oluola89 created the topic: Nigerian courts pamper the rich, punish the poor
Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed and Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN)
Some court judgments in corruption cases have attracted public criticisms for being discriminatory between the rich and the poor; but lawyers say the law and not the judges should be blamed for the light penalties given the rich convicts and heavy penalties imposed on the poor convicts, RAMON OLADIMEJI writes
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission accused a former Caretaker Chairman of the Ogori/Mangogo Local Government Area of Kogi State, Gabriel Daudu, of laundering N1.4bn belonging to the state.
Daudu, the EFCC alleged, connived with a former Commissioner for Agriculture in Kogi State, Albert Adesina, to launder the money between January and July 2008.
The two were first arraigned in April 2010 before Justice Adamu Bello of a Federal High Court in Abuja.
The matter was subsequently transferred to the Lokoja Division of the Federal High Court before Justice Inyang Ekwo, where Daudu and Adesina were re-arraigned twice on amended charges.
After six years of trial, during which the EFCC called 13 witnesses and its lawyer, Mr. Wahab Shittu, made several trips between Lagos, where he was based, and Lokoja, where the trial took place, the case finally came to an end.
That the trial began and ended at all was a rare victory and an uncommon feat in the Nigerian justice system, notorious for its rich history of frustrated high profile corruption cases that never saw the light of the day.
But it is worthy to mention that Daudu and Adesina’s case came to a close only after it survived an attempt to make it start all over again before Justice P.M. Ayuba, at a time when the prosecution and the defence had already closed their cases and were awaiting Justice Ekwo’s verdict.
Finally delivering judgment on April 25, 2016, Justice Ekwo gave Adesina a clean bill of health, discharged and acquitted him, but he pronounced Daudu guilty on 77 out of the 208 counts filed against him by the EFCC.
The cumulative amount laundered in the proven 77 counts was determined by the judge to be N98m.
As punishment for his offence, Justice Ekwo sentenced Daudu to two years imprisonment on each of the 77 counts, which by sheer addition added up to 154 years imprisonment; but since the judge said the sentences would run concurrently, Daudu was, in practical sense, sentenced to only two years in jail.
The fact that a Nigerian court managed to convict a politically-exposed person should ordinarily have gladdened the hearts of the Nigerian masses, who are the direct victims of official corruption.
But in the case of Daudu, what trailed Justice Ekwo’s judgment were open expressions of displeasure by members of the public.
Reacting to the news as published on The PUNCH Newspapers online platform, a reader, Oluwole, had written, “I feel bothered about the following points concerning this judgment which I consider to be an insult to the intelligence of Nigerians…Do judges ever apply any mathematical or economic sense in the evaluation of the intensity of the offence committed by convicted persons, the agony and suffering faced by the people whose money had been looted and the delivery of judgments against the convicted persons?”
Also expressing displeasure was one Ade who wrote on the same platform, “The case that started in 2010 with so much resources spent by government during prosecution only for the judge to give just two years imprisonment… This is not a judgment but simply an encouragement for other Nigerians to go and steal big money since the punishment is very small.”
In the said breath, another reader, Rick Eson, wrote that, “This judgment is a slap in the face of anti-corruption war. It is a mockery of our judicial system and an insult to Nigerians. If the judgment is based on any Act, that Act needs modification urgently, if we are serious about anti-corruption war against the enemy within (the corrupt, looters and launderers).”
Among many others who registered their grievances was Manny, who opined that, “In a more forward-looking society, unlike our own Nigeria, this guy would be in jail for a long time in addition to coughing out all the embezzled money back to the state. This is one clear statement to the fact that we are doomed as a nation.”
These reactions are evocative of the ones that greeted the judgment delivered last year April by Justice Abubakar Liman in the case of a younger brother of a former Governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion, Michael, who was accused of laundering N25bn belonging to Edo State.
At the end of a trial that lasted four years, Justice Liman, sitting at the Benin Division of the Federal High Court, found Michael guilty on three counts out of the 81 counts pressed against him by the EFCC.
Section 15(b) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2004, under which the three proven counts were filed, stipulated as punishment “a fine of not less than N250,000 or more than N1m or a term of imprisonment of not less than two years or to both fine and imprisonment.”
