Last week, Nigerians received, with mixed feelings, the news of President Buhari’s granting of pardon to 159 persons serving jail terms for various offences in Nigerian prisons. The pardon, we were told, came on the heels of an approval by the National Council of State (NCS) on Thursday, April 14. In a follow up statement, presidential spokesperson and former president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Mr Garba Shehu, explained that the exercise “was a culmination of a rigorous process, regulated and guided by the law, which was not, in any way, designed to achieve a political purpose.” Oh well!
A good number of people were happy that many of those released were junior military officers, some of who had spent more than three decades in incarceration for their alleged involvement in the infamous Gideon Orkar-led military coup d’état of April 22, 1990. The truth remains that most of the officers in question were just following orders from their bosses and they played no active role in staging the coup. Even if they did, many would argue that thirty years is long enough time to have paid for the sin committed. A sizable number of Nigerians, however, were disgusted by the prospect of criminal ex-Governors Joshua Dariye and Jolly Nyame, who robbed their states blind, walking home free to enjoy their loots.
Dariye was convicted and sentenced for stealing N1.16 billion and Nyame for N1.6 billion in a forty-one-count charge of fraud. Whereas there is no iota of doubt that they committed the offences for which they were charged, many saw the two Middle Belt Christians as victims whose fate would have been totally different, were they Muslims from the core North. It’s impossible to dismiss such thought as irrelevant in a deeply religious and culturally sensitive country as Nigeria. That said, the fact still remains that some of us are happy at the prospect of a criminal facing justice, even as disgusting as it is that a bigger number is being left to roam the streets freely and enjoy the proceeds of their crimes. The issue of pardon granted to the criminal ex-governors is problematic on so many fronts.
For starters, most cases of presidential pardon in many countries are often extended to individuals whose sins border on breaches in policies and principles, many of which fall under the crime of perjury. Presidential pardon is not meant for criminals who loot the treasury and embezzle public funds. Also, citing legal precedents, some have argued that corruption cases involving state governors are state offences, which are outside the jurisdiction of the National Council of State (NCS). The prerogative of mercy bestowed on the NCS, they believe, can only be applied to federal offences. But I will leave it to legal experts to trash that one out.
For an administration that came to power on the strength of fighting corruption, this is the height of the betrayal of a people’s trust. The act was more than business as usual. Aside from the opportunity cost of what the stolen money could have been used for, millions more of taxpayers money was spent in prosecuting these people, the duration of which lasted for years. And what is the point of having the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) as anti-graft agencies when their years of hard work could easily be rubbished with the stroke of a pen.
The authority to commute sentences or grant pardons given to presidents and heads of government of many nations, is a solemn responsibility not to be taken lightly. This authority is given to the executive branch to rectify situations where there is a clear miscarriage of justice, whether inadvertent or malicious, and not a privilege to be exercised in dispensing political favours.
In the United States, from where we modelled our presidential system of government, career professionals in the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, carefully scrutinise pardon applications, from where recommendations are made for clemency to the president. The idea is to guard it against becoming another tool in the hands of the executive branch to reward friends and families, and to settle party loyalists who get in trouble.
During Obama’s two terms in office, from 2009 through 2017, the 44th president of the United States pardoned 212 people and commuted the sentence of another 1,715. Most fell within the category of those convicted of non-violent crimes under tough drug laws, which had been known to disproportionately target Latinos and Blacks in America. Many, especially in those affected communities, applauded the move. But it’s not in all cases that Americans have been super excited about the types of men granted pardon by their presidents.
Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, an influential donor to the Democratic Party, who fled the United States after his indictment for widespread tax evasion, illegal dealings with Iran and other crimes. It was later discovered that Mr Rich’s former wife, Denise Rich, made a large donation to the Clinton library.
In July 2007, President Bush commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby. Mr Libby, a onetime chief of staff to the then Vice President Dick Cheney, had been convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the disclosure of the identity of a C.I.A. officer, Valerie Plame. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and was required to pay a $250,000 fine.
Both actions by these presidents elicited widespread condemnation and sparked a firestorm of criticisms. But none compared to the pattern and scope of abuse under President Donald Trump, who took it to a whole new level. Trump was known to dangle the presidential pardon as a get free card to anyone who would refuse to testify in any issue that might potentially incriminate him. In fact, he was said to have even entertained the idea of a blanket pardon for himself and his family, should they ever be convicted. That was the extent to which he abused his office and the power of pardon.
“Today’s long-overdue hearing examines the constitutional role and the limits of the presidential pardon power.” That was the opening statement of the U.S. House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler on March 27, 2019, before a subcommittee set up for that purpose.
The United States had elected a rogue president who saw everything as an opportunity for pay-to-play, in total disregard of the centuries old democratic norms that had served America so well. The House judiciary committee was not going to sign a blank check for him do whatever he wanted.
But then, even in American democracy with all its famed checks and balances, the president still wields an enormous amount of power that could be deployed for good or evil. What is gratifying, however, is the fact that the legislative branch is willing and able to use the power vested in them to rein in on the excesses of a criminal like Donald Trump.
Nigeria is a pathetic case because what obtains in our clime is a rubber stamp legislature that kowtows to the whims of the executive branch. In our brand of democracy, the idea of the independence of the judiciary is an alien concept. The executive at all tiers of government handpicks who would lead the legislative branch and the president of Nigeria operates like an emperor of sorts.
If you run a criminal enterprise in Nigeria and plan to excel, you only have to abide by one creed; go big or go home. The motorcycle parts company in Southern California that originated the now popular phrase in the 1990s as a sales slogan in its packaging of some oversized Harley Davidson pipes, wanted to make the point that there is really no passion to be found in playing small. It’s an exhortation to go all out and be extravagant, pulling all the stops and taking no prisoners.
If you are an Omoleye Sowore, running your mouth each time and talking about a revolution, rest assured that your rank would be arrested, tortured and count yourself lucky to be alive. You are better off becoming a home-grown terrorist called a ‘bandit’ or better still, join an international terrorist group whose stock-in-trade is the mass murder of innocent people in the most depraved condition. At any point that you run out of ammunition, become hungry for any reason or simply plan on taking a break in order to strategise, or just pretend that you have become a repentant Jihadi. You surely would receive a national pardon with a hero’s welcome. It doesn’t even matter that your victims would still be languishing in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and surviving daily on bread and Zobo.
”Nigeria is a vast crime scene.” – Pa Ikhide Ikheloa
Osmund Agbo, a public affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com