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Presidential Pardon: Little foxes that spoil anti-graft’s vineyard

By Eno-Abasi Sunday, (Deputy Editor)
21 August 2022   |   4:15 am
When “news” filter out that recently released jailbird, and former governor of Plateau State, Joshua Chibi Dariye, was preparing to contest for the Senate seat of Plateau Central in the 2023 election, on the platform of the Labour Party

Dariye

When “news” filter out that recently released jailbird, and former governor of Plateau State, Joshua Chibi Dariye, was preparing to contest for the Senate seat of Plateau Central in the 2023 election, on the platform of the Labour Party, tongues began to wag rapidly with many lambasting President Muhammadu Buhari for paving the way for such “absurdity” to be contemplated.

The short-lived Dariye saga is just one of the assorted snide reactions that have trailed the Federal Government’s 2022 presidential pardon list, even as the release of the beneficiaries got underway in the penultimate week, with Dariye and Rev. Jolly Nyame being the maiden beneficiaries to be released from the Kuje correctional facility over four months after the list got the presidential nod.

Doubtless, the prosecution of high-profile corruption cases, including white-collar and organised crimes gulp immense energy, money, time (and sometimes, human lives), as well as diligent prosecution to get perpetrators jailed.

But how, with a stroke of a pen, hordes of convicts are let off the hook by Buhari, based on the advice of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Prerogative of Mercy (PACPM), still riles many who still wonder why a government that promised anti-graft war as a “directive principle of state policy” finds pleasure in releasing those jailed for corruption.

The PACPM set up by the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation, recommended the pardon of two ex-governors, and also recommended the pardon of 24 other convicts who were still serving various jail terms for the diverse offences that they committed.

Eighty-six others, who had finished serving their jail terms were also recommended for a pardon by the panel, headed by the Attorney General of the Federation/Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, and one of the 86 people got a posthumous presidential pardon.

Short of branding the anti-graft war of the present administration as a ruse, aggrieved groups and individuals are lamenting that the much-vaunted anti-corruption campaign is tantamount to running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

According to them, as the African Union’s Anti-Corruption Champion, the president’s actions should never be perceived or seen as a let, but rather a complete hindrance to all forms of corrupt practices.

Also, to underscore the pervasive nature of corruption in the administration, the 2022 presidential pardon list was doctored by some criminal elements within the system, who altered the report of the committee to include the name of a jailed former managing director of a bank, whose case was never considered by the committee.

Already, the three individuals, according to the report of an investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), who were found to have been involved in altering the report would soon have their day in court.

Catalogue of Freed Jailbirds
CHAPTER 6. Part 1. Section 175 of the 1999 constitution (as amended) – Prerogative Of Mercy states that: (1) The President may –
(a) grant any person concerned with or convicted of any offence created by an Act of the National Assembly a pardon, either free or subject to lawful conditions;
(b) grant to any person a respite, either for an indefinite or for a specified period, of the execution of any punishment imposed on that person for such an offence;
(c) substitute a less severe form of punishment for any punishment imposed on that person for such an offence; or
(d) remit the whole or any part of any punishment imposed on that person for such an offence, or of any penalty or forfeiture otherwise due to the State on account of such an offence.
The powers of the President under subsection (1) of this section shall be exercised by him after consultation with the Council of State.

(3) The President, acting in accordance with the advice of the Council of State, may exercise his powers under subsection (1) of this section in relation to persons concerned with offences against the army, naval, or air-force law or convicted or sentenced by a court-martial.

It was in the exercise of this power that Buhari pardoned former governors Dariye and Nyame who were convicted of stealing public funds when they served as governors of Plateau and Taraba states respectively. Dariye was jailed for stealing N2b public funds during his time as Plateau State governor, between 1999 and 2007. The former, who also represented Plateau Central in the Senate in 2015, was sentenced in June 2018, but still completed his tenure as a senator from jail in June 2019.

Nyame, 66, ex-governor of Taraba from 1999 to 2007, was serving a 12-year jail term at the Kuje prison over misappropriation of funds while he was in office.

Apart from Dariye and Nyame, many are still wondering about the rationale behind the National Council of State’s approval, and indeed, Buhari’s nod for the granting of pardon to a cocktail of economic saboteurs, drug barons, and sundry criminal elements that were jailed for plundering the nation’s fortunes.

