It’s not just the magnitude of the looting and corruption that goes on in Nigeria that is mindboggling and harrowing, worse is the impunity with which they are carried out. And nothing feeds the impunity more than a low probability of getting caught and, in the uncommon event of getting caught, the knowledge that there is always a judge out there, as corrupt and evil as the felon, eager to be bought with part of the loot.
The latest case of one John Yakubu Yusuf, who as director of the Police Pension Office connived with others to defraud the office and pensioners of N27bn has raised the bar on the scale of national malady.
This John of a guy, according to newspaper reports, specifically pleaded guilty to three counts of betraying public trust; stealing N2bn (presumably his share of the loot); and conniving with the other suspects – Essai Dangabar, Atiku Kigo, ahmed Wada, Veronica Ulonma, Sani Zira, Uzoma Attang, and Christian Madubuike – to convert N27bn belonging to the Pensions Office to their personal use!
What sentence did he get for the crime? 20 years with hard labour and forfeiture of monies and assets traceable to him beyond his income level, right? Wrong! In the eyes of Justice Abubakar Talba of an Abuja High Court Yusuf’s crime is nothing but petty crime for which he should suffer no more than a slap on the wrist. All John Yusuf needs do is pay a fine of N750,000 and he can walk away a free man, failing which he would have to spend, not 20 but 2 years for his confession.
We may never know how compromised, or not, Justice Talba is in this case; what went under or over the table or not. In serious countries it would be easy to discover but in a place like Nigeria such expectation would be forlorn. Nevertheless if the judgment Talba has handed down to Yusuf in this case is a measure of his wisdom and integrity, then woe unto the system that bred his ilk.
It is to be assumed that all of the N2bn was already recovered from Yusuf, if it is so it has not been enough to assuage the outrage over the incongruity of the judgment to the enormity of the crime.
The enormity is not just in the billions involved, it is in the heartlessness of stealing monies belonging to poor pensioners who have laboured all their lives and now look forward to some pension, paltry as it may be, for whatever is left of their lives. That is enough for a life-sentence.
We should remind ourselves that this pension scam was exposed this time last year when on February 2, 2012 the chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team, Mr. Abdulrasheed Maina revealed how his team “caught a top civil servant in the pension unit at the office of the Head of Service with cash of N2bn stashed in his private residence.”
Maina went further to reveal how another civil servant was caught with a pile of dollars in his house stressing that “some officials of government had over the years been involved in mindless looting of the pension arrears of helpless retirees, many of whom had died, while many others were stricken with ailments arising from denial of their pensions…” He added that the team had “recovered the total sum of N151bn” looted by officials saddled with the task of managing the funds!
We cannot knock Justice Talba entirely. He may be taking consolation in ‘precedents’, and there is surfeit of it wondering what the whole furore is about.
Wasn’t this the same country, he would ask, where, as C.V. Akuta, a Nigerian Rights campaigner in the UK reminds us, an “Olabode George committed a fraud of over N85bn and was only given 2.5 years imprisonment”? Or a “Cecilia Ibru was jailed 6 months for stealing N54bn”? With both of these spending their sentences “in their homes or chosen hospitals.”
And many more, from the case of Lucky Igbinedion to that of Peter Odili (of “perpetual injunction”) to that of James Ibori who was discharged and acquitted inNigeria only to be jailed for the same offences in the UK, etc.
Those sentences were not passed by Talba. And nothing happened to their “Lordships” in the cases. Did the judicial council immediately send those judges packing like happened to the silly referee of the Nigerian vs Zambia match in the ongoing African Cup of Nations football competition? Hell, no. Elevated probably.
And so is the problem with what is prescribed as punishment for crimes such as this in our statues? As Justice Talba alluded in his judgement, “section 309 of the Penal Code, under which the accused person was charged, stipulates a two-year prison term with an option of fine or both”. Talba exercised his discretion in favour of Yusuf!
According to EFCC spokesman, Wilson Uwaiaren, the option of fine granted Yusuf by Justice Talba “runs contrary to the understanding between the prosecution and the defence wherein the convict consented to a custodial sentence with the forfeiture of all assets and money that are proceeds of the crime.”
Again as Akuta reminds us, “In China, the penalty is capital punishment. Another example is America, where for instance, Bernard Madoff, who committed a fraud of $85bn was sentenced to 150 years in jail”!
Our country is in a total mess, everything is upside down; morality is thrown to the winds. It is a country in which so called leaders (presidents, governors, ministers, and all) are trying to outdo one another in how large and how brazen they can loot the public treasury and yet come out sounding like saints and pointing accusing fingers at everyone else.
Someone was saying to me the other day that the prevalent kidnappers in different parts of the country have got it wrong. There should be a “Society Cleansing Group” who would go after each and every public official “publicly known” to have stolen huge public funds or are stinkingly corrupt. They should be kidnapped one by one and made to disappear to serve as lesson to those in office. I’m not sure how that would work though, such law of the jungle, such arbitrariness. “But we already live in a jungle don’t we?” he quipped.
Let us return to rogue John Yusuf and his N2bn loot in the jungle called Nigeria.
Obviously disturbed by the public outrage over the virtual ‘release’ of Yusuf, it is reported that the EFCC has rearrested Yusuf with fresh charges of “non-declaration of his assets and liability in his asset declaration form,” bla, bla,bla. And an obliging judge, Justice Adamu Bello, has promptly remanded him in jail (without bail!) on the fresh charges.
If you ask me, the difference between the fresh charges to which Yusuf is held without bail and the old ones to which he was allowed home on option of fine is one between death and sleep or day and night. But discretions are at large. Our prisons cannot contain the number of public servants guilty of the new charge.
The looting of the country has gone on for too long and too mindlessly. Something must give!