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The Trial of Ex-Governors - By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde

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Last week, a statement by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Dahiru Mustapha, rekindled hope in Nigerians that the most powerful criminals in the country will soon be brought to Justice. This followed the revelation that the CJN has issued a directive that

 all pending cases of corruption against former Governors in Federal High Courts in the country must be determined within six months.

I do not share in the optimism that greeted the ultimatum and in the tall ambition that finally Nigerians will witness the ex-governors slammed with a guilt verdicts and punishments commensurate with their offenses. And their offences are grievous in the estimation of Nigerians. They believe that the governors have ruined the economy of their states, propagated corruption in their public service, crippled their local governments through joint accounts, rigged every election in their domain, instituted political violence and stole unbelievably colossal amounts from their treasuries.

Many see them as the most powerful cartel in the history of democracy in this country. It will be sad if they go free, or they are only served with laughable jail terms of just two months or two years when found guilty. They will definitely retain 99% of their loot after the courts might have asked them to return a percent or less to the treasury. This will happen in a country where ordinary people who steal goats spend ten years in prison awaiting trial.

Sadly, neither the law nor our wishes would determine the fate of the governors because the reality is that they have long prepared the ground for the fight to heir own advantage. They knew their day with in the courts would come soon after their tenures expire. And the ground they have prepared will remain undisturbed until the end of the game. That preparation came in a number of carefully planned steps.

The grading of that ground started with the formation of federal high courts in every state of the federation. This offers them the chance to be tried in their areas of domain. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had managed to try some governors away from their domains because of the obvious difficulty of doing so in their home states.

An illustration is necessary. James Ibori was initially charged before a high court in Kaduna. He was among the closest people to the late President Umaru Yar'adua. In what appeared to be a conspiracy during the Yar'adua era by Farida Waziri - the new EFCC chairperson who inherited the case and Andooaka, the Court of Appeal in Kaduna presided bt Justice Augie eagerly granted that the Kaduna High Court, which has kept Ibori in jail for three months then, did not have the jurisdiction to try Ibori, that he could only be tried in his home state of Delta.

As at then there was no federal high court in Asaba, the Delta State capital where Ibori served as a governor. Therefore, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the present Delta State Governor a makeshift court was immediately arranged to specifically attend to Ibori's case. A judge was instantly appointed who gladly freed Ibori after some few months. That judgement went down in our records as shameful. The world did not believe us. Ibori is now in jail in Britain.

But the precedent has already been set by Justice Augie and unless it is reversed, little justice would be done in the trial of the governors. Henry Okar, who was charged with terrorism before the Federal High Court in Jos promptly sited the case of Ibori and got freed as a result. Here too, the world did not believe us. Okar is now in a South African jail.

And though nemesis has caught up with Ibori, Andooaka and Waziri, their conspiracy has left us with the burden of a legal instrument that would continue to be used to block the road to justice.

It is worthwhile to mention the contribution of these governors to the opening of these courts in their states. To varying degrees, it included office and house accommodation, supply of furniture, generators, cars, etc. In addition, one expects a good rapport to exist between the governors and the judges of the high court that would help reduce the economic stress of the newly posted judges. The governors never delayed any request of 'assistance' from the judges. Such requests come frequently in view of how the judiciary is underfunded in the country. What happens when these governors appear before the same judges immediately after their tenure?

Experts say that this has two effects: it either compromises the judges who treat the cases of ex-governors or it makes the courts tools of persecuting the ex-governors by the incumbents.

As an illustration of the first, let us take the most recent case in the legend of looting. Did anyone expect Danjuma Goje to be sent to jail even for a day before his bail was granted by the Federal High Court in Gombe? I was not that reckless with my expectation. His bail was delayed for a day for some technical reasons. Therefore, he needed to remain in custody overnight. But where? Would he remain with the EFCC or would he be sent to prison?

Neither. The judge saved him both the humiliation of spending the night in prison as well as the trouble of remaining in the custody of the EFCC. Instead, he availed him the slight inconvenience of the air-conditioned room of the SSS before he returned to the comfort of his mansion the following day.

For the avoidance of doubt, on the face of the allegations, Goje, who is now a senator, has no hope of being granted sainthood after his death. He is charged for fraud to the tune of N52billion by the EFCC.

The sum includes the fraud of N37 billion Goje obtained from 27 banks, N15 billion security vote expenditure in a state without any security threat, over-invoicing at the State Primary Education Board that included the supply of dictionaries to the tune of N1.7 billion to primary schools whose pupils can hardly write a sentence, etc. From the 2010 budget figures in my possession, the recurrent expenditure of government house alone was 23% (N12.9billion) of the entire budget of the state (N55,612billion), while the combined recurrent expenditures of education, health and agriculture for the entire state was just N4.159billion.

Goje is not alone. We only sited him as an example. When I was consulting for the MDGs in 2008, on our way to Baturiya in Jigawa State I was shown a 10-meter 'bridge' State that was constructed during the era of Saminu Turaki at the cost of N500 million. The N32 billion fraud case of Saminu is yet to be determined in the High Court since 2007. He is also a Senator, walking freely across the world.

And while many Nigerians are languishing in jail for years over the theft of paltry sums, there was Goje walking away free with no hope that the trial will ever be completed. The contempt that many Nigerians have for such people is understandable.

Beyond the location of the courts, the huge sums in the possession of the accused governors would cushion the process of securing them mitigated sentences as we have seen in such high profile cases before. Few judges would remain resolute before the offer of some few hundred millions of naira, a tiny fraction of the sum which the governors are accused of looting. A lacuna in the law will be hunted for overnight and, alas, the law, which has for long been called an ass, will be made to carry the heavy burden of the blame.

So prosecuting ex-governors in states would certainly be a difficult task. Let us grant that they are convicted at the court of first instance. The governors will yet have another soft area to land on: they will definitely appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal whose mere mention brings back the sad memory of the unwarranted exit of Justice Salami, the last President of the Court, significantly compromised the credibility of the court in the minds of Nigerians. Should any Judge hand a harsh sentence to any governor at the High Court, the convicted is assured good prospects of revocation.

The second thing that will do the CJN's directive a k-leg is the various pleas the governors enter to ensure that their cases are delayed indefinitely. Interestingly, the EFCC during Obasanjo had secured a provision in its law that enabled cases to be finished without such interruptions. This was the strategy that enabled the conviction of Tafa Balogun and others. Again, this was overturned under Yar'adua, allowing the accused persons to delay their cases indefinitely.

Many of the accused governors reportedly panicked when the directive was given. Now their mind will be at rest. Just like dispensing of all election petitions before May 29 was once a dream, this too will soon disappear into the archives of unfulfilled promises in this country.

If the CJN is really serious, he should do two things: stop the pleas - if he can - and reverse the precedent of trying the governors in their own states. He has condemned the pleas, but that is not good enough. All he is now interested in is the completion of the trials within six months. Period. Many people believe that this could become a recipe to setting the governors free because the complexity of the trials and their lacunae would not permit their treatment expeditiously.

In conclusion, one can understand the pessimism of those who have concluded that though the Governors may have some uncomfortable days ahead, they do not see themselves befriending justice except mildly and shortly. Thereafter, they will have the chance to live freely and enjoy their colossal loot for the rest of their lives.

  Nigeria, we are sorry for you.