EDITORIAL: Ex-Gov. Ngilari’s Conviction: Only One High-profile Case, But A Milestone!

 

Ex-Gov Ngilari’s Conviction: Only One High-profile Case, But A Milestone !

A not-so-hotly celebrated ‘first’ has been recorded by the Buhari Administration. It was on March 6 2017, when James Bala Ngilari, a former Governor of Adamawa State, was sentenced to five years imprisonment without the option of fine. He was found guilty of corruption charges brought against him in September 2016 by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Ngilari was sent to jail by Justice Nathan Musa,  who ruled that the prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt that Ngilari violated the Public Procurement Act of the state by awarding contracts for the procurement of 25 vehicles for his commissioners at the cost of N167 million without following due process. He said Ngilari’s action amounted to executive lawlessness

By convicting a Nigerian who once occupied the exalted seat of Governor, Justice Musa has succeeded in sending at least four messages. First, he has shattered the myth of the seeming untouchability of governors (and some categories of former public office holders); secondly, he has put much-needed springs in the steps of the EFCC; thirdly, he has given long-suffering Nigerians hope that corruption cases can indeed come to an end and, fourthly, he gave future looters food for thought.

Mr. Ngilari was charged on September 21, 2016 and convicted on 6 March 2017, about seven months after he was first docked.

Given the expeditiousness  with which Ngilari’s (case) was handled, it is impossible not to wonder why records at the EFCC show that some cases filed by EFCC almost 10 years ago against some of the 16 former governors who have questions to answer, are still pending in the courts.

Why the delay in the prosecution of high-profile corruption cases? And why is the conviction rate of high-profile cases so low? `

Cases remain on hold for what would seem to be eternity in our courts for a number of reasons, some of which President Muhammad Buhari once summarised as “a combination of endless adjournments, incessant interlocutory applications and overwhelming caseloads…”. To these we may add breaching of ethical rules by lawyers to defend clients, compromised judicial officers, ill-equipped investigators and prosecutors.

Two examples of the use or abuse of interlocutory injunctions should suffice. On July 27, 2007, former Abia State Governor, Orji Uzo Kalu, was docked before the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court. For eight years, his lawyers used various interlocutory applications to frustrate moves by the prosecution to open its case against him.

It took the Supreme Court judgment of Friday March 18, 2016 to allow EFCC to prosecute Kalu on a 107-count corruption charges bordering on the alleged illegal diversion of public funds to the tune of N5.6 billion.

Joshua Dariye,  a  former governor of Plateau State, was arrested in London, UK, on January 20, 2004, and accused of stealing about $9m of public funds, and of money laundering. In Nigeria, he was not arrested and prosecuted until 2007, when his tenure as governor expired.

The EFCC preferred a 23-count charge of money laundering involving alleged diversion of about N1.126 billion Plateau State government’s ecological funds. That case has lingered in court till date, thanks to his lawyers‘delaying tactics.

One danger with this kind of delay is that Nigerians become disappointed that corrupt persons cannot be prosecuted because of an injunction of a court, or they are bored because the cases never come to an end. At any rate public scrutiny of high profile cases decreases over the course of a long trial. And, as the President himself once said: “When cases are not concluded, the negative impression is given that crime pays.”

The low conviction rates for high-profile cases is worrisome, even if not surprising, given well known facilitative factors such as poor investigation, a sluggish judicial system and ineffective law enforcement. EFCC has lost cases  on grounds of sound and superior argument from the defense, particularly on what is known in legal parlance as ” No case submission”, “proof of prima-facie case” against an accused person, and” lack of diligent prosecution”; the three main legal pitfalls that the EFCC has not been able to successfully overcome.

Since the establishment of the EFCC in 2002 only eight cases have been successfully prosecuted. Indeed, of the eight, one, involving a PDP big wig, Olabode George, was reversed by the Supreme Court on technical grounds.

These ECFF failings contrast sharply with diligent prosecution by the London Metropolitan Police which secured the conviction of two high-profile suspects – James Ibori, a former Governor of Delta State and Mr Erastus Akingbola, a banker. The irony is that both men, who the EFCC could not successfully prosecute in Nigeria were found guilty of the same offences and charges brought against the in British courts

These, therefore,  are challenges that the Federal Government and EFCC, its leading anti-graft agency, are  facing headlong.

The Nigerian Expression endorses the recent establishment of the 20-member Abubakar Malami-led National Prosecution Coordination Committee (NPCC) charged with prosecuting high profile criminal cases in the country. This is because the body will work to give Nigeria what  it deserves: an effective anti-corruption enforcement judicial system with the capacity and will to hold powerful defendants criminally liable for their malfeasance.

We also endorse the decision to set up special courts to deal with financial crimes.  This is both rational and inevitable in judicial system said to be grappling with five million cases.  Also welcome is the creation of a new manual for prosecution of financial cases which will give prosecutors a step by step process for prosecution.

For our part, we dare to suggest that the NPCC should partner with the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Corruption in the task of reaching the goal of bringing corruption and its practitioners to their knees.

Nigeria has a history of multi-million dollar corruption scandals that have failed to result in high-profile convictions, angering the public who say it shows how top officials act with impunity,  encouraging  graft by those lower level officials.

Until Ngilari’s conviction, Nigerians were beginning to perceive these trials as business-as-usual jamborees.

Getting more high-profile convictions will definitely transform public perception of the government and transform the activities and attitudes of civil and public servants. Government must also realise that international development assistance or other sorts of favourable treatment increasingly depend on whether a country is perceived as taking effective action to fight corruption and impunity.

Ex-Governor Ngilari’s sentencing in Yola on March 6 is just one conviction, but it is already a big milestone!

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