Human rights lawyer Femi Falana SAN has condemned “the manipulation of the justice system to favour influential politicians facing corruption charges in Nigeria.”
Falana stated this today in a paper titled ‘Sentencing Rich And Poor Convicts In Nigeria: An Unbalanced Scale,’ delivered as the Inaugural Public Lecture of Department of Public and International Law, Faculty of Law, Ajayi Crowther University, Oyo, Oyo State.
Falana said, “Impunity: some personalities in the society seem to be the ‘untouchable.’ Since they have the money, they can influence and manipulate the justice system in their favour. Consequently, such persons commit crimes and get away with it. Owing to corruption and abysmally compromised system, they could even have the backing of the government.”
Falana said, “some persons convicted and sentenced and jailed were never found in any correctional centre while unemployed young people serve prison terms in lieu of rich convicts.”
Falana also said, Political interference: another issue is the interest of the government in cases involving the rich. For political reasons, the trial and conviction of the rich is often interfered with.”
The paper, read in part: “Judges could even be coerced into favouring those rich offenders against their own will. But there is often no one to speak for the poor, who often have no voice of their own. On the few occasions that the rich are convicted they are usually granted pardon by the President and State Governors.
“Corruption: this is also one of the major issues affecting the fair administration of justice in Nigeria. Oftentimes, rich Defendants engage in dilatory tactics which frustrate and compel the State to enter into plea bargain with them.
“Judges award lighter sentences to convicted rich defendants or resort to technicalities to free them. Otherwise, how could someone that embezzled pension funds worth billions of Naira be sentenced to only six months imprisonment, but another who stole a cheap telephone handset be sentenced to ten years imprisonment?
“Injustice: there is also obvious injustice against the poor. More attention is being paid to cases involving the rich as opposed to the poor.
“I will highlight a few cases to illustrate my point. First, is the case of Tafa Balogun, the former Inspector General of Police. After his arrest and arraignment by EFCC for corruptly enriching himself to the tune of 17 billion, Tafa Balogun went to Court challenging the powers of the EFCC to prosecute him. He later withdrew the case from court and the EFCC’s case against him was eventually decided when he was sentenced to six months imprisonment.
“It was clearly a case of plea bargaining as the withdrawal of his case from court led to the negotiation by which his punishment was reduced to six months imprisonment after forfeiting some of his loots to the government.
“Another incident of plea bargaining was the case of former Governor of Bayelsa State, Dieprieye Alamiesiegha. He too was arrested and taken to court by the EFCC who after entering into negotiation with the accused, reduced the charges against him to six. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment while he refunded some amount of money into the government coffers.
“Similar thing happened in the case of Lucky Igbinedon, the former Governor of Edo State who was fined the sum of N3.5 million after he had entered into a plea bargain with EFCC to reduce the 191-count charge against him to just a single count. Though Igbinedion walked away a free man in Nigeria, he was effectively barred by the United States Government on January 12, 2013, from entering its territory henceforth.
“In the case of John Yusuf who embezzled N27.2 billion pension fund of retired police officers, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment or a fine of N750,000.00 that being the maximum punishment provided for in Section 309 of the Penal Code under which he was charged!
“Mrs. Cecilia Ibru, the former Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Oceanic Bank Plc. Mrs. Ibru was arraigned before the court by the EFCC on a 25-count charge of different charges of corruption while in office. After negotiation with the anti-corruption body, the charges against her were reduced to three.
“As a result of the plea bargaining between the EFCC and Mrs. Ibru, the accused decided to plead guilty to the reduced charges of mismanagement and abuse of office. Thereafter, Kola Awodein, (SAN) who appeared for the EFCC subsequently informed the court that the Commission had reached an agreement with Mrs. Ibru and the said agreement had been filed in court.
“On Friday, the 8th day of October, 2010, the trial judge, Justice Dan Abutu of the Federal High Court, Lagos delivered judgment in the matter. He sentenced the accused to six months imprisonment on each of the three counts and directed that the sentences should run concurrently. This means the convict was to spend only six months in prison.
“The convict however forfeited N191 billion worth of properties and assets to the government, according to the judgment of the court. Among the properties so forfeited were those in Nigeria, United States of America and Dubai in United Arab Emirate together with shares in more than 100 companies most of them listed on Nigerian Stock Exchange.
“The judge ordered Mrs. Ibru to be taken to Reddington Hospital, Victoria Island, Lagos by the prison authorities within two hours after they receive the copy of the judgment and she is to remain in the hospital until she is certified fit to stay in prison custody.
“The case of FRN v. Sarah Ochepke & 2 Ors , where the Defendant along with two other accused persons were by an Amended Charge dated 9th of February, 2018 arraigned before the Federal High Court, Jos on a three counts charge of conspiracy, to accept cash payment of the sum of Four Hundred and Fifty Million Naira (N450,000,000.00) from one Annet Olije Gyen, Head of operations Jos branch of Fidelity Bank Plc, and did accept and retain the said amount of N450,000,000.00 which sum exceeded the amount authorized by law to be paid to an individual(s).
“The Court sentenced the Defendants Sarah Ochepke (being the former Minister of Water Resources), Raymond Dabo and Leo Jitung, to three months imprisonment each, with an option to pay a fine of N1 million each. The offence contravenes the provisions of Section 16(1) of the Money Laundering Prohibition Act 2013 (as amended), carries a minimum term of three years imprisonment or a N10 million fine. The Judge however, exercised his discretion and sentenced them to three months imprisonment each or an option N1 million naira each.
