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Sending a warning: Former Nigerian governor gets five-year sentence for corruption

The conviction of Bala James Ngilari, a former governor of Adamawa state in Nigeria, by the Yola high court, presided over by Justice Nathan Musa, might portend an end to the common belief that most senior government officials can misappropriate public funds without any accompanying punishment.

Nigeria’s 36 state governors are powerful. Not only do they count among the most powerful politicians in Africa’s most populous country, but they also have a say in who gets to pick presidential tickets and who gets ministerial appointments and other top federal positions.

These governors control budgets larger than those of smaller African nations, and they travel around the country with an entourage that includes heavily armed police officers, a fleet of bulletproof Range Rovers and, sometimes, depending on the occasion or circumstances, plain-clothed security personnel in black suits and dark-coloured sunglasses, all sporting the obligatory unblinking, expressionlessvisage.

Misappropriation cripples a nation

All governors belong to theinfluential body known as the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, and they equally receive tens of thousands of dollars in the form of ‘security votes’from the federal government – another form of misappropriation that has crippled the nation since the days of military rule.

Governors receive tens of thousands of dollars in the form of ‘security votes’ from the federal government – another form of misappropriation that has crippled the nation since the days of military rule.

But governors are not always all powerful, ifwe judge by the events of 6 March 2107,when a high court sitting in Yola, the capital of north-eastern Adamawa State, convicted and jailed a former state governor for corruption.

File photo: Anti corruption march, South Africa Photo: BBC

Bala James Ngilari, who was the governor of Adamawa state for seven months until May 2015,was found guilty of the corruption charge filed against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in September last year.

Not many Nigerians followed the case closely because the conviction of a senior government official on charges of corruption is a rarity. But Justice Nathan Musa showed that he could see past position, status or political clout when he handed down a five-year jail term without the option of a fine to Mr Ngilari for improperly awarding a contract to purchaseabout 25 vehicles at a cost of about N167 million without following due process.

Ngilari’s ascendency to the position of governor followed a dramatic turn of events in July 2014, after Governor Murtala Nyako was impeached by the Adamawa State House of Assembly for alleged corruption. Then the deputy governor, Ngilari voluntarily resigned before the House could impeach him along with Nyako. After the impeachment, he simply filed a case in court, contesting that he did not resign as stipulated by the constitution and asked a federal high court in Nigeria’s capital,Abuja, to swear him in as the substantive governor of the state.

Africa has “a serious corruption problem” Photo: anticorruption-intl.org

The court heard his pleas and Ngilari was sworn in as the governor of the state in early October 2014. Amid cheers and chants of victory, he went on to promise that he would run an open and transparent government. However, he never made good on his promise during his seven-month stint as governor, which ended in 2015.

His conviction by Justice Nathan Musa might signal an end to the widely held belief that senior government officials can misappropriate public funds and get away with it.

Ngilari has become the first governor to be jailed in Nigeria since the country transitioned from several years of military rule to democracy in 1999. His five-year imprisonment sentence is significant and momentous, especially as he is the first top political figure to be successfully prosecuted.

Since President Muhammadu Buhari took office in May 2015 and promised to rid Nigeria of corruption and waste, no senior government official has been successfully prosecuted.

Since President Muhammadu Buhari took office in May 2015 and promised to rid Nigeria of corruption and waste, no senior government official has been successfully prosecuted.

Transparency International’s map of Sub-Saharan Africa depicts “a situation of endemic corruption.” Image: transparency.org

Though the former governor of the southern Delta State, James Ibori, served half of a 13-year jail term for corruption, he did that in a British prison, following his conviction by British prosecutors. Mr Ibori returned to Nigeria in February 2017 and has promised to remain politically active.

Court backlogs cause delays in sentencing

The Nigerian judiciary is bedevilled by a backlog of cases and courts take ages to reach final decisions on major cases. However, Ngilari’s circumstances where different – his trial lasted only about five months.

Corruption is often blamed for the slow development and progress of most African countries because it destroys investor confidence and stifles economic prosperity.

Corruption is often blamed for the slow development and progress of most African countries, especially Nigeria, because it destroys investor confidence and stifles economic prosperity.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is reportedly investigating about 10 former governors of the 36 states in the country.

The commission has also brought charges against former President Goodluck Jonathan’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Col. Sambo Dasuki, who diverted USD2,1 billion that had been allocated for the procurement of arms to fight Boko Haram.

Justice Musa said Ngilari would start serving the sentence from the Yola prison and added that the conviction would serve as a warning to other governors who do not follow due process in obedience to the law.

When imposing the minimum sentence of five years, Justice Nathan Musa said, “It is my hope that this conviction and sentence will serve as a deterrent to serving governors.”

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