Justice Mohammed Talba of the Abuja High Court was in the eye of the storm yesterday when he gave a judgment which many described as making nonsense of the fight against corruption in the country.
The judge sentenced a retired assistant director, Police Pensions Board, John Yusuf, found guilty of stealing N3 billion out of the missing N32.8 billion police pension funds, to two years imprisonment!
The Abuja judge also gave the accused an option to pay N750,000 fine to escape spending time in jail.
The accused who was arraigned along with five others by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, on 2 April, 2012, had confessed to receiving N3 billion out of the stolen money.
In sentencing him to two years imprisonment, Justice Talba said the accused actually assisted the court to try him summarily by confessing to have taken N3 billion as his share of the stolen N32.8 billion police pension funds.
In addition to the two years imprisonment, Justice Talba also ordered that the accused should forfeit N325 million found in his account to the Federal Government while he should also forfeit a total of 32 of his properties to the government.
Many of those present in court, including EFCC counsel, Rotimi Jacobs, felt disappointed at the ruling of the judge, describing it as a trivialisation of the justice system.
We are disappointed too that a self confessed thief was allowed to go with such a light sentence. We note that this is not the first time the court will trivialise the justice system when a highly placed government official is involved in corruption charges. The same thing happened when the former governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion, alleged to have stolen N2.9 billion belonging to the people, was asked to pay just N3.5 million by the Enugu High Court after a plea bargain. To add salt to our collective injury, Igbinedion went into his car brought out cash and paid the fine instantly and became a free man.
In fact, the case of Chief James Onanefe Ibori, former governor of Delta State, alleged to have stolen billions of naira belonging to the people, Justice Marcel Awokulehin of the Asaba High Court not only set him free but accused the prosecutor, the EFCC, of failing to substantiate the charges against the former governor who is now languishing in a British jail for the same offence.
The same is true of other corrupt highly influential Nigerians who are given light sentences by the courts. But when a common man is found guilty of corruption, he is given the maximum sentence. This should not be so. There should not be two different laws for the poor and the rich in the country.
It is a sad development that at this period when the international community expects Nigeria to strengthen its war against corruption, the judiciary continues to portray the country as unserious in its battle against the cankerworm through its judgments in high profile corruption-related cases.
This is why we want to call on the government to overhaul the justice system to give bite to the crusade against corruption. The judiciary as the arm of government charged with interpreting the law must be made to join hand with the government to make the fight against corruption a success.