“The case of FRN v. Abdulrasheed Maina , is one of the few that made a little difference: Maina who was charged with criminal offences, punishable under sections 11(2) (a), 15(3), and 16(2) (c) of the Money Laundering Prohibition Act, and also acted in breach of the Advance Fee Fraud Act, was in November, 2021, convicted and sentenced to eight years imprisonment, after being found guilty on all the 12-count charge the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) preferred against him and his company, Common Input Property and Investment Limited.
“The Court ordered Maina and his firm to forfeit about N2.1billion that was traced to their bank accounts, as well as another sum of $223, 396, 30, to the Federal Government, after which he directed that the company should be wound up. It also ordered the forfeiture of Maina’s two choice properties at Life camp and Jabi districts of Abuja, to the government, likewise the auction of a bulletproof car and a BMW 5 Series exotic car that was found in premises of the convict.
“On March 18, 2022, an Abuja Upper Area Court in the Gwagwalada area council on Thursday sentenced a 19-year-old student, Hillary Yunana, to four-month imprisonment for stealing spaghetti and noodles from a shop. The convict, a resident of Bassa village, along Airport Road, Abuja, was charged with burglary and theft.
“The judge, Sani Umar, jailed Yunana after he pleaded guilty to the offence. Umar, however, gave the convict an option to pay N10,000 for each of the charges, or serve a jail term of two months for each of them. He said the sentence would run concurrently and warned Yunana to desist from committing crimes in the future. The judge said the sentence would serve as a deterrent to anyone who wanted to tow the depraved path in the future.
“On March 31, 2022, the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, on Thursday, discharged and acquitted the former Group Managing Director, GMD, of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, Mr Andrew Yakubu, of the money laundering charge the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, preferred against him.
“The court, in a judgment that was delivered by Justice Ahmed Mohammed, held that the anti-graft agency failed to prove its case against the erstwhile NNPC boss. The court ordered that monies the EFCC seized from Yakubu who was GMD of the NNPC between 2012 and 2014, should be returned to him.
“The EFCC had on the strength of a tip-off by a whistleblower, raided Yakubu’s guest house situated at Sabon Tasha, Kaduna State in 2017 and discovered the sum of $9.7million and £74,000 which he hid in a fireproof safe inside the house.
“Between 2005 and 2006, a panel of enquiry instituted by the Federal Government found that 197 defendants who were tried, convicted and jailed for drug trafficking were not found in any correctional centre in the country.
“At the end of their trials, members of a syndicate made of prosecution and defence lawyers, court clerks and warders collected heavy bribes from the convicts and allowed them to escape imprisonment.
“It was found that the convicts returned to the nefarious business. I took up the matter with the Authorities of the NDLEA who assured me that the convicts would be arrested and made to serve the prison terms. But that was the end of the story.
“On July 10, 2015, the then Chief Judge of Anambra State, the Honourable Justice Umeadi visited all prisons in the State for the purpose of jail delivery to decongest the prisons. His Lordship disclosed that some prison inmates have no records in the prisons. The scandal was well reported at the material time.
“Since inmates are committed to prisons by warrants issued by Judges and Magistrates, the authorities of the Correctional Centre are challenged to explain who authorised the ‘imprisonment’ of inmates without records.
“Awaiting trial inmates constitute not less than 75 percent of the prison population in the country. Majority of the inmates including convicts are poor people. The few rich people and members of the ruling class that are jailed are usually granted pardon by the President and State Governors in exercise of their powers under section 175 of the Constitution.
“Based on the recommendation of President Muhammadu Buhari the Council of State has just approved the pardon of a number of convicted persons including two former state governors that were jailed for laundering billions of Naira.
“Since the Constitution provides for equality of all citizens before the law, all other persons convicted for stealing, fraud and money laundering ought to be pardoned and freed. There can be no moral or legal justification for jailing poor people who steal spaghetti and noodles to feed their family members while those who loot the treasury are granted clemency or pardon.
“In conclusion, permit me to call on the poor who constitute the majority of poor victims of institutionalized criminal justice system to unite and fight for socioeconomic justice and equality before the law.
“In particular, indigent accused persons are advised to brief lawyers in the Legal Aid Council and the Office of the Public defender in every state of the Federation to provide them with legal practitioner whenever they are arrested, detained or charged with any criminal offence.
“It is the responsibility of the State to assign lawyers, free of charge, to citizens who earn less than the national minimum wage of N30,000.00.
“The law is not neutral in a class society. It is made and enacted by rich legislators to serve the interests of the rich. The judges interpret the law to favour the rich and powerful people in the society.
“The big lawyers hired to defend the rich exploit loopholes and technicalities in the law to free their rich clients. Hence, the poor man who stole noodle in Abuja to feed himself was jailed by an upper area court. Even though he had no more to feed himself the judge sentenced him to 6 months imprisonment or N20,000 fine.
“But the former top public officer who laundered $9.8 million and £74,000 has been set free by the Federal High Court. The Judge blamed the EFCC for not proving the case beyond reasonable doubt!
“The disparity in the sentencing of rich and poor convicts in Nigeria is one of the negative factors affecting the administration of criminal justice in the country. The main factor behind this problem is the dysfunctional justice system operated by the Nigerian courts.
“Owing to the class character of the society the courts and law enforcement agencies tend to favour rich convicts against poor convicts. This problem has caused the public to lose hope and trust in the country’s judicial system.
“Drastic major steps must be taken to address the issue of disparity in sentencing, to ensure justice, fairness, and equality before the law, for all convicts.”