Describing the January 2013 decision of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory in Abuja, which initially sentenced the pension thief to two years’ imprisonment with an option of N750,000 as a mere slap on the wrist, the Nigerian Supreme Court, on Wednesday, upheld a sentence of six years jail term together with N22.9 billion fine for an official, John Yusufu Yakubu, who stole N25 billion from the Nigeria Police Pension Fund.
A five-member panel of the Supreme Court Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeal in Abuja which imposed the sentence in 2018, agreeing with the N22.9 billion fine added to six years jail term.
Justice Tijjani Abubakar, who read the Supreme Court’s lead judgement, said: “It must be made clear that victims are entitled to be compensated,” adding, “I fully endorse the judgement of the lower court.”
Justice Abubakar said the sentence imposed by the High Court was paltry and insignificant
“Considering the humongous amount stolen, the nature and gravity of the crime and its destructive effect on the country and its impact on retired police officers and the grave breach of public trust, a severe sentence that would deter the further commission of such a crime and prevent the convict from retaining any part of what he stole to avoid him obtaining financial benefit from his crime should be imposed,” Justice Abubakar said, echoing the words of the Court of Appeal on the case.
Supreme Court Justice Emmanuel Agim, who had prepared the Court of Appeal’s lead decision in 2018, was seated beside Justice Abubakar, although he was not a part of the Supreme Court’s panel that decided Yakubu’s case.
Mr John Yusufu Yakubu, a former official of the Police Pension, in 2013, pleaded guilty to stealing from the pension fund of the Nigeria Police, but walked free after paying a paltry N750,000 fine imposed by the trial court, under a plea bargain deal.
He was the only one among other defendants who pleaded guilty to three of the counts filed against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
The trial judge, Abubakar Talba, then of the FCT High Court in Gudu, Abuja, had in his judgement delivered on January 28, 2013, sentenced Mr Yakubu to two years’ imprisonment with an option of an N750,000 fine.
The judgement was widely criticised for imposing the light sentence seen as disproportionate to the gravity of the offence.
EFCC’s prosecutor, Rotimi Jacobs, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, also fumed against the verdict, accusing the court of departing from the plea agreement which he said included a mandatory prison sentence.
The National Judicial Council (NJC), spurred by the public outcry against the judgement, suspended Mr Talba for one year. However, Justice Talba was elevated to the Court of Appeal, a few years later.
Following an appeal by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Court of Appeal in Abuja quashed the sentence given by the High Court and replaced it with six years’ imprisonment in addition to an order for the convict to refund N22.9 billion to the public treasury.
In the decision delivered on March 21, 2018, the Court of Appeal held that “the sentences levied” by the High Court “are light and lenient ones.”
Emmanuel Agim, who read the lead judgement of the three-member panel of the Court of Appeal, noted that the convict admitted to misappropriating or stealing N24 billion but was given the option to pay a fine of N750,000 fine for him to enjoy the huge balance he had in his possession.
“The theft or misappropriation of over N24billion of that fund would make the prompt payment of monthly pensions to retired police officers very difficult, if not impossible, with attendant hardship and suffering inflicted on such retired officers who rely on their monthly pensions as their only means or source of sustenance in retirement.”
He also noted that the offence “has become habitual and widespread amongst government officials in pensions departments of government whose duties are to be in the custody of pension funds and process the payment of gratuities, monthly pensions and other retirement benefits to retired public servants.”
He ordered that the sentences shall run consecutively, meaning that the convict would spend the cumulative six years in jail.