JAILING OF EX-NDLEA BOSS
The recent conviction and sentencing of the former chairman of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Mr. Bello Lafiaji, to 16 years imprisonment for abuse of office, is instructive. It amply demonstrates that the law is no respecter of persons.
It also underlines the fact that those who hold public office and other sensitive positions should be careful about compromising their positions, because the day of reckoning will ultimately come. These are enduring lessons, which public office holders may ignore to their own peril.
A Lagos High Court presided over by Justice Olusola Williams, had on June 21, convicted and jailed the erstwhile NDLEA boss on a six count charge of conspiracy and official corruption preferred against him. One of his aides, Mr Usman Amali, will serve two years in prison.
Lafiaji will spend four years in prison since his jail terms will run concurrently. He was sentenced to four years each on two counts of the charge, and two years each on the others. Some of the offences for which he was found guilty include, receiving money for personal benefit in the discharge of his official duties as NDLEA boss, an offence contrary to, and punishable under section 10, of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act 2000, and conspiracy to commit criminal offence, using his former position to confer corrupt advantage upon himself.
Specifically, he was accused, alongside his aide, of unlawfully receiving and diverting 164,800 Euros (about N37m) from a suspected drug baron, Ikenna Onochie, who was arrested for alleged engagement in illicit drug deals. The accused was also found guilty of collecting N500, 000 from another suspect.
The presiding judge noted that the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) successfully proved its case against Lafiaji and his aide 'beyond all reasonable doubts'. They were, accordingly, found guilty and sentenced. By this judgment, Lafiaji has followed the infamous footsteps of a former national leader of the ruling Peoples Democracy Party (PDP), Chief Olabode George, who is currently serving a two-and-half years prison term after he was found guilty by another Lagos High Court, of corruption when he was the Chairman, Board of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), between 2001 and 2003.
We commend the judgment passed on Lafiaji. The sensitive nature of the position he held as the czar of the anti-drug agency is such that touches at the very heart of Nigeria's commitment to the war against drug trafficking. Such a position requires the highest sense of honesty, probity and responsibility. A compromise of such an exalted position of trust is a betrayal of public confidence. His conviction should serve as a deterrent to others.
Public office should be seen as an opportunity to serve. When the privileges and perks of such positions are deployed to further private interests, as is the case with Lafiaji and others, the law should take its course. It is heartening that the judiciary did not allow him to get away with the crime, even though the prison term handed down to him is lenient. Indeed, serving only four years in prison does not really match the severity of the offence committed. Nevertheless, it is a strong signal that corruption is no longer treated with levity. It also suggests that anti-graft agencies such as ICPC are no longer selective in the prosecution of offenders.
The fact that notable personalities like Lafiaji and Olabode George are now paying penalties for offences committed while in office, should tell the international community that the Nigerian government no longer treats official corruption with kid gloves. But, this is just the beginning. Similar cases that are still pending for lack of diligent prosecution should be treated with fresh impetus and commitment. Corruption in public office is one of the most potent threats to democracy. It should be fought with swiftness and sincerity of purpose. That is one sure way to sanitize public office in the country.