A Failed Plea Deal

Published on February 8, 2013 by pmnews

The plea agreement between Mr. John Yahaya Yusufu, the convicted pension fund thief, and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission develops rupture

In an apparent move to stem the wave of public outrage that trailed last Monday’s conviction and sentencing of former Assistant Director of Police Pension Office, Mr. John Yahaya Yusufu, by an Abuja High Court, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, re-arrested him and dragged him before a Federal High Court on a four-count charge relating to false declaration of assets.

He was arraigned and remanded in Kuje Prison pending his trial scheduled to commence next month. Yusufu’s current travail is the fallout of a scuttled agreement reached with the anti-graft agency while negotiating his plea bargain deal.

Conscious of the uproar created by the infamous plea bargain deal with Mrs. Cecilia Ibru, Managing Director of the defunct Oceanic International Bank, the EFCC pursued the deal with Mr. Yusufu cautiously.

According to an EFCC source, both the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke, and EFCC Chairman, Ibrahim Lamorde, only agreed to Yusufu’s plea deal when custodial sentencing was included in the package.

“The AGF and Lamorde refused to go along with the plea bargain. It was only after the EFCC lawyer extracted Yusufu’s consent to forfeit properties he bought with the pension loot scattered in Gombe GRA and Abuja as well as the N325 million found in his account and the custodial sentencing clause that the lawyer now presented the agreement to the Chairman, who then secured AGF’s ascent before the deal was concluded,” the source told TheNEWS.

As part of the understanding reached with Yusufu, the anti-graft agency swung into action. First, it amended an earlier 16-count charge filed before the Abuja High Court against Yusufu and his colleagues, with whom he allegedly embezzled N39 billion.

The earlier charge filed on the 28 March, 2012, to which Yusuf, Essai Dangabar, Atiku Abubakar Kigo, Ahmed Inuwa Wada, Mrs. Veronica Ulonma Onyegbula and Sani Habila Zira pleaded not guilty when they were first arraigned, was brought principally under Section 315 of Penal Code Act, Cap 532 Laws of Federal Capital Territory, Abuja Nigeria, 2007.

The section provides that: “Whoever, being in any manner, entrusted with property in his capacity as a public servant or in the way of his business as a banker, factor, broker, legal practitioner or agent, commits criminal breach of trust in respect of that property, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 14 years and shall also be liable to fine.”

The charge was amended to 20 counts, while counts 18, 19 and 20, to which Yusufu had agreed to plead guilty, were brought under Section 309 of the Penal Code, which provides for two years imprisonment with an option of fine in the sum of N250, 000 only.

This change in sections of the law only affected the three counts which, according to the agreement, Yusufu was to enter a guilty plea and accept a custodial sentence of two years, which would have run concurrently, on each of the counts.

In effect, Yusufu was to plead guilty to the three counts and get two years imprisonment, not six, as the terms would run concurrently.

This position, according to Mr. Rotimi Jacobs, EFCC lawyer, was communicated to the court so as to be adopted as the court’s decision in the matter.

Everything worked according to the script without any hitch from the point of plea taking and his conviction. After being convicted by the court, based on his guilty plea, Yusufu’s lawyer, Mr. Maiyaki Theodore Bala, began to make the routine application for leniency.

Bala told the court that Yusufu is a first-time offender without a history of crime.

He also told the court that his client had saved the court’s time by his plea and expressed remorse for his misdeeds. Bala added that Yusufu has a chronic heart condition, which has been aggravated by high blood pressure, for which he requires constant medical attention.

Further plea for leniency included claims that Yusufu is a community leader on whom a number students depend for their education; just as his family of four, a wife and three children, two of whom are university students and one in the primary school also depend on him for their upkeep.

He urged the court to temper justice with mercy, especially with the forfeiture of 13 properties in Gombe and Abuja and the sum of N325 million.

The lawyer begged the court for the least possible sentence or an exercise of its discretion and fine him, as provided for under Section 309 on which the counts he pleaded guilty to was brought.

A visibly enraged Jacobs leapt out of his seat in objection to Bala’s submission. He told the trial judge, Justice Talba Mohammed, that the custodial sentencing was an integral part of EFCC’s agreement with Yusufu, as contained in the documents submitted to the court.

Jacobs told the court that the section provides a maximum of two years or fine or both, but urged the court to send a strong message out that the era of impunity is gone for good in the country and contended that a non-custodial sentence will be disproportionate to the scale of the money involved in the matter.

Bala countered, stating that his client had already forfeited all that he stole from the Pension Office. “The prosecution took everything and left him with nothing, what else do they want?”he asked.

In the end, the judge relied on the provisions of Section 309, under which the EFCC brought the charges and exercised his discretion in Yusufu’s favour by granting him the option of fine.

The anti-graft agency felt betrayed and swooped on the convict even before he could savour the freedom he just procured with the N750,000 he paid as fine for the three counts to avoid going to jail.Justice Talba and even the convicted Yusuf may not have thought about the outrage that followed the judgment almost immediately the news broke. Nigerians could not believe that a man who had finally come out to say he was guilty could get such a slap on the wrist.

With a protest letter, two groups, the Anti-Corruption Network and the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), marched to the Supreme Court in Abuja over the judgment which they called a mockery of Nigeria’s judicial system.

Led by a former member of House of Representatives, Dino Melaye, NANS president, Yinka Gbadebo, and ex-president of West African Students Union (WASU), Daniel Onjeh, the two groups threatened to replicate the Egyptian protest that brought down the government of Hosni Mubarak if Chief Justice of the Federation, Mariam Aloma Mukhtar, did not take steps expected of her within 14 days.

For the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ibadan branch, the judgment was nothing but a ridicule of both the country’s struggle against corruption as well as the judiciary. Its chairman, Mr Oluseun Abimbola, who felt the judgment was not commensurate with the crime committed, declared: “to say that it borders on the ridiculous is an understatement. If someone steals billions and you are asking him to pay a fine of a few thousands and he forfeits assets of a few millions, which he disclosed to you, there is probably a lot more than that undisclosed to you that he gets to keep – and you call that justice?”

The EFCC also condemned the judgment in a statement it issued few hours after the judgment.

Constitutional lawyer, Prof. Itse Sagay, was more analytical in his condemnation of the judgment: “if you say a pensioner should get N1 million pension monthly, which is not possible, it means that Yusuf has stolen the pension of 32,000 pensioners. We should change our laws to accommodate death penalty for anybody who steals pension fund,” he suggested.

Comrade Debo Adeniran, of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL) believed that Yusuf knew what the outcome of the judgment would be and adding that this was why he brought N750,000 cash to the court which he promptly paid as the option for going to jail.

In anger, Spokesman of the Save Nigeria Group (SNG), Yinka Odumakin, called Nigeria a republic of maggots. According to him, the judgment is a confirmation that corruption is a big problem in the country and demanded for a drastic action against it.

Members of the House of Representatives, Jerry Manwe (PDP, Taraba), Udo Ibeji (PDP, Abia), Kamil Akinlabi (ACN, Oyo) and the House Minority Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila (ACN, Lagos) all condemned the judgment. While some blamed the judge, others blamed the legislature for creating such a law. They also called for the review of the penal code for the country.

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the Senior Staff Association of Teaching Hospitals, Research Institutes and Allied Institution (SSAUTHRIAI) and the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) also kicked against the judgment, describing it as an encouragement of corruption.

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