WE find it saddening that the Nigerian Law Courts, through Judges and Lawyers, seem to have made a career of perverting true justice using all manner of “legal technicalities” as excuse. We see it in Election Tribunal cases, criminal cases and mostly evident in corruption cases.
It is rather unfortunate that despite the high level of corruption evident in government circles across different sectors of the Nigerian economy, and the regular cry out by the Federal Government and anti-graft agencies regarding their pose to fight corruption headlong in the country, Nigerians are yet to witness an appropriate prosecution and adequate prison sentencing of ex-government and serving government officials or top government functionaries, particularly former state governors and their cronies, and highly-connected business moguls to the government. It is either they are given just few months to remain in custody while their corruption cases are dilly-dallied, after which they are allowed to go scot free to go continue enjoying their ill-gotten wealth, or their trials are delayed, outrageously struck out and swept under the carpet. At best, those prosecuted are usually given ‘a slap on the wrist’ as judgment for their crime. This has made many to have lost faith and trusts on the anti-graft agencies and most especially the Nigerian Judiciary; considered to be the last hope of the common man in getting social justice and equity.
This was how many well-meaning Nigerians like us felt when recently, a Lagos High Court sitting in Ikeja discharged the embattled Chairman of Bi-Courtney Limited, Dr. Wale Babalakin (SAN), and four others over allegation of N4.7 billion fraud brought against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The anti-graft commission had charged Babalakin, his companies, Stabilini Vision Limited, Bi-Courtney Limited and Alex Okoh and his company, Renix Nigeria Limited, to court on a 27-count charge bordering on conspiracy, retention of proceeds of criminal conduct and corruptly conferring benefit on account of public action. But the presiding judge, Justice Lateef Lawal-Akapo, while ruling on the application for quashing of the suit filed by Babalakin and his co-defendants, the judge formulated four issues raised by the defendants to determine his ruling. Babalakin and his co-defendants were alleged to have fraudulently assisted the convicted former Delta State governor, James Ibori, to transfer huge sums of money through various parties to Erin Aviation account in Mauritius for the purchase of a plane. The defendants had through their various counsels filed separate applications, urging the court to quash the N4.7billion charges, with a position that the EFCC, as a federal agency, lacked valid fiat to prosecute them in a state High Court. One then begins to wonder, if the EFCC as an anti-graft agency does not have the validity to prosecute fraudsters, who does?
While we would not want to bother ourselves or bore readers with the ‘legal jargons’ on which the above case was struck out, the cross of the matter is that the Nigerian Judiciary has over time, made itself as an ‘unreliable’ legal umpire that the citizenry can depend on when it comes to deciding cases brought before them. The way and manner sensitive court cases, especially high-profile corruption cases, are decided makes one to greatly question the integrity of the Nigerian Judges in Law Courts.
The truth is that in Nigeria’s social – political index, corruption probably ranks highest. This has continued to be a major trauma for the government and other stakeholders in the business of enthroning ‘accountability’ and ‘good governance’. More worrisome is that corruption has reached a cancerous state. And the culture of impunity has practically rendered useless, whatever fight being mustered against corruption.
One of the reasons why it is difficult to adequately fight corruption in Nigeria is that our system of justice, even at the best of time, is protracted, it is delayed. We have a system that has not been able to deliver justice, even in civil matters, not to talk of complex fraud cases. The issue of granting inappropriate court injunctions to restrain or prevent anti-graft agencies like the EFCC and ICPC, from prosecuting/arresting corrupt public or private officials, have adversely affected the fight against corruption. Also, the issue of prolonged and delayed adjudication of appropriate justice concerning corrupt cases has made Nigerian’s and indeed, the international community to lose faith in the country’s judicial system’s ability and capacity to adequately fight corruption.
