and trample upon the poor and lowly.

Nigerians are beginning to look to foreign courts for justice. Someone up there should be perturbed enough to do something about it.


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