Having found Michael guilty as charged on counts 79 to 81, Justice Liman sentenced him two years imprisonment on each of the three counts, which would have ordinarily added up to six years imprisonment, but because the judge said the sentences were to run concurrently, Michael was only expected to spend two years in jail.
But in any case, he needed not go to jail at all, because Justice Liman also gave him the option of paying a fine of N3m i.e. N1m for each of the three proven counts.
Michael reportedly promptly paid, thereby freeing himself from the four-year-long prosecutorial albatross that had hung around his neck.
But his co-defendant, Patrick Eboigbodin, a former aide of ex-Governor Lucky Igbinedion, was not as lucky because Justice Liman found him guilty on 10 counts and sentenced him to 20 years imprisonment in addition to a compulsory fine of N250,000.
Soon after Justice Liman’s judgment was reported by an online news medium, Sahara Reporters, a reader, who identified himself simply as AI, wrote, “This kind of sentence by this judge simply gives Nigerians a glimpse into just how unfair and purposeless the Nigerian judicial system has become. How do you deter corruption by setting a fine of only N3m for a graft involving N25bn? And why does the assistant bag a jail term of 20 years with a N250,000 fine without the option of not serving a jail term as was offered the principal offender?”
Following closely, among many other disapproving comments, was one by another reader, Anonymous 11443, who wrote, “… How about restitution and refund of all stolen money? Also six year sentence is a slap on the wrist. How about a woman sentenced to 266 years for embezzling N2m from her employer?… Or is this a case of a two-tier justice system — one for the poor and another for the rich? The Nigerian judiciary is a laughing stock all over the world.”
This same mood was replicated in the public space two weeks ago, following the judgment of Justice S. E. Aladetoyinbo of the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Abuja, who convicted a former head of the Security and Communication Department of the defunct Police Equipment Foundation, Mr. George Uboh, of fraudulent conversion of the foundation’s property to his personal use.
Justice Aladetoyinbo had pronounced that Uboh was guilty of all three counts bordering on defrauding the defunct foundation by “selling two units of Toyota Hilux pick-up vans,” thus making him liable to punishment under Section 314 of the penal code.
As punishment, the judge ordered Uboh to proceed on a jail term of three years or pay N1m to atone for his sins. Uboh chose the fine option and got his freedom.
Commenting on The PUNCH Newspapers online platform, one Iniinyang wrote, “So, in a criminal conviction there is an option of fine? Sickening!”
Another, Sharia Haram, wrote, “Cheap conviction. Buhari is a loser. He is losing it!”
The public had also expressed reservation in March this year, following the verdict of Justice Ibrahim Buba, sitting in the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court, in the case of 14 foreigners, who the EFCC brought before him on the allegation that they dealt in 1,738.087 metric tons of petroleum products in Nigeria without lawful authority.
The 14 foreigners, identified as citizens of Russia, Ukraine, Philippine and Japan, were all present in court on June 10, 2015 when the EFCC arraigned them, but by March 18, 2016 when Justice Buba convicted them on all five counts pressed against them, the three Russians among them had jumped bail and absconded. For the offence, Justice Buba handed two years imprisonment to each of the 11 convicts, who remained.
The prison term, the judge said, would start reading from March 27, 2015 when the convicts were arrested by the Nigerian Navy.
But as an alternative to serving the jail term, the judge gave the convicted foreigners the option of paying a fine of N5m each.
Unlike the foreigner, however, some seven Nigerians who were also convicted of dealing unlawfully in 1,459 metric tonnes of Premium Motor Spirit by Justice Okon Abang of the same court in October 2015, were not so lucky.
The convicts – Adedamola Ogungbayi, Olaniran Olabode, Suraju Gasali, Moses Emmanuel, Wilson Bonsi, Okaraodi Uche and Onyeogo Happy – were each handed a prison term of 10 years without an option of fine by Justice Abang.
The prison term was also not to start from February 7, 2014 when they were arrested but on October 31, 2015 when they were convicted.
The forfeiture order made by Justice Buba in the case of the foreigners also paled beside that made by Justice Abang in the case of the Nigerian convicts.
Justice Abang ordered the Nigerian convicts to forfeit their vessel, MT Good Success, and its content. He also ordered the forfeiture of funds in their companies’ accounts put at N66.6m and $975,000.
