Former governors and other highly placed corrupt Nigerians who have so far found ways of circumventing or delaying the hands of justice unfortunately make it appear as though the law is weak against the corrupt
James Ibori, former governor of Delta State, is today languishing in a British jail. The exotic lifestyle he once lived is far behind him. Last month, he was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment by a judge at the Southwark Crown Court, London, on a 10-count charge of money laundering and fraud amounting to about £200 million (N50.4 billion). But for a man of Ibori’s stature, events in Nigeria’s drive against corruption appears to suggest that such a fate could only have befallen him outside the shores of the country and in a place like the United Kingdom.
Since he left office in 2007, the Nigerian criminal justice system had failed to catch up with Ibori who appeared to have been, at every point, inches ahead of the legal system. It all started when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, hauled him before a federal high court, Kaduna, in 2007 on a 170-count charge of corruption.
From that point on, the former Delta State governor deployed almost every trick in the books to frustrate not only his trial but also the EFCC. Using his political clout and relationship with Umaru Yar’Adua, the then president, Ibori went as far ensuring the removal of Nuhu Ribadu, then chairman, EFCC, from office as well as his retirement from the police force.
Having successfully cowed the anti-corruption agency, Ibori then went after the judiciary. With the active connivance of Michael Aondoakaa, then attorney general of the federation, AGF, and minister of justice, the former Delta State governor also ensured that his case was frustrated in court. It was therefore no surprise when a federal high court sitting in Asaba, Delta State capital, discharged Ibori of all the 170-count charge of corruption. Marcel Awokulehin, the trial judge, dismissed the case, arguing that it was unnecessary and inappropriate. Prior to that time, Aondoakaa had used his office as AGF to write British authorities, claiming that Ibori had no case to answer in any court in Nigeria.
This was the state of affairs until he was arrested in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and handed over to British authorities to face trials under an extradition treaty that exists between the two countries. And in no time, Ibori pleaded guilty to virtually the same offences for which it was practically impossible to convict him in Nigeria. In effect, the former Delta State governor successfully made nonsense of the country’s war against corruption while making it appear as though Nigeria lacks adequate laws to properly punish the corrupt.
He is not alone. He has a compatriot in Lucky Igbinedion, former governor of Edo State. Igbinedion was arraigned by the EFCC on a 191-count charge of corruption, money laundering and embezzlement of N2.9 billion. His trial proceeded as though all was normal until he suddenly struck a plea bargain with the EFCC. Though the arrangement was quite novel to many Nigerians at that time, many cried foul when the details became public. This was because the deal had reduced the 191-count charge to just one. Not only that, all of a sudden, the only offence the anti-graft agency could pin on Igbinedion turned out to be his failure to declare ownership of a particular bank account with a balance of N3.5 million which he gladly agreed to forfeit to the state.
By the time details of his plea bargaining became public knowledge, not a few Nigerians cried blue murder. Igbinedion had practically secured a slap on the wrist while more or less making a mockery of the nation’s judicial system.
But if Igbinedion returned a negligible amount of the money he was accused of embezzling, Orji Uzor Kalu, former governor of Abia, is yet to return a dime out of the N5.2 billion he is accused of stealing from the public till. In July 2007, Kalu was arraigned by the EFCC on a 107-count charge of money laundering, official corruption and criminal diversion of public funds totalling N5.2 billion. The former governor, on September 3, 2007, filed a motion at the Abuja high court, asking it to strike out all the charges preferred against him by the anti-graft agency and to vacate the terms and conditions of the bail earlier granted by the court. This however turned out to be the beginning of a legal maze that would go from the high court to the court of appeal, while the substantive case against Kalu was lying fallow. During this period the former governor had the luxury of launching a presidential ambition and contesting for a seat in the Senate. None was however successful.
