Nigeria: Justice for John Versus The Bar and the Bench
BY Justine John DYIKUK
A cursory look at the massive outrage that greeted the country following the judgement to wit ‘two (2) years imprisonment or an option of $1500 fine’ (the equivalent of N750,000) delivered by Justice Talba Abubakar on Tuesday 29, January 2013 in the widely celebrated pension fund scam case involving one John Yakubu Yusuf before the Abuja based High Court where he pleaded ‘guilty’ to the charges of carting away, taking, stealing, converting etcetera, a whooping sum of $203,000,000 police pension fund. Nigerians were at first instance glad as the culprit was arraigned before what is called in our legal system ‘A court of competent jurisdiction’, but little did they know that, the Court case was to further celebrate the embedded corruption bedevilled in the Nigerian system.
Even as an ordinary layman who has never addressed an umpire from the Bar, the facts of the case and most importantly, the accused person plea of ‘guilty’ was in my, and Nigerians’ opinion, enough for the court to do the necessary, to circumvent the limited scope of our statutory provisions and the continued mischievous intentions of makers of our laws. He (the Judiciary) should have thread towards a land-marking judgement in the case before it to dispel Nigerians’ impressions as to the flaws in previous cases, such as that of Ibori and the likes and to right the wrongs in our purported judicial precedents.
This is because to a very large extent, though an independent nation, we are still applying laws and practices we received under and during colonial rule thus politicizing the justice system. This no doubt also account for reasons why the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) has continued to clamour for the modifications of our statutory provisions. This notwithstanding, it is not sufficient for our legal system to continue to allow judgements that will be publicly held and perceived as inactive efforts that tend to show lack of reasonable approach on the part of the judiciary to frustrate and combat corruption in Nigeria.
This is basically why most Nigerians saw the instant judgement as bizarre; anger, resentment and criticism keep flying across the length and breadth of the nation. Missiles from the bench for Yusuf, his prosecutors and the bar came threatening. This thus raises the question, do the currents and cross currents of the scam portend anything for our judicial system, integrity, democracy, and the future of our dear country?
Channels Television on the programme Sunrise Daily yesterday morning featured two legal luminaries Festus Keyamo and Shittu Wahab who bared their minds on the ruling of the court and its implication for the nation. From their comments, including questions/contributions which came in from other Nigerians, one understands that there is a lacuna in our law. If the Constitution is our magna carta as a nation and there are loopholes therein, what do we expect?
The writer is not a legal practitioner but various commentaries on the jurisprudence of the matter at hand indicate that the learned Judge acted according to law. It is understood that the grounds of the ruling derives from Section 309 of the Penal Code which specified a 2 year imprisonment with an option of fine or both. It should be observed that the Penal Code is old and different from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Act. Commenting on the difference, one Wale Andy wrote: ‘The difference is that (the) Penal Code provides for 2 years sentence or option of fine while EFCC act provides for minimum of 15 years and maximum of 25 years jail term. (The) question is; why did the EFCC prosecutors charge him under Penal Code instead of EFCC act? Do we also know that the Judge cannot force EFCC to change or amend their charge? We need to look at the entire facts’ while we let lawyers to do the litigations!
Indeed while we are waiting for the entire facts to be unveiled for the good pleasure of our enlightenment, to the mind of this commentator and perhaps to that of other Nigerians, the demands of natural law should have pricked the conscience of the presiding Judge to use his discretionary prowess to sentence the accused to 2 years imprisonment with the fine of a legitimate sum commensurate with the crime in line with EFCC prescription. But who are we to tell a High Court Judge what to do in the temple of Justice? That the arbiter obtained a law degree in 1985 and was appointed to his current position in December 2003 doesn’t indicate that he is an amateur in the legal business; so what happened?
Major questions that come to mind are: Was that the best possible judgement (‘Justice Taliban,’ as he is popularly known in the city’s legal circles) could give? Would serving a jail term for 2 years as well as paying a fine of N75o thousand naira placate justice? Would it have satisfied the citizenry? Would it have been a lesson in the way of deterrence for other defaulters? Why the ambiguity in the romance between the Penal Code and the EFCC Act? What is the place of the Constitution in this quagmire?
