“He was never the legitimate governor and there was effectively a thief in government house. As the pretender of that public office, he was able to plunder Delta states wealth and hand out patronage.”
-Sasha Wass, QC, Crown Prosecution Service Attorney.
It is obvious that these are unusual times in Nigeria. The many challenges afflicting the federation and its units in terms of clear failures in leadership, security, infrastructure, economy and the overall questioning of the viability and sustainability of the amalgamated union attest to this. The leadership has also chosen the path of sleaze and seems to be unable to perform credibly. It has failed to set a clear premise of applying and enforcing the core dictates of the rule of law. One of the cardinal points enabling a minimum standard of ethos and justice in an organized state is the rule of law. It engenders the necessary feeling of equality before the law. Without the rule of law, the majority of the citizens will be left with a feeling that fairness has eluded them during any adjudication process.
The conviction of James Ibori, former governor of Delta State and a significant official of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, through the much vilified process of a plea bargain deal served as a confirmation of the corrupt tendencies of Nigerian politicians. It also showed the fallacy of the ineffectiveness of a plea deal in prosecuting corruption cases. It was for the sake of ‘Plea Bargain’ that the London court was also able to negotiate an admittance of guilt by Mr. Ibori. As the conviction of Chief Ibori showed, a diligent prosecutor first establishes a tight case against the defendant, before serving strong evidence to the defendant in order that he might seek for a plea bargain. The crown prosecution service, meticulously gathered incriminating evidence and then confronted the accused (Mr. Ibori). The plea bargain then became the only viable option of having his cooperation as a mitigation factor in his eventual sentencing. The fundamentals of a plea deal are to coerce an admission of guilt by the defendant and to negotiate for a either a reduced sentence or obtaining of a financial recompense in lieu of serving a jail time.
It is apparent that the origin of plea bargain has a checkered past in the history of Nigerian jurisprudence. The principle of plea bargain is very hard to comprehend and can be easily susceptible to abuse. It can also distort the fundamental legal ethos of diligent prosecution. Perhaps, it is because of these characteristic nature of plea bargain that made Justice Dahiru Musdapher to proclaim the concept of plea bargain as a “foreign and fraudulent interpolation, within our distinctive territorial jurisdiction and applicable legal norms, which strives to punish the culpable with a non commensurate penitence”. As his lordship stated, “a plea bargain shall never be part of our procedural prosecutorial process in Nigeria again, because in the eyes of greater majority of the public, it is neither serving the cause of justice nor aiding the interest of fairness”.
Indeed, the history of a plea deal in Nigeria is full of instances of abuses. In instances and occasions where the beneficiaries of a plea bargain who committed obvious corruption crimes were given sentences, it consisted of prison time not commensurate with the criminal act. In a twist of event, those that are accused of committing minute infractions of the law get long and windy sentences. As Chief Justice Musdapher puts it – “imagine a goat thief doing more time in jail than an embezzler of hundreds of billions of naira”. The prosecution of Mrs. Cecilia Ibru who was the managing director of the former Oceanic Bank, through plea bargain showed the flawed interpretation of plea bargain in the Nigerian judicial process. A convicted felon was given a sentence of limited penitentiary time in the confines a private hospital. As such, Mrs. Ibru, the felon never actually did time in a harsh atmosphere of a prison yard.
An analysis of the judicial process in Nigeria reveals a situation where no matter the type of prosecution method adopted in criminal cases, the counsel always finds it hard to conclude the trials. More so, it is unable of securing a conviction commensurate with the alleged offence. As such, the population volume of awaiting trial inmates is more than three quarters of the actual convicted felons. Trials also drag on for years before it reaches conclusion mostly because of the lack of needed evidence for the judge to deliver his prognosis. It is in this instance that a plea bargain becomes an alternative option for a diligent prosecutor. The diligent prosecutor gathers great evidence covering all areas that affirm the guilt of a defendant and presents same to the defendant, not as a means to negotiate away the charge, but as an avenue to extract acceptance of the commission of a legal infraction; the bait being a plea bargain.
The advantages of a plea bargain are numerous. It cuts short long and expensive trials and saves tax payers funds. It also saves time in the adjudicatory process, which in most cases results in loss of evidence, due to withering of the gathered provable evidence. The plea bargain also facilitates admission of guilt in some instances. When people are slapped with their provable misdeeds, they easily accept guilt. Thus, ensuring the cause of justice is acceptable to both the prosecutor and the defendant. Litigants also agree that plea bargain promotes prosecution in place of persecution.