Maina’s Trial And The Huge Loss To Nigeria, By Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú
He got eight years! Just eight years! In Nigeria, steal a goat and get 30 years in jail or steal billions from pensioners and get a tap of the wrist. What a country! Justice Abang said the maximum sentence for a pen thief is 14 years. He sentenced Maina to eight years because he was moved by the plea of the accused for leniency. What about pensioners who died waiting for the money they worked for, which Maina stole? Is there any curse more infectious on a country than that of a man who begged for his entitlement, after serving his country diligently in his youth, before dying in penury, while waiting for what was due to him? In 2013, Mr. John Yakubu Yusufu was sentenced to two years in prison, with the option of paying a N750,000 fine, for stealing N23 billion from the Nigeria Police Pension Fund. During the proceedings, he even grew irritated and said: “I only stole N23 billion. Government has already seized my 32 property!” Like Yakubu Yusufu before him, pension thief, former chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team (PRTT), Abdulrasheed Maina, was convicted and sentenced to sixty-one years in prison by Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court Abuja, for money laundering. His sentence will run concurrently. He will serve only eight years, which will count since October 25, 2019. If his sentence is not overturned on appeal, he will be out in no time.
In delivering his judgment, Justice Abang rebuked Maina, saying: “An abnormal situation requires drastic actions to send a message to those that believe in dishonesty to have a rethink; turn a new leaf. Dishonesty is an endemic disease in this country, that requires urgent treatment if we are to make any headway in this country… The facts of this case are sordid, immoral, and morbid…the facts portray the moral decadence in Nigeria.” His judgment also highlighted the role of banks in the heist: “UBA and Fidelity Bank Plc should have been arraigned with the convict for illegal transactions…their licences ought to have been withdrawn. The banks benefitted from the proceeds of illegal transactions. UBA and Fidelity Bank provided the channels with which the convict (Mr Maina) used in defrauding the federal government.”
It is very interesting that Justice Abang focused on dishonesty in his judgment. Was what Maina did more of dishonesty or outright stealing and unlawful conversion of property? I don’t know what informed the use of that adjective but it does not fit Maina. Maina is a thief. He is only dishonest because all thieves are dishonest. He should be called what he is – a thief. He stole. The evidence are stark. Taking N2 billion from pensioners is more than dishonesty. It is a heist, an embezzlement and outright conversion. The dishonesty in Maina’s issue is more of political dishonesty on the part of Nigeria political gladiators, who knew where Maina was hiding in plain sight but still gave him cover. The adjective ‘dishonesty’ should be for those who recalled fugitive Maina to the civil service and named him as acting director of Human Resources, in the Ministry of Interior.
Dishonesty is not telling the truth, and telling the truth is one of the hardest things to do for politicians. Apart from defence lawyers, politicians have the worst reputation for honesty. Due to the lack of probity, Nigeria has become such a fertile, breeding ground for dishonesty. What dishonesty in governance does is that it gives citizens the wrong impression of leadership, resulting in the public distrust of government. That 2017 appointment was a black eye to Buhari’s administration. His subsequent sack was an afterthought. It was done to stem the ensuing political embarrassment. Shamefully, the actors passed the buck to protect their own political hides, without examining the damage they did to the institutions they represent.
Only eight years?! Giving the pension thief a lighter sentence because he pled for leniency is an affront to the memory of those who died waiting for their pensions. Justice Abang’s strong words of rebuke feels like a smokescreen for the lighter sentence. What this judgement shows is that our justice system is still rosy with thieves and undisturbed by its own history of indelicacies. Stealing is a crime of opportunity. Many people will steal, given the opportunity, especially in a country where there are no consequences for bad actions. We will all be better off if the justice system sends an unmistakable signal via tough sentencing, that stealing millions and billions is a base and vile act. From the evidence presented and his prodigal lifestyle, Maina had the intent to steal as an element. That element is intentional and a reckless infliction of harm on persons. Thieves like Maina are the reasons behind deprivation, want, dispossession, poverty and disease in this wonderful land of opportunity and resilience. It is about time we begin to discourage them, instead of giving them lighter sentences. The lack of good roads, epileptic electricity, bad and ill-equipped hospitals, a comatose education system, and decaying military can be traced to the stealing and conversion of monies meant for infrastructure, development, occurring in tandem with incompetence and cronyism.
Yes, Maina is going into prison and forfeiting money to the government but the country has lost so much! Any society that does not have minimal justice is liable to fall apart morally and physically. Any society that is subverted by vested interests, always loses basic respect and trust. At the heart of good and ethical politics and policies is justice. Justice is essential for a nation state to thrive. The existence of the rule of law and its universal application within the nation state, is very important to its development. A nation can only develop and aspire to greatness when there is the rule of law and it is upheld as a cardinal virtue. The rule of law is what makes a state different from communities. A state is created from communities on the basis of force and the law. Derived from this is equal access to state resources and information, whereby people of equal capabilities have equal chances, without unfair advantage accruing to anyone; equitable distribution of public goods and services; impartial application of rules to everyone; a sense of proportion between the gravity of crimes and their punishment; and compliance with laws.
Oil and water do not mix, so do politics and justice. Many people, including lawyers and jurists, believe that politics is an enemy of justice. This is because politics is never neutral but “justice must be neutral, black and white, and apolitical”. Despite the seeming contradictions, democracy is sustained by the rule of law. Justice is not perfect, and the judiciary can never be fully independent. If the right, the just, the good and the useful are drivers of politics, justice should prove itself inclusive. The Nigerian judiciary must do a lot of self-cleansing to save the country and restore hope. Justice is the cement that binds a society together. If Nigerians feel the rule of law applies equally to all, regardless of ethnic, religious or socio-economic status, they will invest their trust in political power and authority. Political power must not tolerate nor promote arbitrariness, impunity, oppression, cruelty, or excessive privilege. It must focus on mitigating injustice and fostering individual freedom. A country inching towards greatness can tolerate some failures or judicial errors; no greatness can be achieved without blind justice. For Nigeria to develop true and sure footing, the judicial arm must self-regulate and embrace strong ethics. For us to live together in peace, we must become a nation where actions have consequences. When law breakers face the law, we the people expect the system to be fair, impartial and mete proportionate punishment. Anything less is injustice.
Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú, an advocate, strategist and political analyst writes this weekly column, “Bamidele Upfront” for PREMIUM TIMES, Twitter: @BamideleUpfront; Facebook: facebook.com/Bamidele. BAO