When news of the arrest of Dibu Ojerinde, former registrar of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), was reported 12 days ago, everyone was shocked. The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) that announced the detention alleged that the man was questioned in connection with a N900 million fraud. Other allegations the ICPC made against Ojerinde included the use of multiple identities, abuse of office, money laundering, tax evasion and giving false statements to public officials.
The allegations are mindboggling and difficult to comprehend, particularly in the context of the high positions of authority and public trust that Ojerinde enjoyed. Regardless of the uproar over the accusations, it is important to note that Ojerinde has not yet been tried in a court of law and he has not had an opportunity to defend himself. In our legal system, everyone is considered innocent of allegations brought against them until they have been tried and convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction. The rule of law is paramount.
There are sound reasons why you should hold your horses in this case. Anti-crime agencies in Nigeria have a track record of pretending to be prosecutor, witness and judge whenever they arrest people suspected to have committed crimes. They are always quick to address press conferences in which they parade accused persons and make outlandish claims about the culpability of the suspects. However, the allegations often crumble when the accused are tried in a court of law.
There is a difference between allegations made against people by law enforcement officials and guilty verdict delivered by a court of law. An accused person is not automatically a convicted person. These clarifications are necessary because of the misleading impression that accused persons named and paraded by the police, for example, are already guilty. Parading crime suspects in a public space or before the media denies them their right to be presumed innocent of a crime. That practice tarnishes the image of suspects with the tarbrush of infamy.
I have no intention to hold brief for Ojerinde. I do not know him and have never interacted or communicated with him in any capacity. Nevertheless, it is always a good idea to grant every suspect the benefit of the doubt until they have been cleared or found guilty by a court of law.
An important question to ask is: What if the evidence on which Ojerinde was arrested is found to be defective or flawed? In every criminal trial, evidence is crucial. Taking a crime suspect to court and expecting conviction without unimpeachable evidence is like boiling an empty pot and expecting to produce rice. That is not how our legal system operates.
Over the past four years, some senior public officials were apprehended on grounds of corrupt practices. Remarkably, a majority of the suspects were acquitted by the courts owing to lack of evidence. This raises the question: Did anti-corruption agencies, such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the ICPC conduct detailed and methodical investigations prior to the arrest of suspects?
Acquittal of people arrested on charges of corruption over the years by the high courts has turned the government’s so-called anti-corruption war into a tragicomedy. Between the inauguration of the government in 2015 and now, that campaign has been sufficiently stuffed with hilarious elements that made people to laugh, as well as aspects that raised serious questions over the government’s commitment to its campaign against corruption.
There is something infinitely wrong with the way people are picked up arbitrarily on allegations of corruption and driven to court premises, with or without compelling evidence of corruption. What is the point of arresting and presenting suspects publicly based on predetermined, wacky, flawed and untested evidence of corruption? Scrupulous investigations ought to precede the arrest and trial of people suspected of corrupt practices.
Approximately four years ago, some high-profile Nigerians were arrested on charges of corruption but were almost immediately freed by the courts because the ICPC, the EFCC and other agencies did not do their work properly. Consider the following cases: In 2017, a Court of Appeal in Lagos reversed a five-year conviction of Raymond Omatseye, former director-general of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA). He was previously tried on a 24-count charge of contract splitting. He was arrested and charged to court by the EFCC. Although Omatseye was on May 20, 2016, convicted by a Federal High Court in Lagos, the Court of Appeal acquitted him in May 2017.
In discharging Omatseye, Justice Yargata Nimpar, who presided over the Court of Appeal, said: “The judiciary will do the war on corruption more harm by declaring someone a criminal, where no offence has been committed.”
The question arises: Do anti-corruption agencies drag suspects to court on the ground that they might be lucky to secure conviction without strong evidence?
In another celebrated case, an Abuja Federal High Court judge, Justice Adeniyi Ademola, was freed in April 2017 by a High Court of the Federal Capital Territory of the 18-count charge of fraud brought against him, his wife (Olabowale) and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. All three were charged with fraudulently diverting large sums of money in local and foreign currencies, as well as possession of firearms, and engaging in illegal collection of money.
This was a case that attracted public interest and attention right from the beginning because of the high profile of Justice Ademola and his wife. His wife was a former Head of Service in Lagos State. Justice Ademola was one of the judges whose homes were ransacked by the Department of State Services in the middle of the night in October 2016. Ademola, his wife and the senior lawyer were acquitted because the court found the prosecution failed to produce convincing evidence. The court ruled it could not convict the defendants based on speculations. On that basis, the case collapsed.
In another case that exposed the substandard level of investigations conducted by the ICPC, an Abuja High Court, in April 2017, acquitted Elder Godsday Orubebe, former Minister of Niger-Delta Affairs, of a six-count charge brought by the ICPC against him. He was alleged to have been involved in a N1.97 billion contract scam. The case was crushed because the ICPC did not do a proper job of investigating the allegations before rushing to court to allege that Orubebe had diverted N1.96 billion that belonged to the ministry.
It was the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, who wrote to the chairperson of the ICPC in December 2016 to confirm that the N1.96 billion allegedly diverted by Orubebe had not yet been spent but was awaiting further decisions and directives from the Ministry of Niger-Delta Affairs. This was a case of wrongful accusation that damaged the integrity of the accused.
The case showed poor investigative skills by the prosecution. All these cases exposed the weak foundation on which the government’s anti-corruption war was mounted. It was a foundation constructed on soggy soil. The fight against corruption in Nigeria has to be sustained and hard-nosed. Corruption has damaged our moral character, investment opportunities in the country, national economic development, and the country’s profile in the international community.