For a major anti-corruption agency regularly in the news for its acts or omissions, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s outcry over the “pardon” granted an Indian businessman, Ashok Israni, and two officials of Keystone Bank, Anayo Nwosu and Olajide Oshodi is logical. The agency needs to respond to public inquiry regarding its proficiency. In any event, the incident raises concern over the exercise of discretionary powers by elected public officials.
Justice Kudirat Jose of the Lagos State High Court in Igbosere had in December 2019 jailed Israni, Nwosu, and Oshodi on an amended 15-count charge bordering on conspiracy and obtaining N855 million by false pretense, and sentenced them to five years each. But four months after their conviction, they were released from prison by officials of the Kirikiri Correctional Centre allegedly on the directive of the Lagos government, while their separate appeals were pending before the Court of Appeal. The EFCC had also alleged that in spite of repeated demands, the Nigerian Correctional Service had failed to present the Commission with the instrument of pardon.
Although government is yet to explain its role in the pardon, its action has the tendency of being misconstrued, as it poses a number of questions: What special circumstance warranted the exercise of the governor’s discretion in favour of the convicted persons, particularly when they were yet to exhaust avenues to appeal their conviction? Could the exercise of the governor’s discretion be said to be for the benefit of the people or serves some public policy? And as was recently posed by the Court of Appeal, could it not be said that the action of the governor amounts to an extra-judicial interference with the judicial functions of the court? And why is the prosecuting authority not provided with the instrument, which is supposed to be a public record anyway?
The EFCC is often the brunt of taunts by Nigerians particularly on social media for its perceived failure or inability to successfully prosecute corrupt persons; it is thus understandable that the commission would be most aggrieved with the action of the state government for seeming interference after a successful prosecution. The commission deserves all the support and encouragement it could get at a time that corrupt practices have practically crippled most of the nation’s institutions.
While the constitutional power to grant pardon is the prerogative of the executive, same must however be wielded with caution and due consideration. Such powers are not subject to political or personal affinity, but for the welfare and overall benefit of the populace; after all, criminal offenses are deemed to be crimes against the state. Discretionary powers are judicial by nature and it behooves any authority clothed with such powers to exercise same judiciously.
Instances, where the executive is perceived to have exercised the power of pardon in error, abound in our polity. Dr. Obi Okongwu was summarily convicted for contempt of Court and sentenced to 21 days imprisonment on February 11, 1983. However, on the same day, the then Governor of Anambra State, Chief Jim I. Nwobodo, issued an instrument of pardon in his favour. On September 29, 2016, Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, as executive governor of Sokoto State, granted an executive pardon to accused persons standing trial for sundry offenses, prior to their conviction.
On March 12, 2013, ex-president Goodluck Jonathan pardoned Mr. Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, former governor of Bayelsa State convicted for money laundering and wanted by the UK government for money laundering charges and skipping bail. The former EFCC boss, Nuhu Ribadu had described the action as the final nail in the coffin of fighting corruption in Nigeria, while the United States embassy was reported to have said it was “deeply disappointed” by the pardon.
The primary aims and functions of criminal sanctions, aside from serving as a punishment for offenders, include restitution to victims, deterrence and rehabilitation of offenders. A case where an elected official exercises an executive discretion for political and or personal gains may not augur well for the nation’s criminal justice system, as it seems to suggest that criminal sanctions are reserved for the common man, many of whom are held behind bars for years, awaiting trial for offenses for which they may not be guilty of, while their cases suffer prolong adjournments.
The abuse of this executive power not only makes a mockery of our administration of criminal justice system, it equally robs the court of its dignity and authority to award sanctions to convicted persons. Such actions are responsible for the growing lack of respect for the courts and its orders, a situation that was recently lamented by the Chief Justice of the Federation, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad.
While the judiciary itself is not infallible, the executive power of pardon in the place of a democratic system of government is of essence, as it serves as a check on the judicial arm, providing reliefs in cases where the judiciary may be perceived to have been unjust or acted in error. Such powers however should not become subject of abuse by persons with whom they have been entrusted.
For this reason, the Lagos State Government should let Nigerians know the rationale that informed its pardon. Government of the day should be seen to encourage the fight against criminal elements in the society and not aid or abet them. That would be against the spirit of the constitution. Government and the people must work together to foster a society where the rule of law prevails. The authorities should strive to entrench fairness in every of the country’s institutions.