CAN the nation’s laws really fight corruption? This poser Monday ran through reactions to a two-year jail term given to a man who confessed to embezzling N23.3 billion belonging to the Police Pension Board (PPB).
A former head of the PPB, Yakubu Yusufu, got the sentence from an Abuja High Court.
The court also gave him the option of paying N750, 000 and walking away a free man. But it ordered that Yusufu forfeits a property valued at N325 million.
Yusufu, the eighth accused person on the charge sheet specifically pleaded guilty to counts 18, 19 and 20 wherein he was alleged to have connived with Mr. Essai Dangabar, Atiku Abubakar Kigo, Ahmed Inuwa Wada, Mrs. Veronica Ulonma, Sani Habila Zira, Mrs. Uzoma Cyril Attang and Mr. Christian Madubuike, to convert the sums of N24.2 billion, N1.3 billion and N1.7 billion respectively, belonging to the Pension Office to their own use, an offence punishable under Section 309 of the Penal Code Act, Cap 532, Laws of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Nigeria 2007.
While delivering his judgment, the position of the law and the plea of Yusufu’s counsel, Mayaki Thoedore Bala, that he “tempers justice with mercy” seemed to weigh heavily on the mind of the trial judge, Justice Abubakar Talba.
Justice Talba held that Section 309 of the Penal Code under which the accused persons were charged provides for a two-year imprisonment with an option of fine or both if found guilty.
Accordingly, he had no trouble reaching the decision to give a two-year sentence for each count expected to run concurrently or an option of N250, 000 per count.
He noted that the convict with no previous criminal record, voluntarily pleaded guilty to the charges for which he was standing trial and had agreed to forfeit the money he stole as well as the property he acquired with the ill-gotten money.
Justice Talba lamented that corruption was a monster, which had denied Nigerians better living conditions.
Reacting to the judgment on Monday, a professor of law and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Itse Sagay, said even though he was not a crime lawyer, he was aware that the law for such offences provides for at least a 14-year imprisonment. “This particular stealing is aggravated not just because of the amount of money involved but because of the people affected. Those are the people who have served this country in their prime; spent their years serving this country and are now dying in penury. To me, he deserves a capital punishment”, he declared, adding that the two- year sentence was quite surprising to him.
Also, the chairman of the Ikeja branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Onyekachi Ubani, said that something drastic had to be done to amend the penal code that provided for such penalty.
“It encourages impunity. If it is true that the provision of the law says two years, it does not make for the orderliness of the society. Punishments are supposed to serve as deterrent, but this type will encourage more crime. What is two years?” he queried, adding that the National Assembly should as a matter of urgency amend the penal code to provide for a stricter punishment.
But the former National President of the NBA, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), had a different opinion. He said that the fact that there was a conviction was enough to cheer about. He said: “It is encouraging. This news about the conviction is good and everybody should be happy. Let us first get conviction at all. This is a country where it is difficult to convict corrupt cases. All we hear before is arrest, charge, and bail with nothing to show for it.”
According to him, while not losing sight of the fact that the sentencing was inappropriate, it is cheery news that he was convicted in the first place. According to him, what is important now is to encourage the judges to tread that path and begin to hand out stricter penalties in order to discourage others. “I am happy that there is a conviction while not losing sight of the fact that the sentencing was inappropriate. We can rather continue to encourage the judges to continue in that direction but to make it more stringent so that it will send a strong signal”, he declared.
Meanwhile, the other accused persons in the matter, which is being prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) maintained their earlier plea, insisting that they were not guilty.
In the amended 20 counts charge, bordering on conspiracy and criminal breach of trust brought against the accused persons by EFCC, two more persons, Mrs. Uzoma Cyril Attang and Mr. Christian Madubuike who were not included in the earlier charge were introduced in the matter.
The Permanent Secretary of the Pension Office, Mr. Atiku Abubakar Kigo, was initially docked alongside Mr. Esai Dangabar, Ahmed Inuwa Wada, John Yakubu Yufufu, Sani Habila Zira and one woman, Mrs. Veronica Ulonma Oyegbula in 2011 on a 16-count charge before the charge was amended to include Mrs. Attang and Mr. Christian Madubike.
The judge had earlier granted each of the accused persons bail in the sum of N10 million, with two sureties in like sum, one of whom must not be less than an officer on grade level 14 and that the sureties must live within the jurisdiction of the court.
Other conditions for their bail, the judge held, were that the sureties must depose to affidavits of means, which must be verified by the EFCC and that the accused persons should deposit their national passports before the court.