Jolly Nyame

For instance, Umar Bamali, an engineer, who was serving a seven-year jail term in the Jos Medium Security Custodial Centre Prison for obtaining money by false pretence, was recommended for pardon after less than two years for old age and for being beneficial to society.

Bamali, while working as a director at the Nigeria Institute of Mining and Geosciences (NIMG), in concert with his Procurement Officer, Adeniyi Adeosun, allegedly diverted over N70m meant for allowances of staff of NIMG and contracts of printing of security and non-security documents.

Sixty-three-year-old Sa’Adu Ayinla Alanamu, a former Chairman, Governing Council of the Kwara State Polytechnic, was jailed for receiving kickback for award of contracts in the polytechnic. He had only served two years at the Oke-Kura Correctional Centre, Kwara State before he was pardoned as a result of “ill-health and for being beneficial to the society.” The same gesture was extended to Salman Suleiman, 63, who bagged a seven-year jail term for bribery, at Oke-Kura Correctional Centre.

Rowaye Jubril, who was jailed for forgery/419, in 2017, only spent four of the 10 years at the Maximum Security Correctional Centre, Lagos before he was pardoned.

Jailed 188 years for conspiracy, Ikechukwu Michael Ogbu, 69, was recommended for pardon on “grounds of ill health” after serving only four years at the Maximum Security Custodial Centre, Lagos State. These are just a few of those that bagged the presidential pardon.

Poor Record Of Prosecuting Politically Exposed Persons 
OVER the years, the prosecution of politically exposed persons (PEPs) has remained an uphill task for previous governments. Even when they find the courage to do that, the pace is so sloppy that some of the cases run for over a decade without being determined.

The Buhari-led government has not fared better in this regard as it has continually left many confused with the way his administration throws out those perceived to be corrupt in his government, but without ensuring that they are effectively prosecuted. This, indeed, calls to question, the executive and judiciary’s commitment to ridding the country of corruption.

One of the cases that keeps agitating the minds of most Nigerians is the grass-cutting contract involving the first Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) appointed by Buhari, Mr. Babachir Lawal, who was fired over an alleged fraudulent N500m grass-cutting contract.

Five years after the sack, the Nigerian people whose resources were involved in the contract fraud are yet to get justice, while Lawal, a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) still swaggers about to date.

For several months, staff members of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) were locked in a fight to finish with their then Executive Secretary, Usman Yusuf, over what they described as “questionable and unauthorised spending by Yusuf.”

After playing the onlooker for several months, the Federal Government eventually got Yusuf out of office, based on the recommendation of a panel of inquiry, which concluded that he breached the Public Procurement Act, and flouted public service rules by refusing to carry out lawful instructions by superior authorities. To date, not much has been heard of the consequences of Yusuf’s actions.

Two months ago, Ibrahim Magu the embattled former acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was promoted to the rank of Assistant Inspector General of Police (AIG) By the Nigeria Police Force, only weeks to his retirement from service. The promotion came over a year after he was suspended from office for alleged abuse of office, and corrupt practices. He was later replaced by Abdurasheed Bawa.

For over three months, Magu was probed by a judicial panel of inquiry led by a former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami. The panel submitted several recommendations in its report to Buhari, but all those have not been made public.

The former minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Sabo Nanono, was booted out of office for poor performance and questionable spending, including the splashing of N30m for the building of a mosque for livestock farmers.

Also, on his watch, between September and December 2020, up to N3.08b was allegedly paid into the private accounts of 42 staff members of the ministry.

The ministry under Nanono, also failed to account for extra-budgetary liability amounting to over N48b according to a government audit report.

Clemency For Looters, Mockery Of Buhari’s Anti-graft War
WHEN news of the Federal Government’s pardon of 24 convicted criminals who were still serving their jail terms, and 86 others, who had finished serving their jail terms broke out, many were disturbed, but the release from the correctional facility of Dariye and Nyame irked millions across the country.

Principal Partner at Law Forte, Afam Osigwe (SAN), and Professor of Comparative Constitutional Law, University Of Benin, Benin City, Edoba Omoregie, SAN, are united in their submission that even though he is empowered to do so, pardoning looters of the peoples’ commonwealth negates the anti-corruption posturing of the administration.

Said Osigwe: “The fight against corruption was one of the priority areas of the Buhari-led administration in its avowed determination and commitment to exterminate corruption. But this determination appears to have fallen short of the way that the fight has been prosecuted on the ground because there has been some interference in the execution of the fight. It also appears that the government has not given much support to security and investigative agencies.

