Wednesday January 23rd 2013, an Abeokuta Magistrate court sentenced Mustapha Adesina to two years imprisonment for stealing N5,000 worth of vegetables. One week later an Abuja High Court sentenced a former head of the Police Pension Board, Yakubu Yusuf, to two years imprisonment for embezzling N23.3billion. The difference between Mustapha and Yakubu was that Mustapha stole small and hence was not eligible to a plea bargain, on the other hand, Yakubu staggered the court room with the magnanimity of his loot and hence became a VIP looter who was entitled to a plea bargain and a slap on the wrist.
Plea bargaining had hitherto been an alien idea in the Nigerian Judiciary System until the advent of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and has undoubtedly featured as one of the most controversial aspects in the prosecution of high profile corruption cases. Plea bargain essentially involves both prosecutor and the defendant coming to a compromise with regards to the latter pleading guilty to the charges in exchange for softer penalties and charges.
Perhaps Plea bargain can be traced to 2005 when the former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, was charged with stealing over N20billion but was let off the hook with only a six months jail sentence and forfeiture of a few assets.
A former chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Musdapher Dahiru, speaking at an Alternative Dispute Resolution summit insisted that the concept spurned corruption rather than fight it.
“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 EFCC.” Justice Dahiru noted. How can an establishment fight corruption when one of its major tool appears to mock the very Justice system it swore to uphold.
Former Governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbenedion, who was charged with 191 count charge bothering on corruption, embezzlement and laundering of N2.9billion went into a plea bargain through its counsel, Rotimi Jacobs, and had his charges reduced to a single count of failing to declare his assets. He retained the bulk of his loot and refunded only N500million, 3 houses and paid a N3.6 million fine all out of N2.9 billion. When the mathematics is properly done, results suggest that it is perhaps profitable to steal big. How is the judgement and punishment expected to impact on the lives of thousands of police pensioners who have been adversely affected by Yakubu’s crime?
Advocates for plea bargain are quick to point out its effectiveness in ensuring quick dispensation of Justice, but as Lenin famously pointed out, “A fool’s haste is no speed”.
A senior advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Vincent Ohaneri pointed out that the plea-bargaining system has an altruistic base, and works efficiently in the Western world, but has so far failed woefully in the proper dispensation of Justice in Nigeria. “A handful of our elites in the country have used plea bargain to run away from just punishment for criminal acts.
“The concept should be completely abrogated from our judicial system. I say this because Nigeria as a nation is already faced with too many cases of corruption and financial malpractice.
“These culprits should be made to face the wrath of the law, rather than romancing with them in the name of plea bargain.” He added
There needs to be stricter laws and punishments against betrayers of public trust, it is essential that people such as the vegetable-robber, Mustapha Adesina do not feel undone by the justice system when they put in comparison their crimes with those of the so-called high-profile robbers, justice must be blind to social status and the punishment meted out to culprits in a manner that deters and discourages others from perpetrating such crimes, rather than further encourage it.
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