In the case of the foreigners, Justice Buba ordered the forfeiture of the vessel and its content to the Federal Government and ordered the convicts’ companies to N50m as fine to the Federal Government.
In reaction to Justice Buba’s verdict, one Original Kenny 2016 wrote on The PUNCH platform, “…For God’s sake how could one describe this kind of judgment of two years and to run from the date they were handed over to the EFCC, which was 2015 and also option of fine in N5m? Why are we undoing ourselves in the name of what?
“This is a rape of democracy and the judge, the defence lawyer and the EFCC prosecutor must be investigated because I am very sure that something higher must has change hands.”
Waheed Kabir Adebiyi wrote, “The Nigerian Justice system is always double standard. Nine Nigerian crew members on M.T. Good Success were handed 10yrs imprisonment without an option of fine for having lesser amount of refined product onboard….. SMH. #rapeofjustice.”
Another reader, Kayboy wrote, “I always just don’t know what is wrong with this our so-called justice. Honestly speaking… I cannot imagine if a Nigerian citizen dares try this is those countries mentioned… I was in Europe one time when an European told me that he could easily get away with any crime committed in my country as long as he has money; except if they have to bring a judge from Europe to try him! What a shameful judgment!”
A human rights group, Access to Justice, had criticised the decision of Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia of the Federal High Court, who last December sentenced a 32-year-old man, Lawrence Alaugu, who was caught with 200g of Indian hemp, to life imprisonment.
The Executive Director of Access to Justice, Joseph Otteh, while vowing to challenge the judgment at the Court of Appeal, had described it a miscarriage of justice.
Otteh said, “The judiciary disproportionately makes the poor people more victims of crime than people of means, while the judiciary allows ostentatious plea bargains for the rich and they are let off with just a slap on the wrist.”
But a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief E. L. Akpofure, said the law which created and stipulated punishments for offences should be blamed and not the judges.
Akpofure said, “You cannot lay the blame on the table of the judges; it is a matter of what the law says. If the law has given a particular window limit within which they can impose the sentence, they cannot go outside that window. The best that can be done is the amendment of that particular law by the National Assembly. It is not the blame of their lordships; it’s not at all.”
Supporting the SAN’s view was Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Adeyinka Olumide-Fusika, who said it is lack of understanding of the law that makes the public criticise judges.
He said, “The judges are guided by the law, not by the sentiment of the public. The law that creates an offence prescribes the appropriate punishment for it. Normally, the law, in prescribing punishment, will give certain maximum number of years in jail or a jail term of not less than certain number of years; so, the judge has a leeway between the minimum and the maximum punishment. The members of the public are angry and they want the person lynched but the judge will have to apply the law.”
While admitting that the punishments are sometimes disproportionate, Olumide-Fusika added, “People caught with one stick of Indian hemp are sometimes sentenced to an unbelievable prison term and it is because the law that created the offence allows that kind of heavy punishment. So, it is the law that has to be looked at and not the judge. For instance, some people are canvassing death penalty for corruption; it is because they have seen that the thing has become rampant that we can no longer treat it with kid gloves. So, when members of the public are complaining, they should be complaining about the law and not about the judge, because the judge will have to work according to the law.”
He also pointed out the need for prosecuting authorities to charge suspects under the laws that attract stiffer punishments.
He added, “Sometimes we have about four different laws creating the same offence or similar offences with different kinds of punishments; with one statute the punishment may be actually very stiff; so, when the prosecuting authorities are drafting the charges, they should charge under the law that carries stiffer penalty, we can look at that area. But generally speaking, judges have to stick to the law under which the offence was charged. It is just a case of misunderstanding, the public sometimes don’t understand why things go that way.”
Olumide-Fusika, however, urged the judges to also be conscious of their social responsibilities in passing judgments.
“You have to look at the prosecutorial practices and you have to look at the law but that is not to say that I am exonerating judges. For instance, if the law says between two to seven years, a judge that is conscious of his social responsibility will not sentence to two years, he will sentence to the maximum permissible because of the menace that that thing has become in the society and the law also permits both fine and prison term. A judge that is conscious of his social responsibility will actually impose both to send a signal to the people that this is becoming a menace and we have to deal with it,” he added.