Law

Tackling corruption in public office

Should the National Assembly enact a law prescribing death penalty for looters of public funds? Lawyers say no, yes. AKEEM NAFIU reports

 

“We need stiff penalty, not death penalty. The world is moving away from death penalty and Nigeria cannot be an exception. The word ‘crime’ cannot disappear in any country and we cannot because of that begin to kill people because of corruption”, one of them said. Another one said: “Where we set up special courts to try corruption cases, with death penalty as punishment, I believe people will think twice before enriching themselves corruptly.

 

So, it is my wish that just as a desperate disease requires a desperate remedy, corruption also requires a desperate remedy and death penalty will be a desperate cure for it”. The above quotes are part of the divergent views expressed by some senior lawyers in reaction to a call by a Group known as the Ndigbo Unity Forum (NUF) Worldwide, on the need for a legislation by the National Assembly prescribing death penalty for looters of public funds to eradicate the current spate of corruption in the country.

 

The Group in a statement signed by its President, Augustine Chukwudum and Secretary, Tony Igbokwe, lamented the rising tide of corruption in the country saying it is a big irony for looters of public funds to be moving about with heavy police escorts while enjoying their loot. The NUF called on lawmakers at the National Assembly to delete immunity clause from the Constitution in order to ensure that state governors and other public officials are probed for criminal offence while still in office.

 

It said this will go a long way in stopping the ongoing daily looting across the states. It also want President Muhammadu Buhari to put in more stringent measures and seriousness in his administration’s anti-graft war, saying some public office holders, by their words and actions, think the anti-graft war is a ruse.

 

The statement reads: “It was a big irony for looters of public funds to be moving about with heavy police escorts while enjoying their loots inside the country. The common people whose wealth were stolen are dying daily of hunger, lack of potable water, bad roads, no functional hospital and no standard primary and secondary schools.

 

“We also demand that institutions like EFCC, ICPC and the Judiciary be strengthened so that no one can be above the law as it is today. Everybody must be treated equally as it is in the U.S., Britain, Canada and other countries of the world.

 

“By so doing, justice must prevail, not in a case where ex-managing director of Bank PHB, Francis Atuche, who stole billions of naira, was sent to jail for a term of six years imprisonment. While, someone who stole vegetables that was less than N1,000 in value was abandoned for more than five years as an Awaiting Trial Inmate”.

 

The proposition by NUF is coming amidst a damning report on corruption level in Nigeria by a global anti-corruption watchdog,Transparency International (TI), as well as the arrest of both the Accountant General of the Federation (AGF), Ahmed Idris, and a former Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Nsima Ekere, over alleged N80 billion and N47 billion fraud respectively.

 

The Accountant General has since been suspended indefinitely by the Minister of Finance “to allow for proper and unhindered investigation into the serious allegations” against him, in line with Public Service Rules. In a statement, EFCC spokesman, Wilson Uwujaren, disclosed that the anti-graft agency’s verified intelligence showed that “the AGF raked off the funds through bogus consultancies and other illegal activities using proxies, family members, and close associates”.

 

On his part, the former NDDC’s MD, Ekere, was reported to have been under investigation by the EFCC over allegations of contract inflation and award of fictitious contracts during his time in office between 2017 and 2018. In the Transparency International’s report released in 2021, Nigeria dropped five places in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

 

The country scored 24 out of 100 points and ranked 154 out of 180 countries surveyed. In 2020, Nigeria dropped three places and scored lower in number of points than it did in 2019, an indication that corruption is perceived to have worsened in the country.

 

The 2020 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Transparency International (TI) indicated that Nigeria scored 25 out of 100, one point less than its 26 points in 2019. Nigeria was ranked 149 out of 180 countries, a record that is three steps lower than its rank of 146 in 2019. The Federal Government has since faulted the latest report saying it is not an accurate portrayal of the facts on ground. Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, said the report does not reflect “the great strides by the country in its fight against corruption”.

