Billionaires do go to jail but only rarely. In any country, a billionaire who pays for his crime with a jail term makes headline news. In Nigeria on December 4, 2019, wealthy, former Abia State Governor Orji Uzor Kalu was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. He wiped away tears, he asked or begged security officers not to be placed in handcuffs as he was being led out of court. “Please don’t handcuff me. I will follow you.”
Kalu, a senator and Chief Whip of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) political party, will most likely appeal the judgment. It took 12 years to prosecute the case to this point. For now, he sits in jail for committing fraud of over 7 billion naira of funds meant for Abia State which he ruled from 1999 to 2007. He will forfeit huge personal assets to the government.
In the public space, he has acquired an ignominious title of criminal, fraud and corrupt person.
In less than five years of APC’s rule by President Muhammadu Buhari, three other former state governors have been sentenced to prison, also for defrauding their states. They are: Jolly Nyame of Taraba State – 12 years; Joshua Dariye of Plateau State –10 years; and Bala Ngilari of Adamawa State, whose conviction of 4 years imprisonment was later upturned by the Court of Appeal.
The rate of imprisonment of such all-powerful former governors is unprecedented.
The prosecution of cases of “grand corruption”, as it was labeled by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, appears to have sharp teeth. They bite deep and bloody. The injuries are being spread around in a way that makes people shudder, even if they are “insiders” – members of the APC and strong, well-connected political persons. The expectation that “Once you have joined APC, all your sins are forgiven” as famously stated in January 2019 by APC National Chairman Adams Oshiomole may be far from reality.
Kalu’s case is a model of a person who did all the “right” things to wash himself clear of his sins. He had abandoned his political party that took him to governorship position, and joined APC; he campaigned vigorously, visibly for APC and presidential candidate Buhari in 2019 elections; he fought his way through electoral and legal hurdles to become a senator in 2019, a usual guarantor of immunity from sanctions for crimes perpetrated as governor; and he purchased his way to Katsina the home state of Buhari to have himself turbaned as a Moslem leader, showing total disdain for his Christian roots and life-long religion. Yet, he ended up paying for his sins.
It may be too early to draw conclusions. But some questions are appropriate.
Is the government in its second term in office showing its new hands – no friends, no foes, and anyone who falls into the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) net can be convicted and will serve jail term and suffer punishment?
Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Shehu Malami said on December 19, 2019, that 22 ex-governors are under probe or on trial. This is in addition to many high-level officials and political heavyweights who are being investigated or facing criminal charges. Are the graft fighting arms of government, especially the EFCC, more proficient and more certain of their abilities to get convictions in courts hence they are emboldened? Will more billionaires go to jail?
The legal defence squad of billionaires who face criminal charges in Nigeria has demonstrated over the years its ability to stall the legal process, frustrate and ultimately overcome the prosecution in most situations. The Administration of Criminal Justice Act, a recent law, is credited by some legal analysts as having equipped prosecution with more capability to limit the technical manoeuvering that draws out cases sometimes for decades, defeating and making nonsense of trials. Will the use of the Act strengthen the administration of justice and encourage upright judges to determine cases within a reasonable time?
Are various arms of government, especially the executive and judiciary listening more attentively to the cries of the general public who are daily being scammed by their elected leaders?
And by confiscating the gains of crimes through forfeitures of large assets, is the judiciary waking up to the reality that political criminals even when convicted live a sumptuous, obscenely wealthy lifestyle after jail? That the fruits of a crime stay with the criminals rather than return to the people whose life is diminished by corruption?
We should also not forget to ask: Do we as a society contribute to creating many fraudulent and criminal billionaires? A system that makes it imperative to have many millions and even billions of Naira to run for election in any political position has created political commerce from which “investors” must recoup their capital and ensure quick returns whilst in office.
When billionaires go to jail, there is often dancing in the streets. The real joy, however, lies in people reaping fruits of democracy through a vast, noticeable improvement in the lives of ordinary people. A change of ways by governors and political leaders towards a life of service and commitment to reducing poverty in the land is a worthwhile goal.
Then, fewer billionaires will end up in jail.
Bunmi Makinwa is CEO of AUNIQUEI Communication for Leadership.