On the above fraud charges against Babalakin and four others, let us be reminded that the case is linked to the former Delta State Governor James Ibori; the same Ibori that is currently serving a jail term in the UK over corruption charges. To refresh our minds on the Ibori’s case, it was very obvious that there was no “political will” in his prosecution. Ibori’s famous guilty plea in South Wark Crown Court, UK, over corruption changes, clearly shows that something is intricately wrong with our judicial process. One Justice Marcel Awokulehin of a Federal High Court in Asaba, Delta State, discharged and acquitted Ibori of all 170 – count charges of corruption involving the laundering of millions of dollars. The EFCC had brought the 170 – count charge against Ibori, after he was arrested in 2007, and the London metropolitan police got a court order to freeze U.K assets worth +35million ($55m) allegedly belonging to Ibori. But the said judge, in the character of his cash-and carrying disposition, that is synonymous with Nigeria’s Judiciary, cited lack of evidence as his reason for squashing the 170-count charge. What a miscarriage of justice. It was a clear case of a supposed custodian of justice making an unjust declaration. By that judgment, Nigeria was defiled on the altar of justice; Deltans whose billions of dollars were stolen by Ibori, were ridiculed by that verdict, a verdict procured with stolen oil wealth.
This was how we were left speechless and in absolute shock when it was reported that the Federal Government on June 18, 2014, dropped a nine-count charge against Mohammed Abacha, son of the late Head of State Gen. Sanni Abacha,  over alleged complicity in the theft of N446.3 billion during his father’s administration. What we find most appalling about the said Federal Government’s withdrawal of the suit against Mohammed, was that there was no concrete explaination given to justify the suit withdrawal, other than what they described as “fresh facts” that emerged. But the citizens of Nigeria, whose public funds is what is at stake here, were not told what these “fresh facts” are.  What can we call this? How would the international community look at us a nation that claims to be fighting corruption, when such celebrated cases like the one against Mohammed Abacha, are practically swept under the carpet with legal technicalities and jargons? We find it really sad that this is allowed to happen in this present administration and nobody is raising their eyebrow or ask questions.
Looking carefully at the whole thing regarding the corruption case brought against the son of the dreadful former Head of State, late Sani Abacha, one cannot help but to conclude that all is not well. Something is obviously ‘fishy’ with the country’s so called fight against corruption. Firstly, the Federal Government need to explain to Nigerians exactly what were the so called “fresh facts” that came up to have warranted the government’s withdrawal of the suit against Mohammed Abacha? If there are ‘fresh facts’ that indicated Mohammed did not steal/launder the country’s funds during his fathers tenure, then the government should have allowed the court to come to that decision of acquitting him of the charges brought against him; and not the Federal Government going up front to withdraw the charges. If there are ‘fresh fact’ that suggest that Mohammed Abacha is innocent of the charges brought against him, don’t they think that Nigerians and the world at large deserve to know exactly what those ‘fresh facts’ are?
The said N446Billion in question belongs to the Federal Republic of Nigeria as an entity and Nigerians, as citizens of the country; we deserve to know what exactly happened to the said fund. How would the whole world take us seriously as one who claims to be fighting corruption, when such high-profile and well-celebrated corruption case against the Abacha family are never given the adequate attention or allowed to experience the full wrath of the law? What legacy is this present administration trying to leave behind when such high-profile corruption cases are handled with kid gloves?
Another case in point, which Nigerians will not forget in a hurry, was when a High Court at the Federal Capital Territory sentenced a former Assistant Director in the Police Pensions Office, Mr. John Yakubu Yusuf, to two years imprisonment with an option of fine N750, 000.00, after he admitted that he connived with others to steal N23 billion that should have been used to pay retirement benefits. The judgment had attracted series of comments/complaints from Nigerians who feel that the punishment was too insignificant when compared to the weight of the crime committed. Nigerians including us were outraged by the verdict given to. Mr. Yakubu Yusuf, one of the eight civil servant accused of stealing N40 billion from Nigeria Police Pension Fund. He had pleaded guilty for stealing N23 billion, and the judge, Abubakar Talba, sentenced him to two years imprisonment with an option of paying just N750, 000. That was the reason for the national outrage. But in the din of the uproar, a lot of us missed the profound message Mr. Yakubu Yusuf was sending the nation!
