There must be consequences
Our legal system, including our criminal jurisprudence, like most countries in the Commonwealth, was handed down to us by the British. This system of law is generally referred to as “Common Law” and countries that practice it are referred to as Common Law jurisdictions. In most CLJs, crimes are punished to achieve the following purposes:
Retribution – that punishment must be the convict’s “just desserts” for committing a crime. In other words, the punishment meted out to the convict should be commensurate with the offence committed.
Deterrence – that punishment should discourage the convict from repeating the offence, and also serve as a disincentive to the community at large
Rehabilitation – that a component of punishment should be attempting to give the convict a different philosophy to life, such that he does not even want to commit the offence again.
Incapacitation – that, in appropriate cases, offenders who are too dangerous be removed from society, ostensibly to the benefit of the society.
These objectives are the result of the thinking and consensus over time, of the great philosophers that shaped how modern society views the functions of its various parts. The underlying idea here is that for a society to be one in which, maybe peace, but certainly justice, reigns, if people were found to have committed wrongs, punishment had to be meted out to achieve one of these purposes. The aim of punishment by the State was to achieve justice.
On the flip side, the inference is that if there are no consequences for doing wrong, there is no justice. Before the State took over the functions of dispensing justice, people sought retribution on a personal level. If, for example, a man felt his honour had been impugned, he would challenge the impugner to a duel and the last man standing would be accepted as right. If a man’s livestock was stolen by another, that other was a marked man and would probably lose his life. If the current system that provides for trials for libel and slander, or for stealing, are no longer effective, what is the incentive of the average person who is wronged to leave the matter of justice to the State? If there is no consequence for doing wrong, is it the reasonable expectation that more people will do wrong, or fewer? Even the Good Book says that when a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong.
The strongest positive that was associated with General Muhammadu Buhari, our president, in his many attempts at becoming president, was that he could not abide with corruption. Since his election almost two years ago, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the State Security Service have intermittently announced the discovery or recovery of vast sums of money from serving or former public officials. Convicting them has challenging so far. Procedural challenges, withdrawal and reinstitution of varied charges and, according to some judges, less than competent and diligent prosecution of the cases mean we still don’t know if it pays to steal in public office or not.
There have been reports of a few of the accused persons agreeing to voluntarily ‘return’ or ‘forfeit’ certain amounts to the government, ostensibly as part of some plea-bargaining arrangement or the other, who yet walk about freely. This is a most peculiar type of plea bargaining arrangement as it seems to suggest that funds can be returned without an admission of guilt to any degree. Usually a plea bargain (the clue is in the word “plea”) is the accused person pleading guilty to a lesser offence than accused with, in exchange for a reduced sentence. No consequences for voluntarily returning stolen loot, it seems.
There have also been no consequences so far for the IDP grass-evacuation debacle where, despite several red flags raised by the Senate’s investigations, the President relied on technicalities and refused to examine the report on its merit. This past week, a prosecutor of international repute withdrew from a high-profile prosecution, allegedly in protest at the uneven handedness with which he felt the cases was being treated by the nation’s prosecutorial hierarchy. In a working judicial system, as President Trump has recently been made aware, all people should be guaranteed due process regardless of where they come from. Consequences must apply evenly, if they are to achieve justice.
There is also the issue of our own indigenous philosophies. Growing up, my generation learnt in social studies and in our literature texts how our pre-colonial societies delivered a form of the justice of consequences by ostracising those who broke with accepted mores. It was impossible for a thief to be an honourable member of society. Not so much, these days. A certain political leader in the South West, before his conviction was quashed by the Supreme Court, on completing his sentence was welcomed with rapturous ovation and a thanksgiving service. Similarly, perhaps on a larger scale, a former governor of one of our Niger-Delta states also received a hero’s homecoming on the completion of his term of imprisonment.
After the law runs its course, if convicted people can return to with their social currency intact, then their punishments are more likely to be seen as a small price to pay for the legitimisation of what the State was unable to recover, than as a deterrent to others. If we are “to build a nation where peace and justice shall reign”, and if the entire point of the war on corruption is to significantly reduce corruption, there must be consequences – real legal consequences – for those whose actions have violated our laws during their time as public officers.