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The sole convict slithers away

HARRY Handcuffs Houdini was famed for his serial escape tricks. He toured Europe as a magician and challenged the police to lock his hands and legs up with handcuffs and watch him escape. He regularly beat the police at their own game by managing to slither away from any restraint the police or indeed any other willing participant designed for him.

In 1904, he nearly met his match when the London Daily Mirror challenged him to escape from special handcuffs designed by an equally famous locksmith, Nathaniel Hart. During a high-strung performance at The London Hippodrome Theatre with more than 4,000 people in attendance, the general conclusion after an hour was that this time Houdini had been defeated. Then a strange event happened, his wife came on stage and kissed him. Within minutes after this strange kiss, Houdini emerged from his tent free from handcuffs. A legend was made; with stories filled with myths, rumours and allegations of using unfair means.

When President Buhari was campaigning for the presidency, he had this almighty banner at Surulere, Lagos which read simply “Corruption stamped out.” I loved the rhyme of this promise, even though I always asked that little question: “how?” The presidential candidate’s plan on how to eliminate this corruption was a well-kept secret throughout the campaigns; well it is still a well-kept secret today after almost two years in office.

On assumption of office, the president apparently ordered the law enforcement agencies to go after corrupt persons in the immediate past Federal Government with gusto. To their credit they have achieved revelations that shook Nigerians to the marrow. The relationship of the law enforcement agencies with the Nigerian Press have been, to all intents and purposes, “live.” Nigerians receive information in real time as “confessions” tumble out of the mouths of several PDP stalwarts. Overwhelming majority of Nigerians were appropriately impressed, but that uncanny questioning voice returned with the question: “when are these men going to be convicted and sentenced to prison?”

Nigerians are not new to what some may term as pretenses of fighting corruption. British writer, Jeffrey Archer had appropriately captured our unique Nigerian pattern in his short story “clean sweep Ignatius.”   Several governments had treated Nigerians to the circus of fighting corruption, all ending with the publicly and media-convicted persons doing a Houdini on the society.

After Obasanjo’s EFCC came on full steam, a few convictions and even fewer real sentencing of high profile politicians who stole our commonwealth was recorded. But the convictions were clearly too few and merely salutary. The Yar Adua/Jonathan government started with the filing of an incredible number of charges against erstwhile governors; nearly to the last these charges were either frustrated by clever lawyers, sloppy rules of court and, to all intents and purposes, compromised courts.

Nigerians certainly are not going to get excited, no matter how many headlines a few government-leaning newspapers continue to flash, with trials that head nowhere. They certainly want convictions and punishments. They also do want a broader war against corruption that covers all political parties and extends to serving officials of the present regime.

Close to the halfway mark of this regime, are there any signs that Nigerians will get any of the demands they have on this never-ending issue of corruption? The clear answer is in the negative and one need not go far to unearth the evidence. The evidence can be wrapped up in three words; James Bala Ngilari.

This former governor of Adamawa State became the very first politician charged by this regime to court and convicted by a competent court. Many right-thinking Nigerians were happy when this conviction was achieved and a sentence of five years imprisonment slammed on the convict. The hailers ululated that this was one in a long line of convictions and punishment that this regime’s “war against corruption” will achieve. Well, their prognosis sort of collapsed within days: the convict has done a Houdini. He is out of prison, sanctioned by the same court that sentenced him in the first place. His bail is said to be based on a document allegedly forged by no less humans than prison officials.

The health papers stated that James Bala Ngilari had diabetes, hypertension and – wait for it – insomnia! The third alleged illness is insulting enough; who will not have insomnia after transiting from the splendor of the government house to the prison yard? The part about diabetes and hypertension is no less annoying, especially since no information about the level of the diabetes and hypertension was even supplied to the court. At least more than 50% of Nigerians above 50 years have either or both of these two illnesses to a certain degree.

Well, I am beginning to sound like one of those ubiquitous Facebook “wailers”, so I must restrain myself. The truth is that if this government intends to achieve any meaningful strides in fighting corruption, they really need to raise their game from the present 10% active to about 80% active. The first meaningful way is through legislations that overhaul the entire rule books. The ideal legislation must do a thorough overview of how the earlier suspects escaped justice and come up with laws that will block these lacunas.

Obasanjo and Jonathan created legal instruments that has given a bit of fillip for this regime in fighting corruption and the instruments are the EFFC Act and the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA. This regime must raise their act and realise that propaganda alone cannot achieve much in a long term institutionalised fight against corruption. Public sensitisation must be backed up with opaqueness that extends the fight to all comers and not just PDP members.

Then the enabling laws and rule books must be strengthened with the full imprimatur of brilliant locksmiths, who have analysed the escape routes. It is only then that the likes of James Bala Ngilari will not pull a Houdini on the rest of us.

Mr. Emeka Odikpo, a lawyer , wrote from Lagos.


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