Labour is pushing for death penalty for treasury looters. But lawyers think otherwise. To them, there are better ways the Buhari administration can fight corruption other than capital punishment. ROBERT EGBE writes.

The hangman’s noose? A firing squad? Stoning? Have your pick. You steal public funds, you die. This is the penalty the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) want for looters.

Their demand, made last Thursday at a joint press conference in Abuja by NLC President Ayuba Wabba and TUC President Bobboi Kaigama – as radical as it seems – was not arrived at lightly.

Only 39 of the world’s 175 countries were more corrupt than Nigeria last year, according to the Transparency International global corruption index.

In a paper titled: “Corruption, national development, the Bar and The Judiciary” presented at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in 2012, former Vice President of the World Bank for Africa and former Minister of Education Dr. Oby Ezekwesili said $400 billion of Nigeria’s oil revenue has been stolen or misused since independence in 1960.

The severity of the problem was acknowledged by President Muhammadu Buhari during his trip to the United States, when he declared: “If we don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria.”

The president has since set up a seven-man Presidential Advisory Committee on Corruption headed by eminent lawyer Prof Itse Sagay (SAN). The committee will advise the government on the prosecution of the war against corruption and the implementation of the required reforms in the criminal justice system.

All Ministries, Departments and Agencies are to maintain a Treasury Single Account (TSA); the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFFC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) have stepped up their investigation of corruption cases.

But, labour is not satisfied. It feels that a harsher penalty is needed to combat what it sees as problems of weak laws, especially the granting of perpetual injunctions stopping corruption cases. To labour, the way out is to make corruption a capital crime.

Crimes, such as armed robbery, murder, treason, conspiracy to treason or instigating invasion of Nigeria, are already subject to the death penalty. But the use of death penalty usually generates mixed opinions and for seven years between 2006 and 2013, there were no executions in Nigeria. Things changed in 2013 when four condemned robbers were executed.

Lawyers disagree with labour

Lawyers do not seem to share labour’s enthusiasm for capital punishment.

Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President Augustine Alegeh (SAN) said death penalty is against global trends and won’t help efforts to recover stolen funds.

He suggests the encouragement of proactive steps that will prevent looting or make it difficult, if not impossible.

Alegeh said: “With respect to labour’s views, what we think we need to put in place are more measures that will ensure that stealing is made impossible or very difficult for people to pillage treasuries; that way, we secure ourselves so that money is not taken away.

“Current efforts by this government are in line with modern practices. If we kill them and we don’t get the money, what have we gained as a country?

“Even in capital offences, there is an increasing trend against the death penalty, so, I don’t think we should be in the opposite direction at this time of our national history.’’

He added that NBA encourages the strengthening of institutions and systems in the fight against corruption.

“Our position at NBA is that there should be more measures to strengthen the system, and ensure that pillaging of the system is reduced to the barest minimum, and we see that the steps the government is taking are along the same lines; single treasury, single account, etc.

“These measures will significantly take care of the loopholes through which looting could occur. These are proactive measures that saves the country from the cost of litigation, cost of prosecution, loss of revenue, the time lapse between when the money gets into the wrong account and when it is recovered.”

According to a former chairman, NBA, Ikeja Branch, Onyekachi Ubani, death penalty by itself is not the solution to the problem of corruption.

He said though capital punishment for looters appears to be having the desired effect in China, Nigeria’s problem is not the absence of penalties for offenders.

“If you take into cognisance what corruption has done to the nation’s growth, you’ll tend to agree with anyone that is calling for the death penalty for offenders,” Ubani said, adding: “but I tell you that the death penalty alone cannot deter corruption in Nigeria.

“Our problem is actually the willpower to implement the laws even as enacted. Enforcement is difficult and as long as we don’t enforce our laws, even if we make death the penalty for corruption, you’ll find out that the institutions will not even apply it.”

For Adetokunbo Mumuni, director of Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), death penalty is a complete no-go area. Mumuni is an advocate for the cancellation of the death penalty for all capital offences, let alone corruption. He also feels killing people for stealing public funds would be tantamount to allowing them to escape.