“Some people have rightly opined that the grant of pardon to some high-profile persons, who were convicted after several years of prosecution has quite affected the posturing of the government, thereby giving the fight a poor perception in the eyes of members of the public,” he said.

On whether the president’s action was not unfair to investigative agencies and their operatives, who put their lives on the line in the course of prosecuting the cases, Osigwe, a former national secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) said: “When you talk about politics and power, sometime it may be difficult to use the word fair and unfair, but I would rather look at it from the perspective of the ways that their moral is affected. Fighting high-profile corruption cases to the point of getting a conviction put the lives of everyone involved on the line because of the enormous time, energy, and resources that it entails. Examples abound in other countries where prosecutors have fallen victim to mafia groups whose members are involved in organised crimes, and white-collar crime.

“To get convicted criminals to walk away free after a short time in prison, the government that is prosecuting this war has failed to use the opportunity that it has to set an example to signpost what it intends to do with persons who are found culpable and to show commitment to deal decisively with others and thereby deter others that hold public offices to remain unblemished. Pardoning convicted looters by the government are not only discouraging but can kill the zeal of all involved in the trial process.”

While calling on the Federal Government to cultivate the habit of putting only eminently qualified persons to prosecute the war against graft, Osigwe stressed that the issue of “perception is also key because how the people view the government’s action matters a lot. So, the public must not be allowed to believe that as long as you are a big man, you can easily get a presidential pardon and walk away.

“Additionally, the fact of the pardon extinguishes the guilt as it were, so whatever legal liabilities that there were are no more, and these same people can run again for public office simply means that the society is back to square one and the vicious cycle continues. Perception-wise, this does not look good for the government as other people will not see the idea of committing a crime as a big thing because they will always reason that whatever happens in court, they can always find a way around it,” he explained.

For Omoregie, “even though the president has a constitutional prerogative to seek advice whenever he decides to act in matters of exercise of the prerogative of mercy, the president is not bound to take the advice, although it’s a proper thing that he does accede to the advice. In the end, the decision to seek advice is entirely that of the president. That is why I don’t see why any impression should be given that the decision to grant clemency is that of the Council of State. It is not.

“As to what I make of it, I think it runs counter to the expressed agenda of the president to fight corruption. These former public figures were convicted of corruption. Their trial began even before the President took office. They ought to have been left to serve their terms of imprisonment in full. The reason given for their release is health-related. I think that is not sufficient ground to grant clemency. Nigeria will not go bankrupt if the best treatment is afforded them at the government’s expense. Would every convict facing health challenges be granted a similar privilege of clemency on health grounds? Is this a usual practice? I don’t think so,” he said.

The university teacher, who said that various shades of economic saboteurs were being enabled by the system, expressed confidence that regulatory/prosecutorial bodies such as the Central Bank, the EFCC, ICPC, etc., were “doing their utmost within the limits of their enabling laws,” added that “we only need to up our vigilance and improve on the capacities of these bodies so that the country can be best served. I also strongly think that law enforcement should be decentralised. Many of the functions including those, which are being undertaken by federal agencies involved in law enforcement can also be simultaneously undertaken by state governments and even by local government councils, depending on their nature. Quite a lot of them have serious economic implications. After all, the constitution does not envisage that only the Federal Government should undertake the role of law enforcement. So, the problem of ineffective actions to curb the activities of ‘economic saboteurs’ may also be a lack of proper structural arrangement or implementation of the structural dictates of the Constitution. Going forward, we may consider providing more opportunities for sub-national government participation in law enforcement, in collaboration and cooperation with the Federal Government.”

Like Osigwe, Omoregie agrees that the decision to grant clemency is capable of dampening the enthusiasm of those in the criminal justice system.

Said he: “Surely, they may feel that their efforts are of little value. A criminal trial is one of the most difficult in the justice administration system. It involves a painstaking investigation by law enforcement, followed by careful formulation and a draft of the criminal charge, prosecution of the suspect, evaluation of the facts and the law by the judge, and conviction, if the charge is proven; or acquittal if the charge is unproven. Where there has been a conviction, the convict may wish to go ahead to exhaust the appellate remedies available.

