The judiciary undermines the anti-corruption war when it allows convicts â€Žof corruption to walk free with light sentences, writes Davidson Iriekpen
Penultimate week, Justice Adebukola Banjoko of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in Gudu delivered a judgment which many analysts considered a dent to the fight against corruption. The judgment, which should serve as a deterrent will encourage public officers to be corrupt.
The judgement was in respect of the trial of the former Managing Director of the Rural Electrification Agency, Samuel Ibi Gekpe. Gekpe and other directors of the agency who were arraigned for disregarding the provisions of the Public Procurement Act and misappropriation of a whopping sum of N6billion.
The funds were mismanaged in the payment for rural electrification contracts which they purportedly awarded as the agencyâ€™s Public Procurement Committee in 2008.â€¨The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had arraigned them for criminal breach of trust before Justice Banjoko.
The other defendants are a former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Power, Dr. Abdullahi Aliyu, an accountant in the agency, Simon Kirdi Nanle, a director, Lawrence Orekoya, an assistant director, Abdulsamad Jahun and the agencyâ€™s former Head of Legal Department, Kayode Oyedeji.
During the trial, the prosecution team, led by Mr. Kemi Pinheiro (SAN), called seven witnesses from the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the United Bank for Africa (UBA) Plc, the agencyâ€™s officers and an EFCC operative, Ibrahim Ahmed. The defendants, represented by Paul Ewekoro (SAN), made a no-case submission, which was dismissed.
In her verdict, Justice Banjoko dismissed the first defendantâ€™s application challenging the courtâ€™s jurisdiction to entertain the charge. She found that the prosecution proved the ingredients of the offences of criminal breach of trust and conspiracy.â€¨The judge held that the defendants, who recklessly disregarded the provisions of the Public Procurement Act, misappropriated over N6billion in contract payments. She found all the defendants guilty as charged. She convicted and sentenced Gekpe to three years imprisonment with an option of a ridiculous N5million fine. The judge also sentenced the other defendants to three years imprisonment but with an option of N500,000 fine each. The fines according to her were to be paid within 30 days from the day the judgment was delivered.â€Ž
Whether the penalty is what the law specifies or not, Nigerians expected the judge to use his discretion properly. in an era when the country is doing everything to reduce corruption to barest minimum. Many analysts have described the verdict as ridiculous and a slap on the wrist. They wondered how punitive were the fines of N5million and N500,000 when compared to the N6billion that the convicts were said to have misappropriated. The analysts equally wondered who would steal N6billion and not pay a paltry sum of N5million or N500,000 to get his freedom?
For a country that has waged war against corruption, many would have thought that the judge would give the convicts a minimum of 15 years without an option of fine in order to send a clear message to public officers that corruption has dealt a fatal blow to the nation.
The judgment of Justice Banjoko vividly reminds Nigerians of a similar one delivered by Justice Abubakar Talba of the same FCT High Court who convicted a self-confessed pension thief, Mr. John Yakubu Yusufu in 2013 which drew a nationwide outrage against the judiciary. Yusufu, a former Assistant Director in the federal civil service, admitted to being part of those who stole N32 billion. His sentence, which was the first conviction in an elaborate scam that came to light in 2012, involved several top officials, offices and banks.
The convict was tried on a 20-count charge alongside Atiku Abubakar Kigo (Permanent Secretary), Ahmed Inuwa Wada (Director), Veronica Onyegbula (Cashier) and Sani Habila Zira (ICT Officer). His conviction came after he pleaded guilty to betraying trust and fraudulently converting N2 billion of police pension funds to private use. He admitted to the 19th and 20th offences relating specifically to him, each involving betrayal of trust and the conversion of N1 billion apiece. But to the consternation of Nigerians, the trial judge, Justice Talba, handed him a mere sentence of six years in jail and an option of N750,000 which he promptly paid to avoid going to jail instead of sentencing him to languish in prison for the rest of the his life.
To many observers the verdict by Justice Banjoko shows how the judiciary connives with the rich and famous to evade justice or encourage them to commit crimes. They wondered why the rich and wealthy are always getting away with malfeasance.
