Mr. John Yakubu Yusuf
Except the nation’s justice system is overhauled, the fight against graft may as well remain a mirage, writes Olawale Olaleye
The joke above was an aftermath of the tragi-comedy occasioned by the Justice Talba Mohammed ruling in the case of a former Director of Pension in the Police Affairs Ministry, Mr. John Yakubu Yusuf, who though stood trial for allegedly stealing N27 billion, was however convicted with a paltry fine of N750,000. It was corruption made attractive as the joke above went viral on the social media.
But the Yusuf experience was not the first. Ponder this: Although a true life story, it remains one joke that further stresses the tragedy of the Nigerian situation. It was the trial of former Edo State governor, Mr. Lucky Igbinedion, which first phase was determined in January of 2008.
A Federal High Court in Enugu had in a trial initiated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) convicted Igbinedion. The charge which was at the last count 191 for alleged stealing N4.3 billion, was later narrowed down to one-count charge after a plea bargain was struck between the ex-governor and the anti-graft commission.
The one-count charge that led to Igbinedion’s conviction read: “That you Lucky Nosakhare Igbinedion (former governor of Edo State) on or about 21st January 2008 within the jurisdiction of this honourable court neglected to make a declaration of your interest in the Account No: 4124013983110 with a new generation bank (Name withheld) in the declaration of assets form of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and you thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 27 (3) of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Act 2008.”
When the court read out this new charge to Igbinedion, he did not waste time to plead guilty, prompting the presiding judge, Justice Abdul Tafarati, to sentence him to a fine of N3.5 million which is equal to the amount in the said account.
The judge, based on this, asked the EFCC to remand him in its custody pending the time he would pay the fine. But as at the time Igbinedion was driven out of the court premises, the fine was said to have been cleared because he was believed to have had a pre-knowledge of the ruling and had the money ready with him in court. The joke that followed arose from the incomprehensible shock of how a man who reportedly stole N4.3 billion got away by just paying N3.5 million. And so, for Igbinedion, no deal could have been better struck; it was a profitable corruption.
But sometime in February 2011, the EFCC made real its threat when it appealed the judgment and asked for stiffer sanctions. On the new charge, Igbinedion faced a N25 billion fraud trial at the Federal High Court in Benin, the Edo State capital. Some observers already see the latest move as politically motivated to put him in check even though he is said not to constitute any threat to anyone.
Besides that, Igbinedion was said to have been barred from further entering into the United States of America on account of the many corruption charges.It, however, appears nemesis has just begun to catch up with him after eight years of alleged landslide failure in Edo State as governor.
Following in that sequence, the case of Yusuf, who like Igbinedion smartly changed his not guilty plea to guilty, had since elicited outrage. He was on Monday sentenced to two years in prison. But the trial judge, Mohammed, gave him the option of a N750,000 fine, having pleaded guilty to three out of the amended 20-count charge preferred against him and others by the EFCC. The Judge said because he was a first time offender who had also saved the time of the court and had forfeited his property and assets to the Federal Government, the court was inclined to consider his plea for leniency and as such, tempered justice with mercy without commensurate basis.
The judge also observed that the court had a duty to Nigeria, a country bedeviled with the monster of white collar fraud which had denied Nigerians of better living conditions and therefore alluded to section 309 of the Penal Code under which the accused persons were charged as providing for two years imprisonment with an option of fine or both. As a result, he sentenced Yusuf to two years imprisonment for each of the counts or an option of N250,000.
But the EFCC immediately expressed reservation over the court’s decision. The commission’s Head of Media and Publicity, Mr. Wilson Uwujaren, said the option of fine runs contrary to the understanding between the prosecution and the defence, wherein the convict consented to a custodial sentence with a forfeiture of all assets and money that are proceeds of the crime. He noted also that the agreement was duly communicated to the judge who was believed to have acted contrary to the understanding.
Consequent upon this, the EFCC has since re-arrested Yusufu, on other fraud-related matters. He was also re-arraigned on Wednesday at a Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja, on a fresh charge for committing fraud to the tune of N300 million. In the fresh four-count criminal charge, the convict was accused of false declaration of assets, contrary to Section 27(3) of the EFCC Act, 2004. He was also accused of keeping a N250 million deposit for a private company, SY-A Global Services Ltd, floated in the name of his family members as directors and refused to disclose same in his asset declaration form. The money was alleged to have been fixed in an account with Zenith Bank Plc.
In the new charge signed by EFCC’s Director of Legal Services, Mr. Chile Okoroma, Yusuf was also accused of fixing another N10 million on behalf of his private company bank account at First Bank of Nigeria Plc, where he was the sole signatory to the account and also fixed another N29 million in a different bank account but failed to disclose his interest in his asset declaration form.
More typically, the mild sentence given Yusuf on Monday drew serious rage from many Nigerians including such unions as the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC), Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) and a human rights group, Access to Justice (AJ).
While the NLC was not impressed by the light sentence and described same as “scandalous”, the TUC said the judgment was one of the disgraceful actions of the judiciary which “is killing this country”.
The CNPP on its part said the judgment was “less than a slap on the wrist for the amount he admitted to stealing from helpless police pensioners”. Access to Justice group would rather the judgment was “unfair, a blatant travesty and parody of justice”.
Activist and former member of the House of Representatives, Hon. Dino Melaye, had immediately elected to lead a protest against the judgment, calling on all human rights activists, students, union leaders and citizens who abhor corruption to join in the protest against the judgment. “We must rescue our country. Enough is enough! If we kept quiet, more miscarriages of justice would happen. God bless Nigeria,” he noted.
Yusuf’s re-arraignment notwithstanding, the development has again raised fundamental questions about the country’s corruption perception when juxtaposed with the Federal Government mantra of combating graft. With a rather lazy and corrupt judiciary, observers believe corruption is inevitably profitable in this clime and of course, attractive.
Otherwise, like many have reasoned, how does anyone justify the fine of N750,000 in a matter involving about N39 billion? The fact that the EFCC had also claimed that the trial judge was privy to the understanding it had with the accused person which was a custodial sentence and a forfeiture of certain assets says more about the premeditated action of the judge which had set out ab initio to free the accused.
This has also brought to the fore, issue about the many outdated provisions in the nation’s penal code that are begging for a review. Some of these penal codes are as old as the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern protectorates which prescribe paltry fines for some of these offences, given what was obtainable at the time. Observers contend that it only speaks to common sense and genuine desire for change that some of them are looked into and reviewed to sooth the nation’s present challenges, especially as they concern corruption.
But for as long as the subsisting culture is maintained, sustained and encouraged through the different judicial pronouncements even if on grounds of leniency, observers insist corruption will remain profitable and Nigeria will be the worse for it.