From Plea Bargain Frying Pan to Suspended Sentence Fire

To say that a considerable number of Nigerians are not satisfied with our current mode of prosecutorial processes, and indeed the greater judicial system, is to be saying the obvious fact that is equal to the notoriety of a known principle of law, which regards certain events as being etched on the minds and conscience of everyone, thus requiring such fact to be proven is equated to waste of time, as the temples of justice represented by the courts had duly noted of such reality. Indeed and unfortunately, such dissatisfaction with our subsisting judicial process, have also reached the austere seclusion at the zenith of the Nigerian bench, as the chief justice of the federation Justice Dahiru Musdapher, recently in a public occasion expressed his deep seated frustration with the general adjudication system in the nation, most especially, he wondered and pondered on the evident unfairness of the much maligned mantra of a plea bargain, as a tool that dispenses of justice to the rich lightly, while their fellow poor compatriots that does not enjoy the plea deal option, seems to always end up with very harsh sentences.

To highlight the level of dissatisfaction the chief justice felt, he there and then pontificated that the plea bargain will never be used again in Nigeria, rather a more just suspended sentence will be introduced, as a check to the perennial problems of prison congestion, faster dispensation of cases and equitable administration of justice to all and sundry. In fact, he raised an issue as to whether the plea bargain option was actually legal, within the expansive context of Nigerian laws and fundamental basic norms. As according to him, the general ethos of Nigeria's administration of justice, was the dispensation of justice fairly and equitable, to all manner of persons without fear or favor, which as according to him, could not be said to have being realized, with the adoption and usage of the plea bargain concept. Indeed, the general impression one gets is a system that highly favors the rich at the expense of the poor though equal citizen, which is surely and certainly a negation of the core and basic premise of the Nigerian legal system.

Unfortunately his lordship had only seen the issue from a confined prism of the concept, rather than the expansive reality of Nigerian people's penchant for subverting any concept or system to suit their personal interest, an affliction that has also crept into the judicial sector of the government, being populated with individuals having the same Nigerian blood running through their veins. In fact, when administered fairly, properly and diligently, no system or concept of administration of justice could be said to be intrinsically unfair, for it was originally formulated to ensure equitable dispensation of justice. Indeed, as earlier highlighted in an article on the Daily Trust during the brouhaha over the Cecilia Ibru of Oceanic Bank conviction palaver, titled: Burden of proof as determinant to plea bargain, published on the first of December 2010. I made an attempt on the possible reasons why prosecutorial authorities preferred the plea bargain option, in interdiction of persons accused of monetary and financial crimes, especially individuals working in private conglomerates and government establishments governed by debilitating chains and webs of loyalty, to a superior godfather that might have facilitated access to job and propelled same junior godson to positions of likely squealing capacity to become a potential witness for prosecution.

The simple truth is that with the burden of proof highly stacked against the prosecutor, while access to evidence and witnesses preponderantly unfavorably to the prosecution attorney, interdicting highly placed public and private personalities like governors, ministers and corporate executives, would be almost impossible to contemplate. As the cardinal requirement for successful prosecution under our laws is evidence, which must be lawfully obtained and concisely presented to warrant a valid conviction. However, where such clear evidence is not available even though it is existed in reality, a prosecutor goes into a plea deal with the accused, to seek for a conviction upon either a lesser charge or obtaining a monetary recompense in cases of corrupt enrichment. Pending which a situation where the offense is not proven beyond reasonable doubt before the courts arises and the accused had to be acquitted for want of evidence, as exemplified in countless number of cases, where the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission would seem to be dragging its feet in its prosecutorial duties.

Indeed, countless number of political appointees, elected executives and captains of industries, had their cases stuck in limbo in many federal courts and in most cases it is for want of diligent prosecution, thus many former state governors have had years of prosecution but without conviction, creating an impression of a collusion between the prosecuting body and the accused persons. But, those cases under a plea deal have had successful prosecutions, thus individuals like Cecilia Ibru, Tafa Balogun and many others were prosecuted despite the sentencing reservation, while other cases that did not follow the plea deal route are gathering dust and loosing impetus in the eyes of the public. In fact, some of the accused have even began forgetting that they are under prosecution, while evidence needed to interdict them are slowly and consistently fizzling out, creating a situation or conditional scenario akin to Statute of Limitation, which makes the prosecution of an offense to be forcibly overtaken by time factor.

Unfortunately, the suspended sentence that is proposed as an alternative is also another method of a plea deal, which is principally premised upon substituting the time spent in jail, with a mandatory community service to be undertaken and having a record of conviction on one's resume. But, in a society that does not keep records and is highly deficient in moral assessment of individuals, which is also notorious for subverting due process as a fundamental characteristic trait, a concept like the suspended sentence is highly prone to abuse, while being unable to decongest the prisons. As it is the usual norm in Nigeria, it is only those that are financially buoyant with good attorneys, who could engage in the tedious process of obtaining a suspended sentence plea, while the poor remained in the prisons further swelling the ranks of the awaiting trial inmates.