He glaringly told Nigerians, “I only stole N23 billion. Government has already seized my 32 property!” In other words, he stole “only N23 billion” when he could have stolen more! It was out of patriotism you might say, that he decided to limit himself to N23 billion; chicken change, you must agree. After all, the money was there to be stolen and he stole only N23 billion. And “my 32 property” seized (wrongfully) by government were proceeds of the “only N23 billion” he stole. So, why should he be crucified? Why the hullabaloo? This is the exact picture Mr. Yusuf was painting to Nigerians by making such outrageous statement. Perhaps, Mr. Yusuf is of the impression that if Nigerians had made more noise over his exposed theft, he could refer us to the series of scandals that went on in the National Assembly and challenge us to show him one person that has been convicted. He could even remind us of the rot in the NNPC. He could point to the trillions of Naira budgeted annually that gets us nothing in return. He could even recall the Permanent Secretary who, in the early months of Obasanjo’s administration, stole “only N400 million and got away with just nolle prosequi.
What else could give Mr. Yusuf the audacity to express that he only stole N25 billion, of money that was readily available and waiting to be stolen, and the nation is outraged? We believe the said judge appreciated the generosity of Mr. Yusuf and reciprocated his ‘goodwill’ with a handshake instead of a handcuff. Have we ever stopped to wonder why it is possible in Nigeria for someone to steal N1 million of public fund, and he/she is not found out? He or she goes on to steal N10million, and then N200million and so on, and yet the system does not find out? Obviously, there is something fundamentally wrong with our country that the Yusufs of this world are pointing out to us; Nigeria, as presently structured under the present administration, can only sustain corruption!
At the centre of fighting corruption in Nigeria are the two main anti-graft agencies – the EFCC and ICPC –whose confidence among the public is said to be waning. However, it has been difficult for these anti-graft agencies to flex their muscles when there is so much “infiltrating tendencies” and “external influence” from the political class, who are obviously doing so because of the need to protect their interests and acts of corruption from being exposed. That is why since the inception of the EFCC, its successive Chairman have been unceremoniously removed under controversial circumstances, especially when the EFCC Chairman concerned are beginning to step on toes and touches the so called ‘untouchables’ or ‘sacred cows’. They did it with Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, and more recently Mrs. Farida Waziri. These are issues that can best be addressed by the government of the day, starting from the National Assembly down to the Executives.
Why is it so hard for corruption cases involving high profile officials and top elites, to be dealt with the full wrath of the law like we see in other developed countries? Why can’t the current Nigerian government and its anti-graft agencies seriously frown at and abhor fraudulent practices in government circles like we see happen in other countries like USA and UK?
The Judiciary is often described as the temple of justice and constitutes a vital component of any nation, especially a democratic system, and fully protected by the principles of separation of power. The judiciary independence is deemed important to the rule of law and the liberty of the citizens. Therefore, the judiciary is a venerated republican institution of the modern state. While it is to be noted that the Nigeria society as a whole reeks of corrupt practices, it is worrisome when some key institutions of the nation such as the judiciary, the legendary last hope of the common man, is accused and seen to be also descending into the cesspool of corruption. It is noteworthy though that an arm of that institution, the Bar, is reflexingly beaming the searchlight on its conduct. For sure, the NBA is in a more better vantage position to spotlight the internal constraints and contradictions of the judiciary and its ancillaries; and therefore act as a whistle blower in this respect. Such a role is important in the prevailing war against corruption.
Obviously, revamping and strengthening the institutions of the Judiciary is imperative for a burgeoning democracy such as ours. It is tempting to call on the Nigerian Judicial Commission (NJC) to live up to its responsibility by stepping in to sanitize the Judiciary. Sadly, that agency has of late come short on credibility and has been accused of impertinence and corruption, on account of verbal altercations between its immediate past two foremost officers. Therefore, there should be some other credible ways to go about the task of restoring integrity and credibility to the Nigerian Judiciary, hence, our call to the international community in past articles on fighting corruption in Nigeria. However, we need to start getting our ‘house’ in order for outsiders to assist us. In fact, a constitutional amendment is required for the re-composition of the NJC for it to be alive to its responsibility once again. And two, an ombudspanel of credible personalities is desirable, to dig into the rot in the judiciary.
It is high time we stop sweeping sensitive corrupt issues under the carpet and pretend that all is well. The Nigerian Judiciary and its bar and bench of judges, should be seen to be able to holistically address whatever spill-over anomalies and corrupt practices from the country’s electoral system and the various levels of government. But when the issues of corruption is tolerated within the Judiciary, then all hope is lost for the common man, whose interest is made to suffer at the end of day.
Zik Gbemre,JP.