Who Will Jail Our Ex-Presidents?

By Casmir Igbokwe

The Federal Government has been releasing what it calls the looters’ list. The first episode of the soap opera came with its controversies. Before the minister of information, Lai Mohammed, could release the second episode, a number of characters in the cast list had threatened court action.

Some have wondered why the list contained mainly stalwarts of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Even if you were a known PDP rogue but are now a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), your name would not appear in the list. Now, episode three of the trilogy, according to Mohammed, will soon be in the market. But one big question begs for answers in this whole show: where are the major characters (former presidents)?

We all know that a show revolves around a major character. Until something happens to him or her, the play does not end. It is either he is dead, banished, jailed or freed from his entanglements. A very good example is Gen. Sani Abacha. During his time as Head of State, a lot of water passed under his corruption bridge. But because he is dead, his own show has ended.

Now, we ascribe humongous looted funds to him. Just last week, the Federal Government confirmed the repatriation of the sum of $322.5 million to Nigeria by the Swiss government. This Abacha loot was reportedly paid into a special account in the Central Bank of Nigeria on December 18, 2017.

The question remains, how about the ones looted by other former presidents? Or are they all saints? The incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari was the Head of State in 1984. Nobody has probed him. Even when he toppled the civilian government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Buhari placed him under house arrest and sent his deputy, the late Dr. Alex Ekwueme, to prison. Shagari eventually became a free man without serving any serious punishment for the infractions in his government.

Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who toppled Buhari, did not also atone for his sins against Nigeria. Under his regime, some $12 billion oil windfall allegedly developed wings and flew away. Today, IBB, as he is fondly called, is an elder statesman. Occasionally, he pontificates on national affairs, and we clap for him.

Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar took over power when Abacha died suddenly in office. He supervised the transition from military to civilian government and handed over to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who had also ruled as military Head of State between 1976 and 1979. Has anybody called Abubakar to question for the corrupt practices during his regime?

How about former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is good at crafting acerbic letters to his successors? Under his watch, some $16 billion was said to have been frittered away in what has been referred to as the power sector scam. Many persons linked with the alleged fraud have gone through one form of probe or the other except the former president.

Today, the former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki, is in court for some alleged corrupt acts during the regime of former President Goodluck Jonathan. Former publicity secretary of the PDP, Olisa Metuh, is also under trial for alleged embezzlement of public funds.

In all this, the principal character, Jonathan, still walks the streets free. Nobody has summoned courage to probe him or ask him to render an account of his stewardship.

In saner countries, the story is different. Last week, the former President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, began another life in jail. He happens to be the first former president in Brazil’s modern history to be so incarcerated. His fall from grace unfolded steadily after the country’s top court, Supreme Federal Tribunal, ruled against his petition to remain free while he continued to appeal his 12-year sentence for money laundering and corruption. Last Tuesday, a judge also denied Lula some privileges in prison including the right to receive a visit from nine regional governors and other politicians.

Earlier this month, South Korea’s former president and first female leader, Park Geun-Hye, was jailed 24 years for corruption. Park was found guilty on multiple criminal charges, including bribery and abuse of power. Her predecessors, Chun Doo-Whan and Roh Tae-woo, were similarly convicted on criminal charges after leaving office.

Last year, the wide-ranging corruption scandal against Park engendered massive street protests, known as the Candlelight Revolution, and a parliamentary impeachment.

What Judge Kim Se-Yoon said when sentencing Park was instructive.

“The accused abused the power bestowed by the people — the true ruler of this country — to cause chaos in national administration,” she said, adding, “Despite all these crimes, the accused denied all the charges against her, displayed no remorse and showed an incomprehensible attitude by blaming Choi (Park’s secret confidante and long-time friend) and other officials.”

In Nigeria, we are very good at this blame game. But all hope is not lost though. Last Friday, a Federal High Court in Abuja ruled that former Attorney-General of the Federation, Mohammed Bello Adoke, acted within the law and cannot be held liable for obeying a presidential directive in the Malabu Oil scandal. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had sued Adoke, a former minister of petroleum resources, Dan Etete, and others in December 2016 for the controversial sale of Nigeria’s oil well, OPL 245, and fraudulent diversion of $1.1 billion in the controversial transaction. Adoke asked the court to declare that he acted in the Malabu deal on the orders of former President Jonathan and that his prosecution by the EFCC was illegal.

The presiding judge, Binta Nyako, held that, based on sections 5 (1), 147 (1), 148 (1) and 150 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, the powers of the president could be exercised through his ministers.

Nyako ruled, “The executive powers of the president are exercisable by his ministers. The plaintiff cannot be held personally liable for carrying out the lawful directives of the president.”

Part of our problems is that we don’t fight for our rights neither do we revolt against moral turpitude in our country. When Peru’s President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski pardoned the jailed former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, on humanitarian grounds last December, protests erupted across the country. Fujimori governed that country from 1990 to 2000, but was jailed 25 years in 2009 for authorising death squads, overseeing rampant corruption and vote-rigging.

Some Israelis also protested when their former Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, formally requested a pardon from President Reuven Rivlin last Monday. Recall that Olmert was released from prison last July after a parole board granted him early release after serving 16 months of his 27-month sentence for fraud and bribery. Olmert was convicted in 2014 in a wide-ranging case that accused him of accepting bribes to promote a real estate project in Jerusalem and obstructing justice. That was when he was mayor of Jerusalem and trade minister before he became premier in 2006.

But his request for pardon raised speculations that he intends to return to politics. For this reason, the Movement for Quality Government wrote to Rivlin asking him to turn down the pardon request. The movement said Olmert never expressed regret for his crimes. And since he was convicted for crimes he committed in public service, it reasoned, he shouldn’t return to public service. Currently, Olmert is prevented from returning to directorates of companies on which he served before his incarceration.

From Croatia to Portugal, Romania to Moldovia and Guatemala to Serbia, former corrupt leaders have been jailed. In China, corruption even attracts life or death sentence. In July 2016, a one-time head of a powerful military committee, Guo Boxiong, was sentenced to life imprisonment for taking “massive” bribes. The 74-year-old man was also reportedly stripped of his title of general and his assets seized.

These tough measures against former leaders in different countries are to serve as a note of warning and to prevent such corrupt tendencies from recurring. In many of these countries, corrupt politicians are never allowed to return to public life.

It is shameful that we have not done much to change our corrupt political culture in Nigeria. Politicians have looted trillions of naira from our common treasury, yet no leader has taken any serious action to put a stop to that. Nigerians had high hopes that President Buhari would curb this nonsense when he came on board in 2015. Alas, he has frittered the goodwill away.

Let us remember that the buck stops on the president’s table. A Nigerian president is very powerful. He appoints ministers and other aides who take instructions from him. He takes the glory or shame for whatever happens during his tenure. He is not above the law and should not be isolated in corruption cases involving his ministers and aides. So, he must be made to answer for his misdeeds in office. Until this happens, our so-called fight against corruption is hypocritical.

First published in The Sun of Monday, April 16, 2018.

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