“In corruption trials such appeals go to the Court of Appeal, and more often than not end at the Supreme Court. All these cost government enormously in terms of fees and expenses. Then, the correctional service takes over where there is a final upholding of the conviction by the Supreme Court, only for clemency to be granted; not because of anything later found to be wrong with the prosecutorial process, but on the mere sentimental ground of health. The signals are not quite palatable. I only hope that law enforcement agents and prosecutors don’t begin to flip investigations and trials in favour of suspects for reason that their efforts could ultimately amount to naught, given the clemency granted by Mr. President.”

Given the circumstances of pervasive corruption in the country, the university teacher is deeply concerned that Buhari’s extra-ordinary step of pardoning criminals “tends to give the wrong impression that the fight against corruption may not have a strong sting as thought,” Omoregie noted.

Sharing Omoregie’s position that clemency for convicted crooks could embolden political criminals that are still on the prowl, is the Access to Justice, a civil society group.

According to its convener, Joseph Otteh: “The arbitrary use of the power of clemency demystifies the consequences of corruption for a lot of people who may want to engage in it. The allegation that an extra name was smuggled into the list of those granted pardons by the Presidency is a good way to illustrate how emboldened they can be…We can only imagine the level of brazenness it takes to conceive of such a fraud. But again, some might ask, how is that fraud any different from the one on which it is based and seeks to exploit?”

Expressing disappointment of what remains of the much-talked-about anti-graft war, he maintained that high hopes of a successful fight “have largely deflated, and I say this without meaning to undermine the work anti-corruption agencies are doing; my personal opinion is that the fight has, to a large extent, been crumbled and blunted by the politics of power and its preservation.”

The group pointed out that the unfolding scenario “shows the war against corruption as a false flag campaign which, reduced to its core, is not more than a hyped, politically-suave rhetoric. The government takes everyone for a ride – the investigators, prosecutors, judges – and makes a mockery of the daunting efforts made by all these actors to hold persons who have abused their trust to account. Some of those on the list reportedly include persons convicted for obtaining money by pretenses – 419 in our local parlance. Everyone knows how much reputational damage this crime has done to Nigeria.

“The government is hardly giving a clear and right message to the Nigerian people; I think that the government is telling people that it is open to doing some political horse-trading, some give and take around pardons – whether for political or another advantage, which is itself a corrupt use of power. The government is not creating the deterrence, consistency, and standards people need to see to keep away from these kinds of behaviour.”

Shielding PEPs From Accountability Disturbing, Reprehensible
THE Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) notes that “this trend of shielding Politically Exposed Persons from accounting for their actions is disturbing,” adding that some beneficiaries of the pardon were the chief executives of their states, where they had sworn oaths of office and allegiance to the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and vowed that they would govern their states with utmost good faith. But breached the trust reposed in them.

The Executive Director of CISLAC, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, said that like other well-meaning groups in the society, it insists that a presidential pardon “must never be abused, or used as a tool of political patronage, nepotistic purposes, monetary benefits, or for self-aggrandisement. Just as it must be used fairly and impartially, free of bias and public disapproval as observed in recent times in Nigeria.”

CISLAC recalled that in “early 2021, despite the growing concerns and questionable performance of the former service chiefs in addressing insecurity, followed by calls from well-meaning Nigerians and civil society groups on President Muhammadu Buhari, and the National Assembly to withdraw, and reject their proposed appointment to ambassadorship and confirmation, the Presidency and the National Assembly practically demonstrated disobedience, insincerity and lack of political will in anti-corruption fight through their subsequent collective decision that led to appointments of the service chiefs in June 2021.”

The CISLAC argued that even though the Federal Government has made several commitments both locally and internationally to revitalise the economy and block loopholes necessitated by saboteurs, its actions say otherwise.

“The administration has paid lip service to practically implementing sanctions against saboteurs. This inaction paves way for widening socio-economic inequality and its precarious burden on the citizens.

It added: “The moral implications of granting pardon to political criminals may send wrong signals to the people, who could perceive such as connivance, conspiracy, or motivation. Without a doubt, needless clemency for political criminals exposes systemic weakness in maintaining the sanity and sanctity of the rule of law. It threatens judicial processes and institutions. In the same way, it constitutes a major setback to every effort to address corruption at all levels.

“When the power to grant clemency is abused, it undermines social justice, transparency, and accountability in governance process and institution, while serving as a potential assurance, or cover to erring public officers, who would loot or engage in corruption without fear,” the civil society group said.