Granted that Yusuf will ‘forfeit 32 houses in the Federal Capital Territory and Gombe as well as N325m cash, which the EFCC said were proceeds from the crime,’ (Cf., National Mirror, January 30) the common Nigerian cannot understand why someone who confessed to a crime that has caused the lives of many Nigerians and the integrity of this nation would be given such a mild sentence?
What are the moral, religious, political and legal implications of this verdict? The immense outcry from the masses says it all. It would not be an understatement to say, the ruling is injurious to our judicial system and an insult to our moral kitty. No doubt we have good and devout lawyers and law makers in our country but to have a cream of luminaries in the dark night of corruption without torches is attempting a battle without an armoury. No sensible man dares that!
It is no longer news in our country that many people have died and are still dying on long and endless queues awaiting their pension which only God knows when it will be paid. One can imagine the internal turmoil going through the minds of the relations of such patriots at the sight of John Yusuf walking into his car as a free man. Wouldn’t it evoke sentiments and deep sentiments at that in their hearts? Was the money he used in buying his freedom not part of that same ill-gotten fund? Did anything happen outside the courtroom which we are not aware of?
Little wonder then the Senate President, David Mark who spoke through Senate Leader, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba at the opening ceremony of the Senate probe of pension funds in Abuja, said: “Today in the management of our pensions we hear mind boggling stories. Administrators of pensions, we hear, are perhaps among the richest Nigerians. If your wealth is from peoples’ pensions, then that is blood money’’ (Cf., The Pension Pool Cesspool, The Nation, 30 January 2013). Why have fuel subsidy suspects like Farouk Lawan and others in his cast not been brought to book? Perhaps it is reason why patriotism has become a mirage in our age and time; same for using public funds to service family and friends, strengthen ethnic and cultural ties and to lubricate religious and political inclinations which are now common practices among public office holders.
We are announcing ourselves to the world by infamous sentences like this yet when Nigerian ranks high in the corruption index we cry foul. The massive backlash from Nigerian citizens and other anti-corruption activists across the globe is indicative of the voice of reason and a few who would stop at nothing in making us get things right. This is where the EFCC and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) come in – These anti-graft agencies must not be used as tools for fighting real or perceived political enemies but act in truth and justice. The efforts of these agencies are commendable but more needs to be done.
All who make our laws and interpret them must aim at working to fill the porous sections of our Constitution to make for a just judicial system sailed on constitutionality and natural law. The role of the attorney general of the federation should not stop at presenting penal code charges against offenders but making sure the rich and poor alike are given justice. Lawyers/Judges should ensure that justice prevails – those unjustly detained are tried and anyone who commits a crime and confesses to it in the court of law is made to face the wrath of the law. As a country, we ought to learn the plea bargain principle (the process whereby a criminal defendant and prosecutor reach a mutually satisfactory disposition of a criminal case, subject to court approval) employed in countries like the U S, Canada, Germany and India.
We must make a case for: legal-will power, sincerity, public service orientation and nationalistic goals. If our motivation in both corporate and private life is personal, we will forever miss the point. If the nation comes before all else, service will be the goal, common good the motivation, strength of character propelling as passion and excellence will be perfectly executed. The swift condemnation of the crime and call on the EFCC and the attorney general of the federation to appeal the sentence by the House of Representatives yesterday is a right step in the right direction. Is this a case of interlocutory appeal? Lawyers will answer that!
If the caption ‘N33bn scam: EFCC re-arrests convicted pension director’ as carried by National Mirror of January 30 is anything to go by, there is respite. As the EFCC spokesperson, Mr. Wilson Uwujaren confirmed: “the man was rearrested because he has a pending case. He is likely to face fresh charges. When you are arrested and you are being investigated, logically you will be re-arraigned to face fresh charges.” This news might make Nigerians want to watch this poignant movie again. But as to whether this ‘thriller’ will be a part one and two audio-visual package or a fully loaded seasonal film in the mould of Spartacus is left to all those involved!
Fr. Justine John DYIKUK, a Catholic priest, freelance writer/poet and Public Affairs Commentator writes from, Centre for the Study of African Culture and Communication, Catholic Institute of West Africa, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, where he is a post-graduate student in Communication Studies/Pastoral Communication!
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