 

“For instance, following the release of the 2019 TI-Corruption Perception Index, the government initiated reforms to improve on Nigeria’s Ease of Doing Business indices. This is because we found that up to 40 per cent of the country’s corruption perception survey indices relate to business processes and general public service delivery processes. Government’s swift action has led to major reforms in the processes at our ports and business process points”, Lai further argued. Lawyers speak

 

The proposition by the Ndigbo Unity Forum that looters of public funds should face capital punishment has been generating divergent reactions from some senior lawyers. Those opposed to the proposition among the men of the wig and gown believed that the looting culture is imposed by societal expectations and as such a system that negates or abhors core human values such as hardwork, integrity, honesty, sincerity and contentment cannot allow a law on corruption with capital punishment to stand.

 

However, those in support of the proposition were of the views that just as a desperate disease requires a desperate remedy, the level of corruption in Nigeria also requires a desperate remedy and death penalty will be a desperate cure for it. Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Mike Ahamba, suggested stiff penalty for looters of public funds rather than death penalty. He said: “We need stiff penalty, not death penalty.

 

The world is   moving away from death penalty and Nigeria cannot be an exception. There is no country that is crime free, it can only be limited to the barest minimum. The word ‘crime’ cannot disappear in any country and we cannot because of that begin to kill people because of corruption. Don’t forget that corruption has levels. “A person who is guilty of corruption today for a small amount of money can change his views and attitude tomorrow. He will not have such an opportunity if he has been killed.

 

So, I will prefer having a stiff penalty to death. Besides, there should be restitution, whatever was stolen should be restored”. Another member of the Inner Bar, Mr. Norrison Quakers, was also against capital punishment for looters of public funds. He opined that such a legislation will readily be obeyed in breach rather than in practice. “There are many assumptions that are making rounds in the polity. We assume that our present legislative assembly will enact such a law. We assume that our society detest or abhors corruption.

 

My humble view is that the looting culture is imposed by societal expectations. A system that negates or abhors core human values such as hardwork, integrity, honesty, sincerity, contentment etc cannot allow a law on corruption with capital punishment to stand.

 

The law will readily be obeyed in breach than in practice. “The current state of the law, if well implemented can serve as a deterrent but this is not the case due to the myriads of problems plaguing us as a people. How do you balance the suggestion against the backdrop that some of our legislators currently saddled with law making power are former chief executives of some of the states of the federation?

How can the same persons be privy to the passage of a law making corruption a capital offence?. “When we build strong institutions, we will see the effectiveness and efficiency of our laws. When looters are improvised through the instrumentality of the law, governance will no longer be attractive.

 

The anti- corruption agencies must be independent from executive interference and be made to collaborate in relation to investigation and prosecution. Governance must be made unattractive, so as to inspire and encourage persons with a heart to serve and who after exiting from political office, have something to fall back on in terms of work or business venture.

 

“Can legislators currently facing corruption charges as former chief executives of some states support or be privy to a law making corruption a capital offence attracting death penalty?, I do not think so. In a nutshell, I do not believe that the imposition of death penalty will stem the rising tide of corruption in the country”, Quakers said.

 

Speaking in the same vein, a former Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Adekunle Ojo (SAN), disclosed that capital punishment cannot save the nation from the grip of looters of public funds. He was of the view that capital punishment will only produce hardened criminals who will be ready to remove whatever can be used to expose them at all cost in order to save their lives.

 

Ojo said: “Basically, I am not an apostle of death penalty and I believe if capital punishment is a cure, there shouldn’t be armed robbery again. But, without mincing words, armed robbery is escalating in the country. Similarly, kidnapping offence which a number of states in the country have made punishable by death have also been on the increase.

 

So, I think capital punishment will only produce hardened criminals who will be ready to remove whatever can be used to expose them at all cost in order to save their lives. “The problem with Nigeria is a bit fundamental and there are so many reasons why people are into corruption.

