James Ngilari: Justice so swift, curious
All it took Justice Nathan Musa of Federal High Court, Yola, Adamawa State, to convict and jail a former governor of the state, Bala James Ngilari, was five months. In the judgment that lasted one hour, fifteen minutes, Ngilari was found guilty of failing to adhere to the procurement laws of the state.
The speed at which the corruption trial was prosecuted and trial concluded is not only commendable, but also historical; being the first such conviction in a high profile prosecution of a former state chief executive.
Justice Musa, while returning a verdict of guilt against the former governor on four out of the five charges, made some telling statements.
First, the judge said what Ngilari did “amounted to executive lawlessness,” stressing that “the judgment would serve as a lesson to other governors who like to shun due process in the award of contracts.”
Then, he added that the convict has no option of fine, but was entitled to serving his five years’ concurrent term in any prison of his choice, with initial stay at the Yola prison. The quick consignment of former Governor James Bala Ngilari to prison in a dramatic fashion did much to re-echo the waltzing political intrigues that defined his ascension to the governorship, which lasted from October 1, 2014 through May 29, 2015.
With the background of events that preceded his inauguration as governor, after serving as deputy governor, the convict could be said to have been pushed into limelight by curious political developments.
In the buildup to the contentious 2015 general election, Presidency search light was beamed on Governor Murtala Nyako, Ngilari’s former principal; for not only allegations of corrupt practices, but also anti-party activities.
Nyako was impeached by the Adamawa State House of Assembly in July 2014. However, in a bid to escape similar fate befalling him, Ngilari was said to have resigned by handing his resignation letter to the then Speaker, Alhaji Ahmadu Umaru Finitri.
But, shortly after Ngilari went to court faulting his purported resignation and seeking the order of court to remove Finitri from office and install him as the legitimate beneficiary of the governorship seat from which Nyako was disabled.
The court was later to hold that Ngilari’s resignation was illegal, pointing out that the impeachment of Nyako did not damage the constitutional facility for Ngilari, as deputy governor, to step into the vacant office.
By May 29, 2015, when Ngilari served out his brief perch as governor, his successor was a product of the new political machination, the All Progressives Congress (APC). Although Governor Mohammed Jibrilla Bindow, had his own political scores to settle within the APC fold, the party saw a window of opportunity in the purchase of 25 official cars by Ngilari’s administration at the cost of N167m, to wave the banner of its anti-corruption manifesto.
In September 21, 2016, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), arrested Ngilari and charged him to court on a 17-count charge of conspiracy and abuse of due process in contract award in breach of the Public Procurement Act of the state.
While passing his judgment, Justice Musa expressed the “hope that this conviction and sentence will serve as deterrence to serving governors.” Was the conviction and sentence also an opportunity to teach Ngilari some political lessons or cudgel him for being clever in half by denying his former principal unlike other deputy governors that trailed their principal to the APC?
No matter how commendable the quick dispensary of the corruption case against the former Adamawa governor might be, there is no doubt that it has raised the dust of succession politics that preceded the 2015 election, both at the centre and in Adamawa, where former Vice President Atiku Abubakar is being stalked for his presidential ambition.
The crisscrossing from opposition to PDP and from APC to the former ruling party by some political actors in the state, no doubt exposed some political fries like Ngilari to crossfire. Could it be then that the ruling APC in the state, by facilitating the trial of the former brief governor wanted to use the convict as pawn in the unending power game in the state?
Sealing Ngilari’s fate in so short time when his former principal and other big accused former governors are still shuffling their suit along the corridors of justice, raises anew the charge that the anti-corruption inquest appears like, the more you look, the less you see.
There is no escaping such analogies when most Nigerians still wonder why no high profile corruption case had been determined in the nation’s courts, even as there are cases that have remained in the awaiting trail cause list for the past ten or more years.
It is also telling that Ngilari’s conviction did not pander to the option of fine or plea bargaining. This raises some new perspectives to the prosecution of corruption cases. Is the state, EFCC for that matter, more interested in showing evidence of good performance or the tracing of corrupt practices with a view to forestalling their perpetration?
In the absence of competitive bidding, was there any attempt to ascertain whether the market value of the 25 vehicles tallied with the total sum approved by Governor Ngilari and released from the state treasury? That question becomes apposite when viewed against the background of the practice by state governors to deploy surrogate companies and direct labour to undertake government jobs and services.
Although Ngilari and his legal counsel have announced their decision to subject the judgment to further examination at the appellate court, the cause of justice would be well served when it is transparent in its award of neither punishment nor freedom on the basis of unequal standards.
However, the conviction of the former Adamawa governor exposes the fault lines in the practice of Nigeria’s democracy which disposes state governors to act like demi-gods, dispensing favours and state resources at their whim.
What systemic imperfections made it possible for a sitting governor to purchase 25 vehicles without the assistance of his commissioners or any other functionary of the government? This also raises curious questions about the capacity of state lawmakers to hold the executive account through oversight.
At the end of the day, Nigerians would be interested to know whether the governor benefited directly or indirectly by his unilateral action.