Onuoha Frank: Anti-Corruption Campaign as the New Judicial Calendar begins

In a few days, the members of the Nigeria judiciary will be coming back from their long vacation to resume their duties. The courts will be opened as activities will be expected to return in full swing. Nevertheless, one is hoping that as they return a lot of things will be put into proper perspective, one of which is repositioning the involvement of the judiciary in the fight against corruption.

Days ago, Nigerians across the country took time to reflect on the first hundred days of President Muhammad Buhari’s administration. Amidst the accolades and knocks, a major theme that resonated with many commentators was the progress of the President’s anti-corruption war. While many commended the invigorated efforts of the anti-corruption agencies such as the EFCC and ICPC, majority decried the lack of ‘Guilty’ verdicts and prolonged time it takes in majority of the high profile cases, particularly those that involved corrupt public officials and politicians. There was a consensus that if the anti-corruption is to be taken seriously, the wheel of justice has to roll at an agreeable speed for everyone with no exception.

In the month of August, the President re-echoed the general frustration with the way the prosecution of the corruption cases has been going in the judiciary. After promising that the trial of indicted persons will commence in a matter of weeks, he also revealed the search for judges who will expedite action on the cases and would be fearless in discharging their duties without compromise. The Professor Itse Sagay-led Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption was given the mandate to ensure such judges were discovered and enlisted.

The scorecard of the anti-corruption campaign by agencies such as EFCC and ICPC has been anything but impressive. Since 2003 when the EFCC was established by the then Obasanjo-led administration to fight against corruption till date, the agency has lost more high-profile cases in court than it has won. Many of the cases are still accumulating dust in various courts across the country. Some of the notable cases it lost include the N300 million corruption suit against former Health Minister, Adenike Grange; N9.2 billion suit against former Governor of Delta, James Ibori; N300 million corruption charges against former Health Minister Gabriel Aduku; Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello alleged to have diverted N10 million; former Aviation Minister Femi Fani-Kayode arraigned on 47 counts charges and alleged to have diverted N250 million; Kenny Martins for alleged stealing of N774 million Police Education Fund and so many others. Several commentators put the blame on EFCC’s ineptitude and lack of professionalism in the procedure the cases were handled. The EFCC on the other hand blames the judiciary mostly for the loss of the cases. They point to the high cost of prosecuting cases which makes it nearly impossible to go after these top government officials at once. Again the high cost of prosecuting corrupt individuals plays a role in the prolonged date of justice. What the EFCC cannot shy away from, however, is that the quality of evidence they often bring before the judges are a major concern. This particular fact has been made obvious by many judges who lambasted the agency’s prosecuting lawyers.

The pending cases are numerous, many will still remember Chimaroke Nnamani, former governor of Anambra (accused of stealing N5.3 billion and filed 11th December 2007); Orji Uzor Kalu, former Governor of Abia (alleged stealing of N5 billion and filed 11th June 2007); Saminu Turaki, former Governor of Jigawa (alleged stealing of N38 billion and filed 13th July 2007); Nyesom Wike, former Chief of Staff and now Governor of Rivers State (diversion of N4.670 billion and filed 9th October 2008); Professor Babalola Borishade, former Aviation Minister (diversion of N5.6 billion and filed June 2008). There are many more that space will not allow. Many of the cases it should be pointed out are deliberately prolonged by the accused persons who through their defense lawyers employ strategies like frivolous appeals and motions to buy time. For instance in the case of Jolly Nyame, former Governor of Taraba who has been on trial since 13th July 2007 for allegedly stealing, the defense lawyer challenged the court jurisdiction and lost at High Court, he appealed and lost at the Appeal Court and finally proceeded to the Supreme Court. His client has been working free since 2008 when a motion for bail was granted while the case is tactically being frustrated.

Some of the cases the anti-corruption agency won in this category include Dr. Cecilia Ibru, former CEO of Oceanic Bank PLC convicted for stealing N160.2 billion and sentenced to 6 months in jail; Bode George, chieftain of the PDP convicted for stealing N100 billion and received a two year jail term sentence; Lucky Igbinedion, former Governor of Edo applied for a plea bargain which was granted, regardless of public outcry. The EFCC is said to have reversed and is now appealing the judgment for stiffer sanctions; John Yusuf and others were accused of embezzling N32.8 billion belonging to Pensioners, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 2 years with an option of a N750, 000 fine, he paid the fine. The EFCC has re-arraigned him for false asset declaration and how that is going to play out is anyone’s guess. Again we see that while justice was in the favor of the EFCC, the sentences are laughable. Rather than deter would-be offenders, sentences like these only encourage more people to be corrupt.

While it is true that the poor handling of the corruption cases by the anti-corruption has a lot to do with the leakages being experienced in the war against corruption, a justice system that panders to the dictates of corrupt individuals should also be noted. The issue of corruption that still bedevils the administration of justice in Nigeria needs to be addressed urgently. The Nigeria Judicial Commission has to walk their talk. We cannot fight corruption effectively in politics when the judges and officials on whom the onus of dispensing justice rest are easily compromised.

From September 23, 2015 the All Nigeria Judges Conference will commence. Many, like me, will be expecting that the judges will come out of the conference with a renewed commitment to rebrand the image of the judiciary and reinvigorate the fight against corruption. It is also expected that they will intensify their engagement of the legislative arm in ensuring that the enabling laws like the Administration of Criminal Justice Bill are passed. The bill many have observed will among other things, bring about a harmonization between the Criminal Procedure Code and Criminal Procedure Act and accelerate the speed of justice.

Finally, the EFCC will do well to put their acts together even as they commence the prosecution of corrupt cases. The lawyers they engage to lead the prosecution should be people with proven records in the legal system. They should be people who share the same of objectives and passion to stanch corruption wherever and with whoever using every available legal means.

Onuoha Frank is an alumni of Imani Centre for Policy and Education. You can connect with him via twitter @iamfrankelean

Photo: James Ibori, defeated the EFCC in Nigeria but was eventually convicted in the UK