A nation finds its moral compass
One lesson that must not be missed from the enormous outrage that followed the light sentence given to John Yusuf Yakub, the pension funds thief, is that government must take prompt action to bring appropriate punishment to bear on officials who steal money in billions and trillions of Naira. If they fail to do that, the public would have no recourse but to start lynching those thieves.
Yusuf’s sentence, which was no more than a slap on the wrist, came to Nigerians like a bad joke. A man convicted for stealing 23 billion Naira was asked to go to jail for two years or pay a fine of N750,000 which amounts to no more than 0.003 percent of the stolen funds. Pronto, he settled the fine and walked home a free man. Well, a free man until the outrage of the conviction hit the roof and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, came back for him.
They have since instituted another charge before the courts on account of which he was ordered to be kept at Kuje Prisons pending trial. When he heard the ridiculous verdict, a returnee Diasporan in my neighbourhood, a man whose most productive life was spent in the United States of America, joked that he was ready to go to prison for five years, not two as given to Yusuf, if they would allow him to keep all that money at the end of it.
For quite some time, the Nigerian courts have inherited and continued to dispense, willy-nilly a justice system that is skewed in favour of VIPs. Ordinary citizens on the other hand continue to groan under it, their weariness growing with each incident. But the recent conviction of Yusuf seems to task their patience beyond limits. They seem no longer prepared to take the insults. The public seems to want a retributive justice that should assume a form as violent and demonic as the crime it is meant to punish.
This anger against the skewed justice system became manifest with the two-year prison sentence of the former Governor of Bayelsa state, Diepreye Alamieyesiegha in 2007 following his conviction for money laundering. Nigerians’ anger against this did not, however, crystallize until the time it was provoked by the Federal High Court in Enugu, which sentenced the former Governor of Edo State, Chief Lucky Igbinedion to a six months imprisonment or a fine of N3.5million. This was following his conviction on a one-count charge of misappropriation of money in excess of N3 billion. As with many things in Nigeria, the storm that rose with these incidents died down after a little while.
In 2009, the then Deputy Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Olabode George got a 30-month jail term following his conviction on 47-counts charge on contract splitting and inflation as Chairman of the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA. In the following year, the Managing Director of the defunct Oceanic Bank, Cecilia Ibru got a six months prison sentence for 25 counts charge of Bank and Securities fraud. Nigerians were angered and thought these men and women deserved harsher prison terms than the courts had issued. The collective rage Nigerians felt over the years burst out in a flare following the recent conviction of Yusuf and in their groups and numbers, they have been screaming to be heard in their calls for stiffer punishment for theft and corruption- related offences.
Two things in the view of many explain why things are the way they are. One, and principally, is the law itself. As eloquently stated by Mr. Okey-Wali, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, the devil is in the law, not the trial judges. While it is true that we need trials by the learned and impartial judges in all cases, there is little or nothing a judge can do to punish a culprit outside the provisions of the law. The way to handle this issue is to have the government and the National Assembly look at the Penal and Criminal Codes and give them the kind of bite that this situation warrants, keeping in view the public opinion and the voice of conscience. This has to be done quickly in a proper, firm and just manner or else our children and grand children will ask:”what did you do when these things were happening?”
Secondly, the country needs to build upon the massive reactions following these controversial decisions. It is significant for the country that there is a growing sense of collective responsibility and a sense that crime and its punishment mustn’t just be left to government but also involve the civil society. To exorcise official theft, bribery and corruption, this country must rediscover and hold the moral fabric that ties us together. Each citizen has a duty to do. After World War II, when the atrocities of Nazi holocaust came to light, the German people were saddled with the moral burden of what they called “collective responsibility”.
This country had gradually lost the community sense of shame. This appalling state of affairs reflects fully from a open declaration by a former head of state that he felt so sense of shame. This was a leader whose son filed a statement before a judge indicting him of the worst possible moral corruption charges there can be. In traditional Igbo Society, that elder would have been banished to the forest, never to to return to the community till he or she dies. But Nigerians high and low still hug that man.
The story of Bode George’s ceremonial public reception, live on TV following his completion of the prison term has been well told. Chief George has since been re-engaged at the highest echelons of the country’s leadership. In India where the Press Council has penal powers, a journalist who publishes a lie is fined 50 Rupees, which is no more than one Naira. The issue here isn’t the amount paid as fine. It is the shame of conviction that goes with it that is the real blemish. Elsewhere, the fear of public exposure is known to serve as a far more effective deterrent against crime than actual conviction. Today in this country, there is no shame.
My hope is that the momentum gained fighting this issue by civil society groups, notably the NBA, the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, the Political Parties (minus PDP) and the mass media must be carried to the next level, to ensure the necessary amendments are made to the laws to make them more effective. This is if we must prevent the lynching of culprits.