President Muhammadu Buhari Thursday controversially pardoned two former state governors who were jailed for stealing public funds in 2018 and were yet to serve half the length of their jail terms.
The former governors – Joshua Dariye of Plateau State and Jolly Nyame of Taraba State – who governed their respective states between 1999 and 2007, were among the 159 convicted persons whose pardon was approved by the Council of State on Thursday.
Although the full list of those pardoned and the reasons given for the individual cases are still sketchy, it was learnt that the former governors, both of whom are in their early 60s, got their pardon on the grounds of age and health.
It calls back to mind a similar gesture that Mr Buhari’s predecessor, President Goodluck Jonathan, extended to a former Bayelsa State governor, the late Dipreye Alamieyesegha, in March 2013.
Mr Jonathan served under Mr Alamieyesegha as deputy governor, from 1999 to 2005. Mr Alamieyesegha, who was removed from office over corruption allegations in 2005, was later convicted after he pleaded guilty to corruption charges at the Federal High Court in Lagos on July 26, 2007.
As president, Mr Jonathan pardoned Mr Alamieyesegha in gratitude to a political benefactor who gave him the opportunity to start his political career as Bayelsa State deputy governor. Nigerians responded in outrage.
Expressing his displeasure in a letter to Mr Jonathan, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who said he missed the council of state meeting where the pardon was ratified, noted that the action was a wrong way of compensating a political benefactor.
“Mr President, I know how much you see Alamieyeseigha as your benefactor since he selected you as his running mate which was the beginning of your rise on the political ladder.
“But there is much to lose as a government and as a nation for taking inappropriate time to please a benefactor no matter how concealed,” Mr Obasanjo wrote to the then President Jonathan.
Summarising public sensibilities towards the pardon, Mr Obasanjo described it as a demonstration of an “absolute lack of political will to fight or confront corruption.”
Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, on his part, said the pardon was unjustifiable and amounted to encouraging corruption.
“What is going on right now gives the picture of a government that is floundering and justifying the unjustifiable. It amounts to encouragement of corruption,” Mr Soyinka said.
Some present-day members of President Buhari’s political family, such as Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State, and a serving minister, Festus Keyamo, did not pull any punches in their criticism of the pardon in 2013. They accused Mr Jonathan of not only failing to fight corruption but also of reversing the gains of the anti-corruption efforts of previous administrations.
Jonathan pardon Vs Buhari pardon
If Mr Jonathan’s pardon for Mr Alamieyesgha demonstrated an encouragement of corruption and lack of political will to fight it, Mr Buhari’s pardon for Messrs Dariye and Nyame amounts to emboldening corruption and going a step further to stab the heart of those fighting it.
In Mr Jonathan’s case, Mr Alamieyesegha, the beneficiary of the pardon, was remorseful by pleading guilty to the corruption charges against him at the earliest possible time.
Also, his plea of guilt saved a lot of judicial time and taxpayers’ funds that would have been expended if he had opted for a full-blown trial.
Moreover, his pardon also came years after he had completed the jail term imposed on him by the court.
A senior lawyer, Mike Ozekhome, who defended the pardon granted to Mr Alamieyesegha in 2013, maintained in an opinion article on Saturday that beyond being remorseful, the former Bayelsa State governor earned it through other ways.
Citing a book, ‘The Burden of Service’, authored by Mohammed Adoke, who was the Attorney General of the Federation when Mr Jonathan granted the pardon in 2013, Mr Ozekhome said the former Bayelsa State governor had “earlier been pardoned by (President) Yar’Adua, though not gazetted before his death.”
He added that Mr Alamieyesegha also helped “in brokering the peace process that led to amnesty in the restive Niger Delta region that halted oil production.”
This, the senior lawyer said, “in turn, led to stability in the area and reduced pipeline vandalism, kidnapping of expatriates, and thus improved oil production which had plummeted to a state of nadir, leading to national ruckus and impoverishment.”
The reverse is the case for Messrs Dariye and Nyame who remorselessly dragged the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and his prosecutor, Rotimi Jacobs, through 12 to 13 years of tortuous legal battles with millions of naira of taxpayers’ money expended to assemble witnesses and evidence and pursue endless appeals.
