It is riveting that the immediate past governor of Adamawa State, Bala Ngilari, has been marched to Yola Prison to begin a new life. He was convicted by a High Court in Yola early this month for abuse of office during the seven months he was in the saddle. This is a jinx the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has broken, with the corruption cases of over 10 former governors still stifled in courts by the suspects across the country since 2007 when they vacated office.
The court, presided over by Nathan Musa, found Ngilari guilty of violation of the state’s Public Procurement Act, in the award of contract for the purchase of 25 vehicles valued at N167 million for commissioners. A total of 17 criminal charges were levelled against him. Sentencing him, the judge said the ex-governor displayed executive recklessness when he unlawfully awarded a contract to a contractor known to him alone. “It is my hope that this conviction and sentence will serve as a deterrent to serving governors,” the judge declared. A five-year jail term was clamped on him without any option of fine – an irreducible minimum in line with the state’s public procurement law.
The judgement left Ngilari’s counsel, Samuel Toni (SAN), with no other choice but to plead for leniency. Unfortunately, he got one of sorts: the privilege of his client to choose the prison where he would serve the jail term. The Yola Prison is a transitory centre until he makes his choice. This should not be so. Such concession to someone who unabashedly betrayed public trust is offensive and unacceptable. Hungry and jobless Nigerians, who steal far less, get no such consideration. Those who despoil the treasury deserve maximum legal clampdown, not minimum sentence. However, he has vowed to appeal against the verdict.
Ngilari, a lawyer and former member of the House of Representatives, was a deputy to former Governor Murtala Nyako, who was impeached in 2014. He succeeded him after weathering the political intrigues that temporarily enthroned the then Speaker of the state assembly, Ahmadu Fintri, as acting governor, for three months until the court pushed him aside.
Remarkably, Ngilari’s trial lasted for just six months, having begun in September 2016. This breakthrough was achieved because the judge was determined to promote justice. He was not persuaded by the usual theatrics or ambush served by legal technicality, which the defence attempted to exploit. Ngilari’s lawyer, for instance, had argued that the Permanent Secretary, Adamawa State Ministry of Finance, Sanda Lamurde, was the chief accounting officer of the ministry, and therefore should have been held responsible for the due process infraction at issue. Lamurde and the Secretary to the State Government, Andrew Welye, were charged along with the convict. But the court acquitted the duo, having been satisfied with the evidence that the Tender’s Board, headed by Lamurde, was sidelined in the contract award.
We have always believed that the pervasive corruption in the judiciary, rather than poor investigation of cases and prosecution, has been the bane of trial of politically exposed persons. The Ngilari, Diepriye Alamieyeseigha and James Ibori seeming oasis of cases proves this point. Ibori, a former governor of Delta State, who returned from London recently after serving his jail term, ironically, was sentenced based on some of the charges levelled against him by the EFCC, which a Federal High Court in Asaba, presided over by Marcel Awokulehin, dismissed, 170 charges in all. Those in the 1999 to 2007 class of ex-governors have EFCC theft charges against them, ranging from N1.1bn to N100bn. An army of others have emerged thereafter.
But it is highly disturbing that only three of these former governors have so far been nabbed by the law, locally. Lucky Igbinedion, governor of Edo State from 1999 to 2007, was the first. But he was only given a slap on the wrist with the N3.5 million fine slammed on him in 2008, by the judge of a Federal High Court, Enugu, Abdullahi Kafarati. With such penalty, we doubt if any public officer will be afraid to steal public funds or dread prosecution.
Sadly, in spite of the Criminal Justice Administration Act 2015, aimed at expeditious trials, some PEPs still file applications in courts, praying that they be granted orders of perpetual injunction, restraining the EFCC, or its agents, from arresting them. Interlocutory applications and frequent adjournments still thrive. They are a farcical bearing of our judicial process, fuelled by graft that should be addressed urgently. The stakeholders – the National Judicial Council, the Nigerian Bar Association and the Bench, which have at various times expressed deep concern about the degenerate state of the judiciary – should therefore work in concert to effect a change.
Musa’s conduct in the Ngilari case raises hope, and affirms the belief in some quarters that there are still some incorruptible judges after all. The Presidency and the EFCC should leverage this exemplary performance to find such judges in critical mass, so as to give the trials of these ex-governors the badly needed traction. It is difficult to fathom why the Federal Government has dithered so much on this strategy, despite the strong advocacy of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Corruption, headed by Itse Sagay (SAN).
Unfortunately, a national consensus on the imperative of facing corruption head-on is lacking. The country should avail the EFCC of this booster, if the danger of corruption is fully appreciated as the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, has done. It has undermined development and compromised equality of opportunities in our society, she argued. Nigeria, without question, is an archetypal embodiment of this tragedy in governance.