Ex-NIMASA DG’s conviction: A slap on the wrist

FORMER acting Director General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Mr. Calistus Nwabueze Obi, was recently sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment by a Federal High Court in Lagos State under Justice Mojisola Olatoregun. The court found him guilty of conspiring with one Dismal Alu Adoon using two firms, Grand Pact Limited and Global Sea Investment, to convert N225 million belonging to NIMASA to personal use. The court also imposed N10 million fine on the two firms. Obi, a former  Executive Director, Maritime Labour and Cabotage Service at NIMASA, took over from Dr. Patrick Akpobolokemi as the Director General in acting capacity. Akpobolokemi is currently facing five separate charges of fraud and theft.

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Apparently, Obi was appointed ostensibly to sanitise and cleanse an agency that had more or less become a nest of sleaze, but he too got into a position of authority and began to line his pockets in cahoots with other criminals of his ilk. This is treachery and criminal betrayal of trust. Against this backdrop, it was expected that after the trial judge had admitted that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had proved its case against the convicts beyond reasonable doubt, the sentence should have been of the maximum hue. But what the judge handed down is tantamount to a slap on the wrist. Provision was even made in the sentence for an option of fine on the ground that the prisons are congested! It is a shame and an outright disservice that heavier sanction from the grid which could have served the purpose deterrence was not meted out to the public thieves.

Curiously, prison congestion has suddenly become a sufficient reason to let one or two big fishes off the hook whereas cognisance is hardly ever given to this obvious incapacity when small fries are involved. It seems that Nigerians on the lower rungs do not qualify for such consideration on the basis of prison congestion.  As it turned out, the unpatriotic public officials whose insidious activities contributed in one way or the other to the general incapacity and degeneration of facilities within the system are the ones benefiting from such sordid state of affairs. That is ironic and most unfortunate. The country needed to send a strong message to public thieves and the opportunity was provided by the EFCC’s unusual deft handling of the convicts’ case but that message was not sent by the kind of light punishment that the court administered.  And as if the prosecuting counsel of the EFCC, Rotimi Oyedepo, had envisaged what was coming, he had passionately pleaded with the judge after the conviction, but before sentencing, to impose the maximum punishment prescribed by the law on the convicts.

He argued that Section 15(3) of the money laundering (Prohibition) Act, which the convicts violated, prescribed a maximum of 14 years for offenders and a minimum of seven years based on the judge’s discretion as permitted by law. But somehow, the judge chose the minimum sentence even when the convicts failed to take legitimate actions that could have swayed him to exercise his discretion in their favour. For instance, the convicts allowed the judge to go through the rigour of full-fledged trial instead of opting for plea bargain at the start of the trial. Indeed, at the close of prosecution’s case on November 11, 2016, the convicts actually filed a no-case submission, claiming that there was no prima facie case against them. Such convicts do not come across as the penitent or remorseful type that should have been favoured in the exercise of the discretionary power of the judicial officer.  But that is what has happened and the signal is wrong and dangerous.

The public service and the civil service in the country are reputed to be inherently corrupt. It is believed in many quarters that the cacophony often generated by cases of politicians’ malfeasance tends to obfuscate the rot in the civil service where far more monumental and systematic sleaze is deeply entrenched. In  the circumstance, it is imperative that  anyone whose  hand is caught in the cookie jar should not only be shamed but also made to  face sanctions that are commensurate with the intensity of their betrayal. And most importantly, the punishment  should be heavy enough to  prevent or deter potential criminals from replicating such ignoble action. But where confirmed criminals who plundered citizens’ collective patrimony are given a slap on the wrist by way of sentences so light as to approximate impunity, the essence of deterrence is totally defeated.  Yes, conviction is a stain in the public record of any convict but that only counts for much in a clime where people have a sense of shame, not in an environment where confirmed public thieves are rewarded for their dishonourable actions in palaces, mosques and churches.

We strongly urge judicial officers in the land to always endeavour to exercise their discretionary powers in favour of the society, especially in corruption cases and in situations where the prosecution has charged the suspects under the appropriate codes. The judges can perform this patriotic duty within the precincts of the law; all it takes is special but lawful  consideration for the society while making judicial pronouncements in order to  rein in the activities of criminals, especially the corrupt elements within the civil and public service.