Recently, the court of appeal dismissed his appeal against prosecution by the EFCC while ordering his case at the Abuja high court to resume. In the same vein, Ayodele Fayose, former governor of Ekiti State, since he was arraigned in 2007 for alleged diversion of N1.3 billion state funds in a poultry farm project, he has been walking freely. In fact, he was quite influential in the last governorship election in his home state. At a point, some political parties were courting him, not mindful that he still had a baggage of corruption hanging over him like the sword of Damocles.
The likes of Ibori, Fayose, Kalu, Igbinedion and many other former governors as well as public officials who have so far found ways of circumventing or delaying the hands of justice have unfortunately sent out loud messages to Nigerians that public officials accused of corruption can live above the laws. They give the impression that the laws are either non-existent or too weak to bite.
Yet there are laws. The Nigerian Criminal Code Act of 1990 actually stipulates a seven-year jail sentence for any public official who engages in a corrupt act. The Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, Act also serves a similar penalty of seven years for corrupt officials. The EFCC Act however doles out a sentence not exceeding five years and or a fine of N500,000 for a person who fails to comply with the Act of money transfer enacted to prevent money laundering.
In fact, Section 98 (1) of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act is quite detailed about what constitutes corruption and its penalty. It says that “any public official (as defined in section 98D) who (a) corruptly asks for, receives or obtains any property or benefit of any kind for himself or any other person; or bribes, etc (b) corruptly agrees or attempts to receive or obtain any property or benefit of any kind for himself or any other person, on account of-(i) anything already, done or omitted, or any favour or disfavour already shown to any person, by himself in the discharge of his official duties or in relation to any matter connected with the functions, affairs or business of a government department, public body or other organisation or institution in which he is serving as a public official, or (ii) anything to be afterwards done or omitted, or any favour or disfavour to be afterwards shown to any person, by himself in the discharge of his official duties or in relation to any such matter as aforesaid, is guilty of the felony of official corruption and is liable to imprisonment for seven years.”
This is why Innocent Chukwuma, executive director, CLEEN Foundation, an NGO that promotes security and justice, insists that the problem is with the enforcement of the law. “There is no problem with our laws, which in my view are strong. But the real problem is that the likelihood of being punished for corruption is not there in Nigeria. And as long as ‘would-be’ criminals know that the likelihood of being punished is remote, they will continue to commit the crime even if the penalty is a death sentence,” he says. His views are re-echoed by Francis Njoku, a lawyer: “The present state of the law with regard to punishment is alright and adequate in my view. The problem lies with enforcement. Often times the enforcers of the laws can be bought and often do not show sincerity.”
With such views, Chukwuma and Njoku appear to have indicted the nation’s law enforcement process. It is a well-documented fact that the wheel of justice in Nigeria usually grinds swiftly against the weak, while more often than not it fails to grind against the powerful and corrupt in the society. This was demonstrated recently when a man named Adamu Abubakar bagged a 10-year imprisonment for attempting to spend a fake Nigerian currency at Darazo Market, Bauchi State. This is in stark contrast to the fate that has befallen many highly placed public officials who have looted billions of naira but are still free and luxuriating in their ill-gotten wealth. This shortcoming in the nation’s criminal justice system, unfortunately, sends a message that the rich and powerful are above the law, while the weak can be trampled upon.
“The extant state of our laws has made the risk of corruption worth the try. This is because the corrupt is not made to forfeit all the corruptly acquired assets. Most times, he is made to serve a token term of imprisonment while he keeps the proceeds of corruption, such as in the Tafa Balogun case and many others,” Njoku avers.
So what is the way out? Njoku suggests that the country should strengthen its law enforcement structure. He also calls for the reform of criminal justice system that should ensure both stiffer penalties for crime and the certainty that offenders would be punished for their crimes. “If we truly want to deal with this monster called corruption, it should be made to carry a minimum of 20 years’ imprisonment. In very serious cases involving sums of N1 billion and above, the penalty should be life imprisonment in addition to forfeiture of the assets corruptly acquired.”
Perhaps when this is done, the country may truly be nearing a permanent solution to the scourge of corruption.