Last week, a certain outcry rent the air following what was largely perceived as a light sentence handed down to an Assistant Director in the Police Pension Office, Mr John Yakubu Yusuf, by a Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court.
The court presided over by Justice Mohammed Talba had, last Monday, sentenced Yusuf to two years imprisonment with an option of N750,000 fine for conniving with others to defraud the Police Pension Office and pensioners of N27.2 billion. Many Nigerians expressed outrage at the judgment, believing as they did that the punishment meted out to Yusuf was not commensurate with the offence committed.
Yusuf was, however, rearrested the following day by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFFC) over other charges which were not the subject of investigation and adjudication by the Mohammed Talba Court. He has since been arraigned before Justice Adamu Bello of a Federal High Court in Abuja over non-declaration of his assets and liability in his asset declaration form and his failure to declare his interest in a certain company.
While we take cognizance of the barrage of criticisms which has trailed the judgment, it is important to take a look at the vision of the law in order to establish whether the judge acted rightly or wrongly. The offence committed by Yusuf is covered by the Penal Code Law, Cap. 532, Laws of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, 2007. Section 309 of the Code states: “Whoever commits criminal misappropriation shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or with both”. Going by this provision, it can be said that the judge acted somewhat within the ambit of the law.
He expressed judicial discretion which comes very close to what the law provides. However, Justice Talba cannot escape the charge of undue leniency in this matter. He allowed the pension fraudster to go home after parting with N750,000. This is regardless of the property he may have forfeited. But the law provides for a maximum term of two years with fine or with both. Considering the gravity of the crime, Justice Talba should have opted for the maximum punishment for Yusuf.
In other words, the fraudster should have been made to serve his two years jail term with or without fine. Such a sentence would have kept the culprit behind bars and therefore out of public purview. It is only such a punishment that would have practical effect on the offender and give the general public the impression that a reasonable punishment has been meted out. Justice Talba therefore misapplied his discretion. He should have chosen the maximum punishment for a crime like this.
The situation is not helped by the fact that even the EFCC law is as light as the one under which Yusuf has been convicted. Section 18 of the Economic and Financial Act 2004 of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states that a person who engages in acquisition, possession or use of property knowing at the time of acquisition, possession or use that such property was derived from any offence under this Act shall be imprisoned for a term not less than two years and not exceeding three years.
The implication of this provision is that even if Yusuf is found guilty of the offences for which he was rearrested and arraigned in court last week, the sentence he will get will still look light and lenient. There is therefore the need for these laws to be reviewed. The penal code is particularly outdated as it has been in use since 1916.
The National Assembly should therefore see the urgent need to review these obsolete laws to bring them in tandem with the realities of our time and age. If the likes of Yusuf are made to get away with grievous crimes, the impression it will give Nigerians is that the war against crime is a joke. Such an impression will not deter future offenders.
Rather, it will embolden more people to take even more daring steps towards defrauding the country and the people. Yusuf’s offence should not be treated lightly. His action may have led to the death of some pensioners and the economic strangulation of many others. He does not deserve this slap on the wrist.