For instance, recently, Justice Jide Falola of the Osun State High Court in Osogbo sentenced a 31-year-old man, Kelvin Igha Igbodalo to 45 years imprisonment for stealing a Sony Ericson mobile phone that is not worth N7,000. Igbodalo, who was arraigned on a six-count charge of conspiracy, obtaining by false pretence, stealing, impersonation and advance free fraud, pleaded guilty. Consequently, Justice Falola sentenced him to 10 years in prison for each of the first three charges and five years each for the last three counts, amounting to 45 years. But those who fleeced the country of N6billion were given the options to pay paltry sums as fine!
Today, analysts know that corruption is the greatest problem confronting Nigeria. The malaise is seen as the greatest problem militating against growth and development. It has been argued that the damage corruption has done to the polity and the generality of the people is immeasurable. Observers feel that the menace has become endemic and devastating that the nation now seems to be at cross roads.
To them, nothing seems to be working well in the country because of corruption. The roads are bad, the power situation remains deplorable, the railway lines remain dysfunctional, the airports are lacking the necessary facilities, hospitals are nothing but mortuaries and lacking the necessary facilities while educational institutions are in comatose. All these are because the monies meant for basic facilities end up in private pockets and accounts.â€¨â€¨The feeling in many quarters is that the inability of government and its institutions to deal with corrupt public officers usually sends a wrong signal to the public that corruption is not punishable as long as the institutions could be compromised. This feeling has been given much credence by the upsurge in corrupt offences in recent time.
In the last 10 years, several high profile arrests of top politicians, captains of industries, directors-general of federal institutions, bank chiefs, and other high players in the corridors of power have been arraigned by the EFFC with no conviction.
Observers have often argued that the general incapacity of the judiciary to deal with corruption is why the malaise is on the rise in the country.
It was against this backdrop that the successive chairmen of EFCC have been soliciting the assistance of the judiciary to tackle the menace. At every forum, the chairmen who apparently have almost lost confidence in the way and manner judges handling corruption-related cases have conducted the cases before them, have been canvassing for a separate anti-corruption court to try cases of economic and financial crimes in the country as it is done in some countries like the United States and United Kingdom, saying that that was one of the most effective strategies the commission needed to adequately tackle graft in the country.
In an interview he granted a national newspaper recently, a public affairs analyst, Samson Edegbai, called on the judges to be firm and disciplined in order to overcome corruption themselves and not compromise any case before them. He called for the establishment of special courts to especially handle corruption cases.
Edegbai said corruption was becoming an embarrassment to the country and must be tackled collectively. He advocated for the setting up of special courts that will speedily try people accused of corruption, adding that the process of the ordinary courts cannot give offenders the convictions necessary to stem the tide of corruption.
“We need special courts that can try corruption cases speedily. For such courts, there should be deadlines or time frames within which cases should be dispensed with. This is critical because, if people corruptly enrich themselves and know that they can exploit the judicial processes then they could go to any length to perpetuate frauds in spite of the preaching by government.
â€œIf government is to make people know that something is truly happening in the fight against corruption, we need to see proper convictions. It is not enough to charge people to courts and then the next day they would be granted bail and that is all. They go about as free people to flaunt their ill-gotten wealth. This insults the sensibilities of honest members of the public and cannot therefore continue.
“This has assumed proportions that should be of great concern to all well-meaning Nigerians. We all know the situation in the courts with cases that drag for years. We need special courts to try corrupt persons. That is the only way to achieve results in the anti-graft campaign. You cannot prosecute a corrupt person in the ordinary courts with their well-known slow pace of things.”
On his part, a Lagos-based lawyer, Ademola Kolawole, described Nigeria as a country of jokers. He said until influential persons such as ex-governors, ministers, managing directors of banks and senior civil servants are put in prison for various offences, the country would never develop. â€œThe figure by the National Bureau of Statistics did not surprise me. It is what I have always known. Nigeria is a country of jokers. People who should have been locked away are the ones ruling us. Have you ever seen any governor, minister, bank MD (managing director) in jail in this country? Until this happens, nobody will sit up.â€
Igbodalo was setenced to 45 years imprisonment for stealing a Sony Ericson mobile phone that is not worth N7,000 while those who fleeced the country of N6 billion were given the options to pay paltry sums as fines!