He said: “Once someone is killed for looting, you have more or less allowed him to go without experiencing the shame that is associated with what he has done. I would prefer that the person be given life imprisonment.

“What he has made from the corrupt practices should be recovered, including even what he has legitimately acquired. That will ensure absolute deterrent and that person will now live a life of penury. Unlike when you kill the person and the family will begin to benefit from his loot.”

Although NBA Ikorodu Branch Chairman, Adedotun Adetunji, feels labour’s call for death penalty is in order, he believes the National Assembly would be reluctant to pass such a law.

“This country is so complex that I don’t see the legislature agreeing to enact such law,” he said. “I think such law would actually be the best, because it would serve as a serious deterrent.

“When one or two people are caught and executed for corruption, all of these incidents of people storing huge amounts of stolen dollars in rooms and the craze for illegally amassing wealth will stop.”

Activist-lawyer Ebun Olu Adegboruwa also feels that resorting to death penalty is retrogression.

“I think it will be retrogressive for us as a nation, because of the frustration of corruption, to be moving backwards, to be activating what others are doing away with,” he said.

Adegboruwa also says some members of the unions are guiltier of the corruption they accuse politicians of. He suggests that the cleansing must start from within labour itself, especially its civil service arm, otherwise labour would have no moral grounds to condemn anyone.

He said: “Globally, the death penalty is becoming an anathema, whether it’s for corruption, drug trafficking, murder, or any other offence. The United Nations is making a campaign to abolish the death penalty.

“Secondly, I do not think that labour leaders, civil servants are in a good position to advocate for any penalty for corruption.

“Those who carry files, directors, permanent secretaries, they are the problems of this nation, beyond politicians who are just figures, who are expected today and leave office tomorrow.

“So, they don’t have the locus, it amounts to sheer hypocrisy; the unions have to clear the whole house first. To be pointing fingers at people for corruption is to be pointing it at themselves. Until that lesson is done, I think the blame in this game should go back to the civil servants.

He gave what happened with former Minister of Health, Mrs Alonge Gray, as an example.

“No politician can embezzle money without the connivance of civil servants. You remember the experience of Mrs. Gray Longe, the former Minister of Health that former President Olusegun Obasanjo disgraced?

“It was civil servants that told her ‘Mama, there is excess money, don’t return the money.’ And they were the ones that shared it; they gave her a formula for sharing.

“So, civil servants are the ones who put politicians’ hands in corruption. The war against corruption should start with the civil servants, when they’re making this clamour, they’re making it against themselves.”

Perpetual injunctions

The unions also kicked against the grant of perpetual injunctions in unjustifiable situations. On this issue, they find common ground with lawyers.

“It’s quite a challenge for us as lawyers,” said Adegboruwa, “we cannot out of blind patriotism cover up the rot in the judiciary, whether at the Bar or Bench.

“It is still painful to me today that the court gave a perpetual injunction in favour of the former governor of Rivers State, Peter Odilli, to the extent that up till today no one can take anything done by that administration. It’s painful for us at the judiciary.

“The EFCC refused to appeal against that, for whatever reason. If at all there should be such an order, it should be a temporary thing, when their positions are laid bare, and there is no persecution, no witch-hunting, the person should go and clear himself in the court.

“By giving such an injunction, the court is indirectly working against itself. I think the NBA will have a lot to do in this regard, in terms of the attempts to restrain courts and the police from investigating people.”

Mumuni agrees. He feels such injunctions ought to be challenged.

“You can’t give an injunction against somebody who has a legal duty to carry out,” he said. “So those kinds of orders are manufactured in mischief, conceived in mischief and delivered in mischief.

“What the EFCC would have done would be to challenge that type of terrible order before a higher court, and I believe that the higher court would not have agreed with that particular judge.

Declaration of assets

Labour’s call for office holders to declare their assets thrice; before swearing-in, while in office, and upon leaving office is already covered in a similar constitutional provision.

Section 11 (1) of the fifth schedule of the 1999 Constitution mandates public officials to declare their assets to the Code of Conduct Bureau at least twice; before and immediately after leaving office.

The declaration, which must be in writing, shall include all of the office holder’s properties, assets, and liabilities and those of his/her unmarried children who are under 18.

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