This lasted till the Supreme Court in 2020 affirmed a jail term of 12 years for Mr Nyame for stealing about 1.6 billion and a jail term, in 2021, of 10 years for Mr Dariye for stealing N1.16 billion.
Mr Dariye did not stop there. After the Supreme Court affirmed his conviction on March 12, 2021, he filed an application at the Federal High Court in Abuja to retrieve some properties recovered as proceeds of corruption from him.
The judge, Obiora Egwatu, struck out the case on March 7, this year.
While Mr Buhari was considering granting him a pardon, the man was filing an appeal at the Court of Appeal insisting on retrieving the proceeds of corruption seized from him.
Expressing concerns over the pardon granted to the remorseless convicts, the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), the Nigerian partner of Transparency International (TI), said “some of these cases took over ten years to conclude and with lots of resources committed.”
“In one case, for example, a witness had to be flown from the United Kingdom to Nigeria at different times with funds from taxpayers,” the group said in the statement signed by its executive director, Auwal Musa, on Friday.
Mr Buhari, thus, erased the toiling of over a decade with a wave of the hand in granting pardon to the high-profile looters.
Mr Ozekhome argued that the remorseless Messrs Dariye and Nyame who “betrayed their people by stealing from them” did not deserve the pardon granted to them.
“They breached the trust reposed in them. None of them admitted their guilt or wrongdoings until the courts found them guilty, up to the Supreme Court.
“As a matter of fact, Joshua Dariye was a sitting Senator when the Supreme Court affirmed the 10-year jail term earlier passed on him. What then is the basis for granting pardon to these individuals in a country where corruption is the bane and struts around imperiously like a peacock?” Mr Ozekhome said.
Ruse anti-corruption war
Mr Buhari and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), campaigned for office in 2015 by discrediting Mr Jonathan’s administration as corruption-infested. They also vowed to clear the Augean stable if given the opportunity to govern.
It was a campaign promise underpinned by the public’s enduring impression of the former dictator as a no-nonsense military general with zero tolerance for corruption. This image of him clung to the heart of many Nigerians since his stint as head of state over 30 years before becoming an elected president in 2015.
The much-avowed fight against corruption that Mr Buhari and APC promised to execute has now reached its poignant turning point with the pardon issued to Mr Dariye and Mr Nyame.
Some said the pardon has hit the final nail into the coffin of whatever remained of the anti-corruption battle that started floundering soon after it started.
Faced with the challenges of the anti-corruption war, Mr Buhari and his administration officials often heap the blame on the judiciary.
Recently, the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, said the judiciary was to blame for the delay in high-profile corruption cases; an allegation that Chief Justice Tanko Muhammad swiftly denied.
The minister’s allegation against the judiciary is a sentiment Mr Buhari had expressed more explicitly while announcing the suspension of then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, in January 2019. Mr Buhari accused the Supreme Court under Mr Onnoghen’s leadership of serially setting persons accused of serious corruption allegations free.
“It is no secret that this government is dissatisfied with the alarming rate in which the Supreme Court of Nigeria under the oversight of Justice Walter Onnoghen has serially set free, persons accused of the most dire acts of corruption, often on mere technicalities, and after quite a number of them have been convicted by the trial and appellate courts,” Mr Buhari had said.
But this pardon may have finally put a lie to the allegation that the judiciary is responsible for the shattered anti-corruption war. It also clearly places the president on a higher level of culpability in sabotaging the anti-corruption war.
This is proven by the fact that the looting by Messrs Dariye and Nyame outraged the trial judge to the point of sentencing the culprits to 14 years in jail in 2018, although the Supreme Court would later affirm 10 years for Mr Dariye and 12 years for Mr Nyame.
“I am morally outraged with the facts of this case,” the judge, Adebukola Banjoko of the FCT High Court in Gudu, Abuja, (now elevated to the Court of Appeal), said of Mr Nyame’s looting in her judgement delivered on June 12, 2018.
“The evidence shows that the defendant and his cohorts behaved like common thieves with unbridled greed,” she added.
In contrast, Mr Buhari’s reaction to the judgments on the two men was to bring them out of prison.
Citing the case of the controversial withdrawal of the charges against Danjuma Goje, a former Gombe State governor, in 2019, CISLAC said the pardon granted to Messrs Dariye and Nyame is a continuation of “the trend of shielding politically exposed persons from accounting for their actions.”
