The term “plea bargain” has become one of the most popular in Nigeria’s legal circles in recent times, thanks to the increase in the rate of corruption-based offences. Since it became part of the legal process in Nigeria, it has become the easiest way out for embattled corrupt public officials.
The plea bargain system entails the reaching of a mutually agreed disposition between the criminal defendant and the prosecutor. In it, the accused is enabled to plead guilty to some lesser offences than those originally leveled against him.
Findings have revealed that the aim is to enable the prosecution secure a faster conviction, though the offender ends up getting a milder punishment than what should have obtained normally. The plea bargain process has been applied in some of the cases prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), especially the high profile cases.
The plea bargain system again drew the ire of Nigerians with the recent conviction of Yusuf John Yakubu, a former Assistant Director of the Police Pension Board. Yusuf had been accused of embezzling N 32.8 billion from the funds he was meant to oversee. The accused entered a guilty plea and by the time Justice Mohammed Talba gave his ruling, many of those who heard it started to doubt if Nigeria would ever be free from corruption. The Judge ordered the forfeiture of 32 choice assets acquired by Yusuf and sentenced him to 6 years imprisonment, two years for each of the three counts the accused faced or an option of N 250,000 fine for each count.
Yusuf paid the fine before leaving the courtroom and left as if nothing happened. He became a free man once again, thus fuelling speculations that plea bargaining in the Nigerian justice system gives offenders a legal backing to enjoy the rest of their loot after some might have been forfeited to the Government.
The money laundering case of former Governor Dipreye Alamieyeseha of Bayelsa State was resolved via plea bargain as he forfeited some of the assets believed to be fraudulently acquired in order to escape a stiff sentence.
Former Governor Lucky Igbinedion went through a similar process. So did the former CEO of Oceanic Bank, Gloria Ibru, who was accused of mismanaging depositors’’ funds.
Though the process of plea bargain hastens the settlement of cases, it has been variously criticised as a system that supports corruption, especially since it guarantees a milder punishment for offenders. Many people have opined that plea bargain makes a mockery of Nigeria’s judicial system. For instance, former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun who converted billions of Naira belonging to the Police Force for personal use was handed a six-month jail term for each of the eight counts brought against him as well as a fine of N 500,000 for each count. The terms were however to run concurrently while the judge also ordered that the 67 days he spent in detention during the trial should be deducted.
In Balogun’s case, after sessions of plea bargaining, the multitude of offences he was alleged to have committed, including registering phoney companies, into whose accounts police funds were allegedly diverted and later withdrawn were collapsed into 8 counts.
Though the former Inspector General lost a number of assets and paper money which were seized from him, the sentence he got was described by many as a “slap on the wrist”.
Lucky Igbinedion, the former Governor of Edo State was considered “lucky” indeed. Having being accused of looting about N 4.4 billion, he entered a plea bargain and at the end of the day, he was fined the sum of N 3.5 million while he forfeited three landed properties to the Federal Government.
Sadly enough, people have been committed to prison for stealing much less than most of the public officers. For instance, a man bagged a 5-year jail term for stealing gold earrings worth N 25,000 recently. A young man in Ibadan was sentenced to a month imprisonment for stealing a duck that belonged to his grandmother sometime ago. Nigerians from all walks of life have since opined that big thieves are easily pardoned while small thieves are made to face the full wrath of the law.
In the opinion of Justice Dahiru Musdapher, the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, “the concept is not only dubious; it was never part of our legal system- at least until it was surreptitiously smuggled into our statutory laws with the creation of the EFCC.”
To Lagos based lawyer, Bamidele Aturu, plea bargain is nothing but “an embarrassment to Nigeria’s judicial system. It leads to corruption and has reduced our moral values” as it gives an indication that officials who have enriched themselves corruptly would serve light sentences while the poor are handed long-term punishment.
While calling for the abolition of the plea bargain process, Mr Mike Agbamuche, a former Attorney General of the Federation stated that “I do not see the justice in the plea bargain as that is a door left open for abuse. When a crime is committed against a society, there should be deterring punishments, and to my mind, plea bargain is not one of such deterrents.”
In the opinion of most Nigerians, plea bargain has become the avenue being explored by corrupt government officials to escape just punishment for their criminal acts. One of the many disadvantages is that it sometimes puts the prosecution at a disadvantage, especially at the bargaining table. The offender sometimes has the effrontery to dictate which assets to give up.
Of course plea bargaining has also opened the eyes of corrupt Nigerians, it has become an encouragement to steal as much as can be stolen knowing fully well that after pleading guilty, a part of it would be taken away while the rest would be enjoyed without any disturbance. As such, Nigeria’s struggle to attain a corruption-free environment may continue for a while as public officials seem to have seen a new avenue of evading heavy punishments for financial crimes.