Judiciary and anti-graft campaign
The Supreme Court’s affirmation of six-year imprisonment and an order for refund of N22.9bn against the former Federal Director of Pension (FDP) John Yakubu Yusuf, raises a ray of hope that the Federal Government’s anti-corruption campaign may not be completely dead after all.
Coming at about a time that President Muhammadu Buhari, along with the National Council of State granted state pardon to two former governors, Joshua Dariye and Jolly Nyame of Plateau and Taraba states, both convicted of financial crime, the Supreme Court may have rekindled hope that corruption would not be allowed to suffocate the country, particularly by permanently reversing the obvious miscarriage of justice occasioned by the High Court judgment. No doubt the pardon was in bad taste because the conviction of the former governors was considered to be a major score for the government, only for it to be reversed through an obnoxious state pardon. It is incumbent that government commits to fully execute the apex court judgment and ensure that the convict refunds the N22.9bn that he misappropriated.
In a lead judgment delivered by Justice Tijjani Abubakar and unanimously endorsed by the court in an appeal filed by Yusuf, the apex court upheld the judgment of the Court of Appeal. The appeal court’s judgment was itself significant for upturning an earlier decision of the Abuja High Court, which although found Yusuf guilty, only sentenced him to two years imprisonment with an option of N750, 000 fine. That judgment had naturally caused an uproar for its glaring inadequacy against a public servant who misappropriated almost N23b. The Supreme Court had berated the High Court for its judgment in 2016, describing it as “a slap on the wrist.”
In 2018, the Court of Appeal reappraised the judgment and sentenced Yusuf to six years in jail, in addition to ordering him to refund the money. In addition, the Supreme Court held that Yusuf, and others, engaging in fraudulent practices, must be told in clear language through rulings that “it is no longer business as usual.” Besides, the judge said the appeal seeking to set aside the jail term was frivolous, vexatious, and devoid of merit, and victims of the convicted official deserve restitution, which could only come through justice. Additionally, Justice Abubakar said the plea bargain at the High Court and the ruling of the judge were not only bizarre and embarrassing but also ridiculous and unacceptable.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had arraigned Yusuf before the FCT High Court in 2016, where he admitted committing the fraud and subsequently entered into a plea bargain with the anti-graft agency. Justice Abubakar Talba of the FCT High Court had, upon the plea bargain, sentenced the former director to two years imprisonment with an option of a N750, 000 fine, which he promptly paid and avoided imprisonment.
As an institution and a key arm of government, the judiciary has a grave role to play, not just in delivering justice or maintaining law and order, it must complement the efforts of the executive in fighting corruption. Indeed, the executive arm of government has often blamed the judiciary for letting it down, by treating accused persons with kids’ gloves, and letting them escape justice. While it is on record that the judiciary initially bungled the handling of the Yusuf case, through its slap on the wrist, it is equally on record that the same judiciary took advantage of its appellate opportunity to correct itself. The overall effect is that ordinary Nigerians might see the government’s anti-graft campaign as being on the course, albeit unsteadily. Appropriately tagged as the last hope for the common man, the judiciary must be seen constantly to possess stem and venom to deliver justice to all classes of Nigerians, no matter whose ox is gored or the position of the subjects. It should at all times maintain its responsibility as the legal and moral conscience of the country.
At the centre of all questions emanating from the government’s handling of corruption cases is the issue of the sincerity of the fight against corruption. It is indeed saddening that, since 2015, corruption-related matters appeared to be on the increase while the government has failed to address them with corresponding vigour. Many cases are being swept under the carpet while some truism seems to be lent to a statement credited to a chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Party (APC) that the sins of whoever joins the party is forgiven. Moreover, there have been disturbing cases of profligacy under President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.
The Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal displayed moral courage to deliver their judgments which is per the rule of law, and a clear statement in bold letters to other individuals engaging in fraudulent practices that, it is ‘no longer business as usual. Also, the judgment is a viable instrument for social justice and will go down memory lane of serving justice correctly as well as vindicating the institution’s appellation as the last hope of the common man.
The Supreme Court should go a step further to ensure that its order on refund of N22.9bn against Yusuf be executed, even if it means taking over his properties in the absence of the liquid equivalent. Judgments such as this go a long way to enhance the quality of democracy in Nigeria. It also helps to entrench the dominance of the regular laws of the land over and above any individual and for good measure, provides the much-needed catalyst to rekindle hope, confidence, and trust in the judiciary and government. Notably, the case lingered for about six years before it was finally concluded. Therefore, there is a need for speedy trials so that the saying in legal parlance that justice delayed is justice denied should not arise.