To Mr Ozekhome, the pardon given to the former governors by Mr Buhari is “a tacit support” for corruption which the president promised to fight.
He added that it “shows that once you are a friend of the president or a member of his political party, or his acolyte and supporter, you can get away with any crime. In other words, in Nigeria, corruption surely pays!”
“This becomes more worrisome under a government which made fighting corruption one of its tripodal mantras,” Mr Ozekhome said.
As the decision hurts Nigerians’ sensibilities, it also sends a chill to different parts of the world.
One of those likely to receive the news with a withering blast of shock is Peter Clerk, who investigated Mr Dariye, as a metropolitan police officer in the United Kingdom in 2004. He, thereafter, shuttled between Nigeria and London over the years to gather evidence for prosecution.
Mr Clerk also took the trouble to return to Nigeria after his retirement to testify in the trial of the former governor in 2016.
On May 9, 2016, Mr Clerk sat in the witness box for hours, taking the trial judge through his galling findings. He added that a valid arrest warrant was still pending against the former governor, who jumped bail in the UK after he was released in September 2004.
It implies that Mr Dariye, despite his pardon by Mr Buhari, remains a fugitive in the United Kingdom, one of Nigeria’s major partners in the recovery of looted assets.
CISLAC captured this succinctly, saying, “It is important to state that when convicted individuals who looted billions of naira are released, there is no way that the international community will take Nigeria’s anti-corruption efforts seriously, especially when attempts are being made to recover stolen assets outside the country.”
Corruption to get worse
The Nigerian constitution under sections 175 and 212 empowers state governors and the president to grant pardons to those found guilty of crimes after consulting with the relevant state’s advisory body or the council of state.
But lawyers say it is a discretionary power that must be sparingly exercised with caution. They argue that it should be used only when there is genuine remorse on the part of the convict.
Mr Ozekhome said pardon should be granted “as a recognition of a cause worth celebrating, not offensive and fouling the air”.
Relying on various judicial authorities, the senior lawyer said a pardon “relieves the person of all sins,” and turns an offender into “a new man”. He also said it can sometimes mean “blotting out “all suffering, consequences, and punishments whatsoever that the said conviction may ensure, but not to wipe out the conviction itself.”
To him, the pardon granted to Messrs Nyame and Dariye was in bad taste, coming shortly after Nigeria was “rated the 149th out of 180 most corrupt countries in the world, and the second most corrupt country in West Africa, by Transparency International (TI).”
On the psychological impact the pardon will have on Nigerians, Mr Ozekhome asked, “Where lies the justice for the impoverished people of Plateau and Taraba States who will now watch their tormentors stroll out with red carpet treatment?”
CISLAC shared the view that the pardon “confirms the poor rating of Nigeria on different global indexes and reports like the Corruption Perception Index and the Afro barometer corruption survey which have reported an increase in corruption in Nigeria.”
It said the effect of the “singular ill-advised act of abuse of power” is that “it will definitely embolden political thieves and unrepentant pilferers of our national commonwealth.”
Anyway, the stench of the dirty deal may soon be lost in the midst of unending scandals that continually ooze out of government circles.
But what will persist for years to come is its demoralising effect on prosecuting agencies and their personnel, as well as the judges who braved all odds and sweated blood to see the cases to their logical conclusion.
CISLAC recalled that “operatives of anti-corruption agencies had to put their lives at risk even to the point of facing physical attacks while these cases were on and suddenly, we read that these individuals have been pardoned.”
This will also undercut the prosecuting agencies’ moral rectitude to investigate and prosecute high-profile personalities; especially those who do not belong to the ruling party.
The Unravelling of Muhammadu Buhari
Perhaps another poignant takeaway from this is the unravelling of Mr Buhari.
Mr Buhari and his then party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), were silent over the pardon granted Mr Alamieyesegha in 2013.
Mr Buhari maintained a deafening silence even when many who believed in his forthrightness called on him, as a member of the council of state that ratified the pardon, to publicly dissociate himself from what they saw as a dirty deal.
This pardon by him appears to have completed the demystification, revealing a concealed softness that betrays the no-nonsense general’s stony outlook of sternness against corruption.
That hardcover that has endured for decades has forever been cast away.
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