Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Fighting corruption with plea bargain

The January 28 sentencing of the Assistant Director in the Police Pension Office, Mr. John Yakubu Yusuf, to two years imprisonment or N750, 000 fine, has again brought to the fore the propriety or otherwise of the mechanism of plea bargain in Nigeria’s criminal justice system. Many commentators were alarmed at the inconsequential punishment meted out to the culprit. Not even the fact that the assistant director is forfeiting 32 houses in the Federal Capital Territory and Gombe State as well as N325m cash is considered enough atonement for his sins. Left to many Nigerians, the man should ‘rot in jail’ or be made to face capital punishment.
There have been many legal opinions on how the plea bargain mechanism is alien to our jurisprudence. Many argued that it is not in our constitution or any of our statutes. In fact, at the Alternative Dispute Resolution Summit organised by the Negotiation and Conflict Management Group and the National Judicial Institute on November 15, 2012, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Dahiru Musdapher, said, “The concept is not only dubious but was never part of the history of our legal system – at least until it was surreptitiously smuggled into our statutory laws with the creation of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.” He observed further that the concept of plea bargain is indeed a threat to the criminal justice system in Africa. The eminent jurist did have a point there. However, how did we get to this sorry state where the anti-corruption agencies now prefer or explore the window of a ‘mid-way settlement’ with criminals?
At the above mentioned event where Justice Musdapher made his assertion on plea bargain, the Chairman of the EFCC, Mr. Ibrahim Lamorde, also noted that the advantages of plea bargain were “incomparable with the alleged disadvantages”. Pointing to the delays in the trial of some former governors charged with corruption, Lamorde reportedly said the EFCC was able to employ plea bargain to conclude some high profile cases, including those involving Emmanuel Nwude; former Inspector-General of Police, Tafa Balogun; a former Bayelsa State Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha; ex-Oceanic Bank Managing Director, Cecilia Ibru, and a former Edo State Governor Lucky Igbinedion. Lamorde observed further that, “We are all witnesses to the fact that cases commenced as far back as 2007 against some former governors such as Uzor Kalu, Chimaroke Nnamani, Saminu Turaki, and Joshua Dariye have hardly made any meaningful progress in their trials because of regular exploitation of the inherent problems in the justice system to truncate the trials.”
Indeed, despite its current imperfections, it is better to recover our commonwealth from those who have pilfered it through plea bargain than to continue to waste scarce resources of the state on interminable prosecution of corrupt officials. That is a realistic choice to make. It saves time, cost, and aids quick recovery of loot. None of the alleged corrupt governor from 2003 whose cases have been in court has been successfully prosecuted with the exception of Igbinedion and Alamieyeseigha who of their own volition pleaded guilty of their crimes. None of the former bank executives charged to court since 2009 has been successfully brought to justice except Mrs. Ibru who admitted guilt in exchange for a light sentence and forfeiture of some of her ill-gotten wealth. The reason why these cases drag on endlessly is because the accused are people with means who are able to afford the best of lawyers and can easily perfect their bail conditions. Their lawyers raise all manner of interlocutory objections and technicalities as well as seek frequent adjournments. This act of filibustering is to wear out the prosecution while seeking means of subverting the course of justice either by buying out witnesses or scaring them off witness box.
The question to be asked is: How come our corruption preventive mechanism has failed to work? I mean all manner of measures were put in place by government and its agencies to curb corruption, yet we still have these eye-popping cases of corruption. Not too long ago, electronic payment (e-payment) was substituted for cash or cheque payments. In spite of this electronic money transfer, a lot of fraud still get perpetrated. Not only that, a couple of years ago, the Central Bank of Nigeria came up with a policy of revalidation of bank accounts. All manner of documentations were requested by banks from their customers during this exercise. Where has that led us? Any deposit or withdrawal above a certain amount is supposed to be reported to the EFCC and Financial Action Task Force, why then have these measures not helped to reduce the incidence of corruption and money laundering in the country? I am sure that many of these frauds in the Ministries, Agencies and Departments are carried out in cahoots with some unscrupulous bank officials.
Again, where are our ethics, values and mores? Mr. John Yusuf is a Christian, at least by name. This action of his is morally reprehensible and very ungodly. Did his parish priest counsel him against his avarice? What about his family and circle of friends; were they happy and envious of him that he was living well above his means as an assistant director in the public service? The loss of our moral compass has contributed immensely to this decadence in our society. We hero-worship the wealthy irrespective of how they make their money and covet their ostentatious lifestyle without batting an eyelid.
I strongly advocate the constriction of all the loopholes being explored by these scoundrels to perpetrate fraud. Preventive measures have to be scaled up with more proactive accounting and audit controls. We also have to come to terms with the tightening of the nuts and bolts of our criminal justice procedures and laws. Though plea bargain may have been “smuggled” into our legal framework as a doctrine of necessity, now is the time to set up formal parameters and procedures for its application. A former EFCC chairman, Ms. Farida Waziri, had shouted herself hoarse calling for special courts or judges to try corruption cases as well as the passage of asset forfeiture and whistle blower protection bills. The feasibility of these propositions should be dispassionately looked into with National Assembly passing expeditiously all anti-corruption bills pending before it. If we are truly tired of the negative label of ranking among the most corrupt countries in the world, the Federal Government and its agencies need to demonstrate greater capacity, efficiency and effectiveness.