To punish or not to punish

EFCC

ASIDE from the much-spun warning against the danger of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign being dampened by hostile forces seeking to trap it in a terminal crisis, the government itself is on the path of wilfully preventing it from attaining its deserved denouement – punishment for the culprits.

Yes, the citizens have not come to terms with the fact that Buhari has balked at the challenge of launching a holistic anti-corruption campaign. Stripped of all its altruistic pretentions, the campaign is directed at only the members of the opposition as though Buhari’s friends, associates and supporters were not in any way smeared with the grime of corruption. But if only for the sake of approving the inauguration of the dismantling of a behemoth obstacle to the nation’s development, the citizens would brook this brazen quest to deploy presidential fiat to protect cronies that have been submerged in the same miasma of corruption like other Nigerians who are being hunted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Hopefully, there would be another time for a holistic battle against the monster of corruption.

But what may further discredit the current campaign against corruption is the plan to give a soft landing to those who return their loots to the coffers of the government. Prof. Itse Sagay, the chairman of the presidential anti-corruption advisory committee hinted of this likelihood in an interview with journalists recently. From a superficial perspective, such a position is validated by the notion that a judicial approach to the anti-corruption campaign costs so much – the legal system is slow; the cases may drag on; the judges could be bribed; and the suspects may not return the money. It was this consciousness of this perceived or real danger posed to the anti-corruption fight that made Buhari to declare a lack of confidence in the legal system, a position that provoked the ire of the members of the learned profession.

Yet, Buhari must find a cure to this headache of judicial connivance. In the first place, the Buhari government is faced with this quandary because the terms of the anti-corruption campaign are only known to him and his party’s members while to the public they are locked in the realm of speculation. For if the overall objective of the anti-corruption campaign is to disincentivise fraud in public office, then the legal system must purge itself of its potential to stymie its own end. Indeed, this kind of headache that the president has must be rooted out instead of espousing the position that we are helpless. In other words, the nation must not accept the excuse that the legal system is feckless and it must remain so. The nation must strive to have an efficient legal system as in other parts of the world. The legal system must become an ally in the fight against corruption. We must not perpetuate a legal system that would ask a man who stole N1billion to forfeit one per cent of the amount and go home to enjoy the rest.

The pull may be barely resistible: let’s avoid all the legal jigsaws; just frighten them with a churlish prosecution; and when they capitulate and agree to give up portions of the loots, just collect them and use them for developmental purposes. Then the suspects can go home. Alas, this path is fraught with the danger of rather breeding more corruption that the Bukhara government avowedly seeks to fight. In the first place, such a move is a hotbed of byzantine transactions since the public would not know how much is the actual loot of a suspect and how much is being returned. Already, the citizens are suspecting that the whole anti-corruption fight is being shrouded in secrecy. If the Buhari government is actuated by a desire to change what is currently a defective system, then it must not encourage the existence of two sets of laws for the citizens. For if the poor citizens are prosecuted for lesser offences and jailed if found guilty, those who are accused of more serious economic and financial crimes against the state should be prosecuted and jailed if found culpable.

If the Buhari government cannot ensure equality by hunting all corrupt Nigerians irrespective of being foes or friends, would it also fail in guaranteeing that the same set of laws is used in the prosecution of corrupt persons? Is there no tacit endorsement by the Buhari government of an iniquitous system in which a Buba Jangebe who stole a cow would have his right hand cut off while a Sani Yerima who is accused of stealing N1.7 billion would just quietly return a part of the loot and go home to enjoy the rest? Is this the legacy of justice that the Buhari government wants to bequeath to the citizens? With this position, the Buhari government is ready to open the floodgates for more corruption. In fact, public officers would now be encouraged to be more corrupt since the more they steal the more they would be allowed to keep while a paltry amount is returned to the public coffers. The Buhari government must take cognisance of the fact that while the prospect of returning a part of one’s loot would not stop a public officer from stealing, which of being consigned to jail with its attendant public censure surely does. Of course, it would only be on such rare cases of self-immolation that a person would steal for his or her family to splurge while he or she pines away in incaceration.

As a military general, Buhari does not need to explain to the citizens that he cannot cringe at the prospect of the prisons brimming with all the treasury looters. If the prisons are not enough, let Buhari build more. After all, by doing this, the government is reducing the nation’s unemployment since some citizens would be employed in building the new prisons. Buhari must also not be oblivious of the fact that consigning the corrupt politicians and the public officers to prison is one way of guarding against their corrupting other citizens. For as long as they are free, they may initiate others into the art of looting the treasury.Or they may feel humiliated and fight back. Or in the future they would emote over their innocence, over how the Buhari government persecuted them because they were principled and patriotic citizens. And then they would seek other public offices in a nation with an affliction of amnesia.

Now, the suspicion is that in the Buhari government’s refusal to take the path of thoroughly prosecuting the suspects so that the courts could send them to jail is a plot for self-survival. The Buhari government may be avoiding prosecution and imprisonment of the treasury looters because it does not want to set a precedent that may consume it. After all, as have already been foreboded by all the opprobrious manipulations of the 2016 budget, a succeeding government may hang weightier charges of corruption on the members of the current administration that may haul them into gaol. Is this a well-founded suspicion?

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