When Samson Gbadebo, an 18-year-old man was arraigned before a Lagos State magistrate court for allegedly stealing goods worth N26,200 recently, the magistrate granted him bail in the sum of a whopping N200,000. On face value, the bail condition is grossly disproportionate to the crime for which Mr. Gbadebo was standing trial.
That appeared the case too for Ejike Ezekweghi. On October 12, the 39-year-old businessman was arraigned at an Area Court in Karmo, Abuja for allegedly stealing six bottles of assorted wine. Ruling on his application, the presiding judge, Sadiq Abubakar, admitted him to bail in the sum of N500,000.
The two cases above appear to indicate that judges apply their prerogative to impose stiff bail conditions on persons accused of minor offences. This appears even more so when you consider the usual bail conditions for politically-exposed persons and more influential Nigerians charged with more serious offences. PREMIUM TIMES found that in recent cases, this class tends to get much more lenient bail conditions, especially when compared against the allegations that took them before judges.
Take the case at an Abuja high court involving Godsday Orubebe, a former Niger Delta Affairs Minister. He was arraigned by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission, ICPC, alongside two junior staff of the ministry, Oludara Alaba and Ephraim Zeri on a six-count charge involving their alleged diversion of N2.3 billion.
On September 7, when the judge, Olukayode Adeniyi, ruled on the accused persons’ respective bail applications, he asked Mr. Orubebe to produce a bail bond of N10 million and one surety in like sum.
For the two other defendants however, the judge asked each to produce a bond of N20 million, with a surety in like sum who must be an assistant director in the civil service and also own land within the court’s jurisdiction. Note that all three accused faced the same charges.
Or take the case of a former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki. His office was alleged to have been used for the diversion of $2.1 billion. In one of the many cases against him, Mr. Dasuki was accused of illegal possession of arms. The judge granted him bail on self-recognizance.
In a separate case, Mr. Dasuki was accused, alongside two others and two companies, of diverting N9.6 billion. The court admitted the three accused persons to bail in the sum of N250 million each, representing a fraction of the sum they had been charged with diverting.
More recently on November 22, a Justice of the Supreme Court, Sylvester Nguta, who had been charged for alleged corruption involving tens of millions of local and foreign currencies, was admitted to bail in the sum of N100 million.
The trial judge, John Tsoho, attached no condition to Mr. Nguta’s bail, ruling that the personal appearance of the accused made the presentation of sureties unnecessary.
So why does justice appear not to be blind to the status of the accused when judges rule on bail applications?
Going by the provisions of Nigeria’s Constitution and other relevant laws, bails are at the discretion of the trial judge.
According to Section 158 of the ACJA; “When a person who is suspected to have committed an offence or is accused of an offence is arrested or detained or appears or is brought before a court he shall, subject to the provisions of this part, be entitled to bail”.
Section 162of the same Act states that: ‘The defendant charged with an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term, exceeding three years shall on application to the court, be released on bail except in any of the following circumstances:
“Where there is reasonable ground to believe that the defendant will, where released on bail, commit another offence.
“Attempt to evade his trial; prejudice the proper investigation of the offence; or undermine or jeopardise the objectives or the functions of the Criminal Justice Administration, including the bail system”.
As stated above, section 165 of the ACJA allows courts discretion on bail terms and conditions.
PREMIUM TIMES sought the views of legal analysts on the factors that influence judges in the exercise of that discretion.
Adegboyega Awomolo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, explained that the purpose of bail is to ensure that a person accused of a crime is available for trial.
“The bail conditions must not be too stringent as to indicate a refusal or punishment pending trial”, Mr. Awomolo said.
“Every person charged with a criminal offence is presumed innocent until the contrary is proved. The amount allegedly stolen does not matter, because it is an offence which the law regards as ordinarily bailable.
“However if it is murder, treason or terrorism; the law requires special consideration to entitle such a person to be admitted to bail”.
Mr. Awomolo agrees that the status of a defendant sometimes weigh on the mind of the court in determining bail application, “particularly where the prosecution did not oppose the application on very strong or special grounds”.
The senior advocate said “For example, a man notorious for stealing or rape will not enjoy favourable exercise of discretion of the court”.
Another legal practitioner, Emmanuel Ejeh, tended to agree with Mr. Awomolo’s submission. He told PREMIUM TIMES that courts consider factors including the accused person’s criminal history, the content of the allegation and the prosecution’s strength of arguments in determining bail applications.
“Bail bonds should not become a disguised punishment for an accused person. It should not be considered punishment ahead of trial”, he stressed.
“A bail bond is just a statement; it is not a fine. What it means is that if the accused jumps bail, his surety will be punished by having him pay the bail bond.
“The court could also ask that the accused person’s surety to deposit things like landed property. It all depends on if the court thinks the man is likely to jump bail. If he is, the court will demand something substantial,” said Mr. Ejeh.
Another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Rotimi Jacobs, said the only thing that matters to the court in exercising its discretion on the issue is that the accused will be in attendance at all sittings of the trial.
“What is paramount is that there is the likelihood that the person will attend the trial. Because it is discretionary, one case cannot be an example for the other,” he said.
The explanation by the lawyers could mean that in the case of the teenager, Mr. Gbadebo, the judge made the bail sum so high because he was less sure the accused would be able to attend trial. It could also explain why former minister Orubebe got less stringent bail conditions than junior civil servants though they were accused of the same crime.
Mr. Jacobs, who is a counsel of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, in several high-profile cases, however added that Nigeria should explore other ways of ensuring that suspects attend trial.
He argued that the current practice of demanding sums of money, landed property, and the submission of international passports, among other things, was inadequate.
The discretionary nature of the bail system is opposed by a civil society group, Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, CACOL.
“We cannot be manipulated by the discretion of the judges. The law should apply equally to the poor as to politically exposed persons,” Debo Adeniran, the group’s leader said, while supporting the ongoing clampdown on judicial corruption by the federal government.
“The politically exposed persons have the financial capacity to employ the services good lawyers that can canvass their cases well; than the downtrodden people rely on lawyers to canvass their plight on pro-bono.
“The judges sometimes misapply their discretions based on the inducements they get from accused persons.
“That is why the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders is very happy with what is going on in the judiciary. The reform in the judiciary should ensure specific pronouncements against certain offences,” the activist said.