In a few weeks from now, the much trumpeted trial of former public office holders suspected to have used their positions to steal public funds will begin in earnest. President Muhammadu Buhari said on Tuesday, August 11, 2015, when he received members of the National Peace Committee, headed by General Abdulsalam Abubakar, retd, a former head of state, at the Presidential Villa, that Nigerians would soon know names of those who had short changed them as they are soon to be arraigned.
Since assumption of duties as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, Buhari has not hidden his intention to take steps that would lead to the recovery of the country’s stolen funds. A few weeks ago, he told the nation that some of the stolen funds had been traced to some overseas banks and that some of the suspected culprits were also involved in frantic efforts to move the funds around. Last week’s indication that the arraignment and trial would start soon was a continuation of the public enlightenment on an action that has generated a lot of tension and controversy across political party divide.
In some quarters, and that includes members of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, the exercise is seen more as a witch-hunt of those who served in the former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. President Buhari’s decision that only those who served in the administration of President Jonathan would be probed has lent credence to that suspicion. Despite its obvious popularity, the suggestion that the probe be extended to the administrations before that of Jonathan has been rejected. President Buhari is determined to push ahead with his plan of limiting the exercise only to the administration that he succeeded.
This has left many apostles of a more extensive probe with no option than to wish that President Buhari would ensure that the suspects get the opportunity of an open and fair trial. That was the message that the National Peace Committee took to President Buhari during the visit of its members last week. It pleaded with President Buhari to ensure that the procedure for the trials followed due process. The committee reminded the President that Nigeria was no longer under a military dispensation and that the rules must apply in all the cases to be brought up for trial.
The PDP whose members are likely to constitute a greater part of the crowd of those to be arraigned has also called for fairness and due process. That message is particularly important given the President’s antecedent as a former military head of state who ruled with iron hand and sent many people to jail without proper trial after the sacking of the Second Republic. The insistence on fairness and due process should not be seen by the government as partisan but as an essential ingredient that would accord credibility to the exercise.
Despite the reservations being expressed by a few Nigerians, the idea of recovering the nation’s stolen funds obviously enjoys the support of most people. It is also encouraging that some friendly foreign countries, particularly those whose financial institutions are habouring these stolen funds, have promised to help in the recovery process. We urge the President Buhari administration to take advantage of these promises to do a good and unbiased job of the recovery. His argument in support of the recovery exercise makes a whole lot of sense. The exercise, he has said repeatedly, is aimed at putting a stop to impunity, fiscal recklessness and lack of accountability by those who were given the opportunity to serve the nation. These unhealthy traits played the very unfortunate role of aiding the destruction of the nation’s economy. We agree that they must be tackled. But we also insist it should be done within the ambits of the nation’s laws.
Many Nigerians still do not believe that Buhari’s avowed embrace of democratic principles and the rule of law is a product of deep personal conviction and real, hence the groundswell of public apprehension about the trials. This may not be completely true of Buhari who is the elected President of Nigeria today. But Nigerians need to be convinced that he has truly changed. The planned trial of suspected corrupt former government officials provides the opportunity the President needs to prove sceptics wrong. He should not let that opportunity slip.
The rules of procedure for the trials should be clearly stated and explained from the outset. These must also be in tandem with the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution and other existing laws on financial crimes. The judgements should be reasonably fair and penalties not as outlandish as they were during the trials of Second Republic politicians. The emphasis of this exercise should rather be on the recovery of stolen funds, where such cases are properly established, and not long prison terms. In addition, the procedure should make adequate room for appeal against sentences that may be handed out against those sentenced.