Just one month in prison after his conviction for abuse of office, the immediate past governor of Adamawa State, Bala Ngilari, has secured his release through bail from the same judge that jailed him. Such a paradox is not strange in justice delivery throughout the world. But the dubious provenance of the bail should render this judicial volte-face transitory, null and void.
Nathan Musa, the judge of a High Court in Yola, Adamawa State, had on March 6, sentenced Ngilari to a five years’ imprisonment without any option of fine, having found him guilty of violation of the state’s Public Procurement Act, in respect of the purchase of 25 vehicles valued at N167 million. The judge had declared that Ngilari awarded the contract to a contractor known only to him. It was an action he described as executive recklessness, for which the law needed to be invoked. Musa had warned that the punishment would “serve as a deterrent to serving governors.” Nowhere is this more helpful than Nigeria where the harmful effects of public corruption are so glaring. This rare magisterial verdict was greeted with public acclamation.
Paradoxically, on March 27, he got a curious freedom based on a controversial letter signed by the officer in charge of the medical unit of Yola Prison, Superintendent of Prison John Bukar, which claimed that Ngilari’s blood pressure and blood sugar level had risen beyond normal, since March 6, when he was brought to the prison. The letter did not stop there; it was so solicitous that it recommended his referral to a Canadian Hospital in the United Arab Emirates.
Prison authorities both in Yola and Abuja have denounced the letter. According to the Controller of Prisons, Peter Tenkwa, the command has a functional medical facility, well equipped to handle serious cases. The fury of the authorities is manifested in the suspension of Bukar, the CP Tenkwa and the Deputy Controller of Prisons, Abubakar Abaka, in a memo dated April 3, having been indicted for either complicity or failing in their duties. Earlier, Tenkwa had squealed on his subordinates over the gaffe of transmitting such a sensitive letter to the court without his approval, or clearance from Abuja. The mere suspension of Bukar, who authored the medical report, as a matter of fact, does not match the gravity of the offence he committed.
It is heart-warming that the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Adamawa State, Silas Saga, has vowed to ensure that the bail is quashed. He could not reconcile the fact that the Yola Prison authorities had written to him on March 24, intimating him of the good health of Ngilari, with the letter dated March 23, on the strength of which the court granted the controversial bail.
We acknowledge that convicts can be granted bail pending their appeal. The post-conviction bail of Oscar Pistorius, a physically challenged South African athlete who was earlier convicted for murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on February 14, 2013 shows that the phenomenon is not totally out of place in legal battles. But deterrence is the most important consideration in sentencing. It seems to us that the judge was beguiled. Of course, this gambit is not new: virtually every politically exposed person in the country undergoing corruption trial has prayed the courts to be allowed to travel outside the country for one phantom medical exigency or the other. Where the state fails to buckle, the suspects’ purported health conditions have not worsened. Our courts should learn not to fall for this obvious blackmail of our healthcare system by former public officials desperate to escape justice.
Therefore, the state government should waste no time in filing the appeal it had promised. Ngilari, in his flawed bail, got the freedom he could not be availed with during his trial. His lawyer had attempted to ambush the court with the legal technicality that the blame for the due process breaches should have been laid on the doorsteps of the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Sanda Lamurde, as the then chief accounting officer of the ministry. But the judge saw only sophistry in the argument and ruled that Lamurde was sidelined in the processes that led to the contract award.
Our courts must be tough on corruption. High profile corrupt figures, considered untouchable, must go to jail. In China, government has devised a new method for deterring graft among public officials — a taste of prison life. Randomly, government officials and members of their families are taken on tours of prisons as a “warning” against corruption. The PEPs should refrain from getting the courts enmeshed in their shenanigans for suspect justice. Indeed, the courts need not be “supermarkets where only the rich do their shopping,” according to Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. It could not have been put better. This is why Ngilari should be returned to the prison without further delay, to serve out his sentence.