When President Muhammadu Buhari granted a state pardon in April 2022 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, rights lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Femi Falana, urged President Muhammadu Buhari to free all prisoners who have 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.
On January 28, 2013, an Abuja High Court aroused a battery of tasteless jokes when it sentenced John Yakubu Yusufu, standing trial on charges of stealing N32.8billion 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 in the appeal, Hon. Justice Emmanuel Agim, JCA as he then was, made some observations. “Without the judgment expectedly stating so, the choice of punishment of 2 years imprisonment with the option to pay N250,000.00 fine for each count of offence, an amount obviously very disproportionate to the humongous amount of over 24 billion naira stolen or converted by the convict, appear to have been influenced by the consideration of tampering justice with mercy and being lenient to the convict, than consideration of correcting the convict and deterring other persons…
“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 caused retired police officers hardship and suffering…
“The hopeless, helpless and dehumanizing condition the retired officers have been put into by this offence that has become habitual and widespread amongst government officials in pensions departments of government whose duties are to custody pension funds and process the payment of gratuities, monthly pensions and other retirement benefits to retired public servants is obvious…
“The ridiculously low monetary sentence as against the mind-blowing and massive amount of over 24 billion naira 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…”
And while the rich thieves continually get slapped on the wrist, bewildered Nigerians read days ago about 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. 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 vulcanizer faces a violent death by hanging while those that have impoverished Nigerians, enriched themselves through outright looting of public funds and brazenly weaponized poverty are celebrated.
Daily people are randomly arrested and hauled into overflowing prisons for ridiculous reasons while known criminals are left alone. For instance, Lawyer Alert said its data show that between April 2021 and September 2021, 700 wandering and loitering cases representing 16 percent of petty offences cases tracked nationwide were recorded. The group said young males are more regularly held for “the offences” and in the process “forced to unlock their phones for proof that they are not rogues or vagabonds.” Notably, another 10 percent of the recorded cases involved hawking, and seven percent of the cases involved commercial sex workers. This group of persons constitutes the most number of Awaiting Trial Inmates (ATIs) across the country.
Some public affairs analysts maintain that most Nigerians appear to have been wired to afflict the poor and defenceless at the least opportunity while the affluent are showered with encomiums no matter how obtuse they are. Ola a panel beater who recently regained his liberty after eight years in prison for failing to stop suspected criminals being pursued by military men in Lagos is one of those unfortunate Nigerians. In a number of tweets, Headfort Foundation a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) that took up his case and eventually got him out of prison told an interesting story.
Ola the panel beater who at the time was working at Alaba in Lagos State was going home on this remarkable day in May 2014. As he was walking home, some people run past him. Not long after, some soldiers whizzed passed him in hot pursuit of those persons. Almost in a blink of an eye, the soldiers who had turned back from their pursuit menacingly approached and queried why he didn’t stop the people who ran past him. The stunned Ola’s explanation to the soldiers that he didn’t know the runaways, what was happening, and could not just have stopped them from running fell on deaf ears. First, they took him to their base and later to a police station where they reported that he did prevent the escape of persons they were chasing.
The Orile Police Station cops moved him and other suspects to SARS Office in Ikeja. When he could not meet up with his bail demands, they charged him to Court for the offence of armed robbery. Ola got lucky when Headfort Foundation stepped into his matter. In late 2022, eight years after awaiting trial he was released by the Court, and the armed robbery charges against him struck out.
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 Anti-graft Agencies to effectively check massive corruption in government which according to them has hampered government’s ability to meet the needs of citizens.
It was SERAP’s contention that had the anti-graft agencies recovered the “missing” funds, the money would have helped the government to invest in public goods and services, and improve the living condition of citizens. SERAP argued that recovering the alleged missing public funds would reduce the pressure on the Federal Government to borrow more money to fund the budget, enable the authorities to meet the country’s constitutional and international obligations, and reduce the growing level of public debts.
The organisation, therefore, blamed President Buhari “over his failure to probe allegations that N106 billion of public funds are missing from 149 Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), and to ensure the prosecution of those suspected to be responsible, and the recovery of any missing public funds.”
Likewise, the Senate at the time, also uncovered an illegal collection of N76 billion by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Nigerian Army, Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), and others. The funds were said to be drawn by the Agencies from the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation but were never repaid.
In December 2022, Anti-corruption 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 Economic and Financial Crimes Commission over the allegation of N80 billion fraud.
The EFCC accused Idris of creating an avenue for stealing public funds by allegedly compromising the integrity of key Nigerian government’s public financial platforms like the Treasury Single Account (TSA) and the Integrated Payroll and Personnel information system (IPPIS). The commission added that Idris and his co-defendants (Godfrey Olusegun Akindele and Mohammed Kudu Usman, and a firm — Gezawa Commodity Market and Exchange Limited) were indicted on a 14-count charge of stealing and criminal breach of trust to the tune of N109.5 billion.
Nigerians await the conclusion of the matter and many more. In the meantime, small-time thieves are being shown the way out of our world with some of their compatriots swelling up the prisons.
● Lilian Okenwa is the publisher of Law and Society magazine.