By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo
Olisa Metuh is, ordinarily, a man of swagger. May affliction not befall us. He came into the court a few days ago strapped to stretcher, draped in hospital white. And tongues started wagging. I wish him a speedy recovery. Some tongues threw curses into the air for anyone who would compel such a sick man to come to court in an ambulance. Others read it differently. They saw deception and mischief. And they took to laceration and ridicule. They told of remarkable acting ability and a potential Oscar award. The pictures, from every angle,were sensational, scandalous. The multiplicity of what they evoked revealed a society riven by ethnic, religious and partisan allegiances and stuck in pervasive corruption and emotionality.
I have surveyed a diversity of reactions. A friend, a senior lawyer, perhaps possessed by ethnic fervour, threw a sentimental poser at me. He wanted to know if the sick man were an Ibrahim Mohammed if he would have been so badly dehumanized? I reminded him that Justice Abang is a meticulous judge. He is not a descendant of Othman Danfodio. Fulani herdsmen didn’t hound the sick man to court. He threw his chin up in derision. He seemed fed up with what he considered as my insufferable naivety. He said Metuh was treated like a second class citizen.
A former classmate, a gynecologist, wondered why Justice Abang rejected a valid medical report and ordered Metuh to be brought to court. He was insistent Abang should have deferred to Metuh’s doctors in matters of a patient’s fitness to attend court. He said the judge could have set up a medical panel to ascertain Metuh’s true health status if the medical report lacked reliability. I understood his reasons and his professional sentiments. But he didn’t channel his anger properly. Nigerian doctors sell medical reports. Nigerian politicians feign illnesses to fool judges and avoid trials. Medical panels are costly and cumbersome. Judges can’t therefore be blamed for being vigilant. They can’t curb corruption if they remained aloof to these contexts realities.
Judges usually defer to the medical opinions of medical doctors. But medical reports are by law not sacrosanct. Every big man charged with offenses bordering on corruption takes ill. They all take ill, and routinely seek leave of court for medical treatment abroad. Once that leave is granted, the big man who is already on bail, elopes. I have sympathy for Olisa Metuh, because he appears to be truly very ill. It doesn’t matter that some have said that they saw him everywhere during Ekwueme’s funeral a few days ago, looking legitimately, hale and hearty. People can fall ill even after marathon partying.
But who can then blame the judge? The bad eggs in medical practice can truncate nearly all corruption prosecutions by issuing dodgy reports. These medical reports and death certificates are sold for small fees. The problem is that the court’s insistence to see Metuh perhaps didn’t ultimately yield anything. Any politician who cannot play a little Nollywood role before a judge to stall his corruption trial is not from Nigeria. But I believe Metuh is ill.
A man exasperated with the anti-corruption agenda of this government asked a good question. He wanted to know why Metuh was even being prosecuted. Metuh was given money to run some errands by his boss. His boss has not lodged any complaints with the police. His boss is alive, well, ubiquitous and noisy. The money given poor Olisa Metuh by his boss was the sort of money his boss was expected to own. Yes, in Nigeria. That boss got many billions during his presidential campaigns’ fundraiser. The EFCC, however, insists that the money given Metuh was stolen from the public purse. But it couldn’t conceivably have been in Metuh’s contemplation that the boss stole from the public to fund his elections. Poor Metuh was not expected to have asked his boss about the source of the money before running the errand.
It was suggested that if Metuh had returned the money he would have received instant salvation. But how could Metuh have returned money that had been spent. And why can’t EFCC bring in his boss to explain why he gave an innocent poor Metuh stolen money. Metuh had once looked up to the hills and cried to the judge to invite his boss. So that his boss could come and tell the court the whole truth. The court listened and summoned his boss. His boss avoided court summons. Poor Metuh has been left to grapple with and languish in the long arms of the law. His boss has remained an exuberant hero. And Metuh has been left crumpled like crayfish.
Metuh has never been a coward. But circumstances can force a man to eat written statements and adopt timidity. Metuh was a mere messenger. But Metuh has been called names and labeled a traitor because he wanted his boss to come to court and tell the truth. They said he had joined opponents to rubbish his boss and expose him to ridicule. So what options are left for Metuh but to fold up and bear the heat alone.
Nigerians say circumstances must explain the bent posture of crayfish. Metuh has stooped to overcome. He is no coward. Some have insinuated that Metuh was taking cowardly refuge in Nollywood and exploiting hospital games. May God have mercy on Thomases. May we not have bosses who have big hats and small balls.
The gynecologist had warned that if the refusal of the court to recognize the authority of medical reports gained currency it could jeopardize the health of sick accused persons. I understood his point. Everyone is innocent until found guilty. But there is a bigger picture. All should be equal before the law. But we tend remember the rule of law only when the offender is rich and powerful.
Politicians will steal big. And will readily meet any bail conditions. The poor petty thief steals small and remains powerless. He never meets his bail conditions. He is remanded in prison custody. The prison doctor comes to work when he likes. The poor inmate on remand for theft takes ill and cannot get a referral. Prison doctors sell referrals. The price of a referral in Kirikiri prison , in 2013, was 250,000 naira after exhaustive haggling. So the poor suspect stays locked in, sick to his bones. No one would remember him and his fundamental human rights. No one would talk about rule of law.
Perhaps we should learn to bother more about the poor than the rich. The rich do not need our cries. They can always fend for themselves.