by Dare Lawal
Since Justice Abubakar Talba gave that ruling in January which would define his career, in which he convicted a man who admitted to defrauding pensioners of N23 billion, but fined him a mere N750,000, almost all the attention and the angst has been directed at the judge.
In fact, the National Judicial Council (NJC) agreed with most Nigerians that the judge indeed has a case to answer, and on Thursday, the council decided to suspend him for a whole year without pay.
The reason for the suspension by the NJC was because, according to them, Justice Talba, did not exercise his discretion properly. The council believed that John Yakubu Yusuf, the convicted pensions director should have been made to serve jail time due to the enormity of the fraud.
However, the NJC pointed out something which a lot of commentators had missed – the role of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in the travesty of justice that occurred in the John Yakubu Yusuf case.
It should be pointed out that the EFCC has done its best to divert scrutiny and attention from itself since the judgement. Following the uproar which greeted the light sentence, the commission quickly re-arrested Yakubu Yusuf and slapped fresh charges against him. The commission portrayed the impression of a fastidious prosecuting body.
However, as the NJC observed, the EFCC has some explaining to do:
The council however, observed that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) substituted the charge against Talba with another charge that carried lesser punishment.
In the withdrawn charge which was brought under Section 315 of the Penal Code Yusuf faced ten count charges which carried a maximum jail term of 14 years and fine.
NJC stated that EFCC counsel had substituted the earlier charge with another charge with only three counts under Section 309 of the Penal Code that moulded a lesser punishment of two years imprisonment with or without option of fine.
Now, the question is why was the earlier charge, which carried jail time of up to 14 years, withdrawn and replaced with one that carried such a light sentence? That’s a question which EFCC lead counsel, Rotimi Williams, and EFCC chairman, Ibrahim Lamorde perhaps need to clarify.
In fact, a Scoopinion contributor for The Scoop, Nana Nwachukwu, asked questions along these lines as far back as January when all the opprobrium was being directed at Justice Talba. As she remarked in her piece:
The judgment delivered by Justice Talba was the maximum sentence prescribed by the Penal Code for Criminal misappropriation which was the crime that the Pension Scam boss in the person of Mr. John Yusuf was charged for. The EFCC proffered a charge under Section 308 & 309 of the Penal Code (Northern States) Federal provisions Act Cap 345 LFN 1990. Section 309 being the punishment section clearly states
“Whoever commits a crime of misappropriation shall be punished with an imprisonment term which may be extended to two years or with fine or both”
And then she asked:
Why did the EFCC bring a charge of criminal misappropriation? There are elements of fraud, conspiracy to defraud, obtaining by false pretences, administrative mismanagement, stealing and the list goes on that could have nailed the culprits in separate counts and push for consecutive sentences which would have been at the discretion of the judge.
Considering what the charges were, the judge had an option to sentence the accused to jail time of two years or a fine or both. Justice Talba opted for a mere fine, which while legal, the NJC reasoned was an abuse of discretion.
So was the EFCC also guilty of abusing the trust which they hold for Nigerians? Did they use their discretion to amend charges against accused persons indiscriminately?