A justice system that allows a man to be sentenced to death for stealing N57,000, while those who looted public treasuries are allowed to walk free, needs a swift overhaul.
On January 28, 2013, an Abuja High Court exposed the hypocrisy of the Nigerian justice system when it sentenced one John Yakubu Yusufu, standing trial on charges of stealing N32.8 billion in the Police Pension scam to two years imprisonment on each of three charges, and then offered him an option of N250,000 fine on each count. The former Assistant Director in the Police Pension Office simply paid the N750,000 fine and walked away. But the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) went on appeal.
Delivering judgment, Justice Emmanuel Agim of the Appeal Court, as he then was, made some observations: “The sentence does not show that it was influenced by considerations of the impact of the crime on the society or consideration of the nature of the crime… The offence committed by the respondent, by its nature, involves a grave breach of public trust, erodes public confidence in public governance, and causes retired police officers hardship and suffering…
“The ridiculously low monetary sentence as against the mind-blowing and massive amount of over N24 billion stolen helps the convict to effortlessly pay the fine and avoid the pain of punishment for his crime while retaining the proceeds of his crime…”
Then in April 2022 when President Muhammadu Buhari granted state pardon to Joshua Dariye and Jolly Nyame, former governors of Plateau and Taraba states who had been convicted for stealing N1.16 billion and N1.6 billion respectively, from their state treasuries while they were in office between 1999 and 2007, a human rights lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Femi Falana, urged President Muhammadu Buhari to free all prisoners who had been jailed for stealing.
Falana contended that by Section 17 of the 1999 Constitution, citizens were entitled to equal rights and opportunities in which case state pardon should be extended to all prisoners who are serving jail terms for stealing.
Prior to these, a former Governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion was charged by the EFCC in January 2008 for siphoning over $25 million of public funds. He eventually pleaded guilty. When he was convicted along with his company in 2008 on 27 counts of money laundering, the trial judge, Abdullahi Kafarati handed down a light sentence that excluded jail term. Igbinedion paid the equivalent of a N3 million fine, agreed to forfeit some of his properties and walked away.
While the rich thieves continually get slapped on the wrist, helpless Nigerians were shocked a few days over the mind-boggling death sentence passed on a 32-year-old vulcaniser by an Ikeja Special Offences Court presided over by Justice Mojisola Dada for stealing N57,000. For robbing a nurse of N57,000 Justice Mojisola Dada sentenced Chidozie Onyinchiz, to death by hanging. The question on the lips of bewildered Nigerians is: Why are politicians and public servants who over the years impoverished and literally snuffed life out of Nigerians allowed to walk free?
Justice Dada said the convict’s attempt to wriggle out of the charges was futile. This, she said, was because he had earlier confirmed to the police at Igando, Lagos, that his victim, Veronica Uwayzor sighted him and they both recognised each other at the time of the offence.
According to Justice Dada: “The defendant had stated that the complainant pointed at him as one of the boys armed with a pair of scissors and forcefully snatched her bag containing N57,000 at Akesan Bus Stop. The complainant had stated that neither the defendant nor his accomplice, Ediri Endurance, (still at large) wore masks which made it possible for her to easily recognise Onyinchiz a few hours after the robbery. The first statement of the defendant which he made at Igando Police Station confirmed that he and Ediri went to Akesan Bus Stop on the day of the robbery…
“The totality of the evidence before the court is compelling and I find the defendant guilty of the charges preferred against him. He is hereby sentenced to death by hanging and may God have mercy on his soul.”
And so the thieving vulcaniser faces a violent death by hanging while those that have impoverished Nigerians, enriched themselves through outright looting of public funds and brazenly weaponised poverty are celebrated. But as observed by a former President of the Civil Liberties Organisation, Ayo Obe, “it was the armed robbery element that attracted the (mandatory) death penalty, rather than the amount stolen. Privileged thieves arm themselves with pens and computers, but oddly enough, these are not considered weapons …”
Moreover, since laws are made by the ruling class in order to fortify their position in the society, these powerful people make, amend, review and generally tinker with legislations, with a view to preserve their own interests.
Daily, people are randomly arrested and hauled into overflowing prisons for ridiculous reasons, while known criminals are left alone. This group of persons constitutes the greatest number of Awaiting Trial Inmates (ATIs) across the country. Ola, a panel beater who recently regained his liberty after eight years in prison for failing to stop suspected criminals being pursued by soldiers in Lagos, was one of those unfortunate Nigerians. When the soldiers eventually handed him over to the police, he was charged for armed robbery.
Back to the issue of high-profile crime; in August 2021, an anti-corruption watchdog, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) filed an action at Federal High Court in Abuja to challenge the failure of the anti-graft agencies to effectively check massive corruption in government, which according to the group, had hampered government’s ability to meet the needs of citizens.
In December 2022, another group, the Human and Environmental Development Agenda, (HEDA Resource Centre), threatened to sue the Association of National Accountants of Nigeria over its failure to investigate and sanction the suspended Accountant General of the Federation, Idris Ahmed, who is being prosecuted by the EFCC over the allegation of N80 billion fraud. Nigerians await the conclusion of the matter and many more. In the meantime, small-time thieves are being shown the way out of the world just for using weapons as ridiculous as scissors. Some of their compatriots who are lucky are also swelling up the prisons.
As Falana said, “Criminal conversion of billions is worse than armed robbery. In 1974, Fela sang in his record, ‘Authority Stealing’ that ‘pen robbery is worse than armed robbery.’ Today, the few people who steal the billions earmarked for development pave the way for armed robbery, unemployment and poverty.”
In Nigeria today, the two basic legislations that deal with crime are the Criminal Code (applicable to the southern states in Nigeria) and the Penal Code (applicable in the 19 northern states). These two legislations which were promulgated in 1902 and 1960, respectively, have become very obsolete. From 1999, EFCC, ICPC, among others, were added to criminal justice. These agencies however focus on corruption-induced matters.
Notwithstanding, now more than ever is time to reform the criminal justice system. Now more than ever, is the time the Nigerian law Reform Commission (NLRC) on whose shoulders rest the reform and update of obsolete laws, rises up to its responsibility to do the needful.
• Okenwa is a journalist, lawyer and Publisher of Law & Society Magazine.