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Using pardons as a political tool

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[File] Buhari’s return after holiday in London. Photo/Twitter/ NGRPresident


Following a request by Godwin Obaseki, the Governor of Edo State, President Buhari has expressed a willingness to grant a presidential pardon to the late Professor Ambrose Alli, former Governor of Bendel State (now Edo and Delta States). Alli was removed from office by Buhari at the end of 1983, and sentenced to 100 years in prison by a military tribunal for allegedly misappropriating ₦983,000 in funds for a road project. He was freed when the Esama of Benin, Gabriel Igbinedion, paid a fine on his behalf. Tragically, Alli passed away on his 60th birthday, 22 September 1989, at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital.

A pardon or prerogative of mercy is a right recognised under the 1999 Constitution, and should ordinarily, if properly exercised, be greeted with applause and gratitude to the President when extended to deserving persons who have been convicted of any offence and have exhausted the appeals process, irrespective of the gravity of the offence or the severity of punishment meted to the offender.

A pardon is granted after consultation with the Council of State, which comprises of the President, Vice President, all state governors, former Heads of State, all former Chief Justices of Nigeria, the National Assembly leadership, and the Attorney-General of the Federation, and could be granted posthumously.State Governors or the President have constitutional powers to grant conditional or unconditional pardon to a convict, or to substitute, reduce, commute or remit the length of sentence and/or the severity or quantum of punishment and penalty or forfeiture, imposed on that person by a court of law.

The legal effect of a pardon is very profound and far reaching to a beneficiary, as it exempts, frees and releases the convict of all liabilities or disabilities flowing from his conviction completely purging the person of the pariah status, infamy and ignoble toga of an ex-convict under the law.

However, as a special kind of power held in public trust by the Chief Executive, the power to pardon it ought to be exercised with the highest sense of responsibility, probity and circumspection by the person vested with such powers in order to ensure that the critical balance between the rights of the individual concerned and the corresponding right of the public to good order, decency, peace and security, is maintained, to meet the ends of equity, justice and good conscience at all times. Nigeria’s leaders, regrettably, have a history of using pardons as political tools, and in the process, letting some truly awful people free.

In 1967, Lt. Col. Odimegwu Ojukwu led rebel forces in a 30-month war against the Nigerian state, and following defeat in 1970, went into exile, returning to Nigeria following a pardon in 1982. It was a cynical political move by President Shagari, who was hoping to get the Igbo vote in 1983’s elections.In 1998, Olusegun Obasanjo, accused of coup plotting by Sani Abacha, was pardoned by General Abudulsalami Abubakar. General Abubakar, like Shagari before him, was being cynical. The military brass at the time had decided that Obasanjo, who went on to become the democratically elected president of Nigeria the next year, was more palatable than whoever the various pro-democracy groups would throw up.

Obasanjo on his part did not use the pardon as expected by many political observers, and those who were charged and imprisoned with him, as well as Ken Saro-Wiwa and the ‘Ogoni Nine’, were never granted pardons by him, except for that granted Major Bilyaminu Mohammed.On Tuesday, March 12, 2013, the granting of prerogative of mercy by President Goodluck Jonathan, to some high profile ex-convicts sparked off anger. Of the eight pardons granted, the most talked about was that of ex-Governor D.S.P. Alamieyeseigha of Bayelsa state, who jumped bail in the UK in 2005 but was later convicted of money laundering in Nigeria. This move was seen by many as politically motivated since Alams was GEJ’s benefactor, and one of the collaterals was the pardon of ex-Major Bello Magaji, who was convicted of sodomy with little boys. In what kind of country does a child rapist get a presidential pardon?

A similarity (using state instruments for political gain) can be seen in President Buhari’s conferment of the GCFR title on Moshood Abiola on June 12, 2018, a move seen in many quarters as politically motivated to buy the loyalty and support of people from the South-West. To be clear, granting pardons is at the discretion of the President, after due consultation with the Council of State. Unfortunately, as this brief historical excursion has shown, while granting pardons are within his rights, it is clear that pardons are a useful political tool.

There are speculations the granting a pardon to Ambrose Alli is to appease parts of the South-South ahead of the 2019 Presidential election. While Alli’s family will probably be consoled by their patriarch’s name being cleared, I wonder how they will feel about the fact that the same man who sullied their patriarch’s reputation in the first place, may end up “clearing his name” in order to score a political goal.


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