A Case for Punishing Corruption as Armed Robbery, By Ogaga Ifowodo

Ogaga Ifowodo Portrait 2

As the world moves away from capital punishment, Nigeria, always to be found in the rear-guard of progress, has embraced it with renewed vigour. Recently, the House of Representatives, that august gaggle of expensive and visionary lawmakers, woke up from its legislative coma to propose a bill to eradicate through the death penalty the crime of kidnapping that currently plagues the country.

As far back as 2009, Imo State had made kidnapping a capital offence. If the reports are true, several other states have since enacted a similar law; among them Abia, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo and Enugu. Rivers State, commendably, was not seduced by the siren call of capital punishment, opting instead for life imprisonment.

Under our penal codes, the crimes of murder and armed robbery are punished by death. In the latter case, the law is very specific regarding the manner of carrying out the sentence: “by hanging the offender by the neck till he be dead or by causing such offender to suffer death by firing squad.” The justification for such state-sanctioned savagery is that it deters crime. Simply put, the evil means of capital punishment is more than compensated for by the glorious end of societal peace and harmony.

This was taken to its extreme in the seventies when the federal military government, still steeped in the depredations of the Civil War, valorised firing squads and subjected the nation to the televised bloody rituals infamously dubbed “the Bar Beach Show.” The current state of armed robbery in the country presents a perfect measure of the amount of deterrence achieved.

I am against the death penalty for all the good reasons that prove it to be unjustifiable, chief of which is that it fails to acknowledge human error. As the use of DNA evidence has shown, many wrongly convicted persons have been killed by the state, but who will go to hell or heaven to bring them back to life and restore them to their former lives and status? What possible humane goal can the death penalty achieve that life imprisonment cannot?

Yet, in spite of this I am willing to suspend, temporarily, my opposition to the death penalty and argue for its application to all cases of corruption involving amounts up to and above one billion naira. Conviction for any amount above N100 million but under one billion would be punished by life imprisonment; one million to under N100 million by a jail term of 5-25 years; and any sum under a million naira would be treated as a misdemeanour.

Corruption is eating Nigeria alive. If we must have capital punishment, then it shouldn’t apply only to the poor and weak who must die irrespective of the amount stolen, insofar as armed with a gun, a knife or even a wooden club in the act of robbery but as well to those armed with a pen and who steal astronomical sums in one heist.  The rich and powerful cannot be immune to the great good of deterrence that the death sentence purportedly serves.

This discrepant morality of crime and punishment was shown once again by the scandalous sentence of two years imprisonment or a fine of N750,000 given to John Yakubu Yusuf, an assistant director in the federal service, accused together with six others of stealing N32.8 billion from the Police pension fund. It wasn’t the first time such a travesty of justice would issue from our courts, aided or condoned by the Minister of Justice. We are all reminded of the many high profile felons who, having been convicted of stealing staggering amounts, were literally told to reach in their back pockets or purses, put whatever they found there on the table and go home.

By contrast, barely a day after billion-naira-thief Yusuf dropped his back-pocket change and became a free man (until he was re-arrested for supposedly different crimes), a Magistrate’s Court sitting in Ikare, Ondo State, sentenced one Adepoju Jamiu to three years imprisonment without the option of a fine for stealing a mobile phone worth N17, 000. As Premium Times which reported this case pointed out, had Yusuf and Jamiu been judged under the same law and “ratio of years of sentence … relative to the amount stolen,” then Yusuf would have bagged at least 110,000 years in jail.

Under the Robbery and Firearms (Special Provisions) Act, any person who commits the offence of stealing with the aid of a firearm “or any offensive weapon” or is merely “in company with any person so armed” is liable upon conviction to death. While an ordinary pen or any virtual signature or authorisation tool cannot be defined as a “firearm,” it seems to me that given its lethal role in inflicting grievous harm to our body-politic, in the massive dispossession and “wounding” of the nation, and so the consequential death of countless citizens denied life-saving provisions or support, it can and should be included in the definition of “offensive weapon.” The phrase, “adapted for use for causing injury to the person” in the interpretation section of the Act renders it amenable to this redefinition. Perhaps then, the moral warriors of the national and state assemblies may speak convincingly of the death penalty for deterrence. And I would reconsider my “strategic” pro- death penalty stance after the first execution of a billion-naira thief!

Mr. Ifowodo, a published poet and lawyer, is currently a professor of literature in the United States.