 

There is nothing anybody could do about the menace until we are able to tackle the reasons behind it. If you have someone who earn as low as N20, 000 who is running errands for somebody that is worth billions of naira, how do you stop such fellow from collecting bribe? I am not an advocate of bribe collection, but I believed it would be hard to stop such an individual. “So, if we have issues like these within us, then, we cannot wish away corruption just like that.

 

As long as the loopholes are there without being plugged, we aren’t getting anywhere. Besides, corruption cannot stop by just conviction. If there are 1000 cases of corruption with just three convictions, nothing has been done. Therefore, I think we should be  more concerned about the causes of corruption than anything else. “In developed climes, it’s not that there is no corruption, but the system over there is working perfectly to the extent of detecting and exposing anyone who ran foul of the law.

 

The reverse is the case in Nigeria and as such there is a need for us to adopt a system that would make it difficult for people to engage in corrupt practices. A standard should be created to block all loopholes that can be exploited by corrupt minded individuals occupying public office. “So, I don’t think we can stop corruption by killing people and I am not an apostle of killing anybody for whatever offence.

 

Death penalty does not reform, refine or rehabilitate”. However, throwing his weight behind the NUF’s proposition, a lecturer at the University of Lagos, Dr. Fassy Yusuf, while noting that corruption has brought the nation to its knees said any measure and law that can stem the tide of the menace should be welcomed. “To the best of my knowledge, even though death penalty should not find a place in a stabilized society, the peculiarity of the Nigeria situation called for drastic remedy and solution.

 

There are other countries like China and Malaysia with stiff penalties for looting of public treasury. “In Nigeria’s situation, corruption has brought us to our knees, Nigeria is collapsing, the nation is on the path of destruction because of corruption.

 

Therefore, any measure, any law that can stem the tide of corruption should be welcomed. I recalled that between December 1983 to July 1985 when Buhari and Idiagbon were at the helm in this country, they took some draconian measures to eradicate smuggling and drug trafficking. In essence, death penalty was introduced to address these societal ills and some people were executed. In that era, drug trafficking disappeared.

 

“But, we have taken corruption to the level that one could not have imagine in this world. People don’t just steal thousands and millions again, but billions and trillions of naira. These actions are in the process of pauperizing the country. “I therefore support any measure that will reduce, if not exterminate corruption from the country. I believed that death penalty would help in stemming the rising  tide of corruption in the country, particularly, as we are a nation of scapegoatism, once we see scapegoat, we run away.

 

“We are all familiar with the incessant delay in the nation’s justice system, which many times led to a situation where corruption cases linger for donkey years with no result. However, where we set up special courts to try corruption cases, with death penalty as punishment, I believe people will think twice before enriching themselves corruptly. So, it is my wish that just as a desperate disease requires a desperate remedy, corruption also requires a desperate remedy and death penalty will be a desperate cure for it”, he said.

 

A rights activist, Mr. Kabir Akingbolu, was also in support of capital punishment for public funds’ looters, saying it will greatly help in reducing economic crimes in the country. Akingbolu said: “I completely agree with the suggestion that death penalty be imposed on anyone who embezzled public funds. This I think will go a long way in reducing economic crimes in the country.

 

However, there are two problems presented by the implementation of this suggestion. One, even though capital punishment is still part of our laws, there has not been enforcement of it in the last twenty-five to thirty years. “This is because all condemned prisoners on death row can only be killed if their death warrants are signed by the governors of the state concerned but the governors have stopped signing in the belief that it is a sin to take lives. Secondly, who are those to make the laws?

 

The politicians, majority of whom hands are soiled with corruption. “In China, anyone who embezzles public funds is given capital punishment. I believe this is necessary too in our nation to rid it of corruption. Meanwhile, prescribing death sentence for corruption is not the problem, the problem is enforcement.

 

Let the governors sign when necessary to reduce the pressure on our budget where billions are spent yearly on condemned criminals who ought to have been executed but are still living waiting for the hangman that will never come and Government continue to feed them. This is sad. I submit that if the governors won’t sign death warrants, there is no reason to make laws that will prescribe death penalty for any offence”.

 

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