Crime and Punishment in Nigeria, By Olusegun Adeniyi

Posted by News Express | 30 July 2015 | 12,081 times

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Because I would be driving to the airport last Friday morning and I was not sure the fuel in my car would take me there, I decided on Thursday evening to buy fuel from the black market. So I drove to the road linking Asokoro to Garki by Area 11 where many young “fuel merchants” were waiting. After much haggling, I eventually struck a bargain with three boys who agreed to accept N5,000 for a jerry can of 30 litres. That would translate into around N167 per litre (as against the official N87 per litre which you can hardly get anywhere in Nigeria today) but I considered it a fair deal in the circumstance.

Having been told that they were being hunted by policemen, the boys begged me to drive into a poorly lit corner of the road. Notwithstanding that I was a bit apprehensive, I felt that the boys were mere hustlers and not necessarily criminals out to harm me so I obliged their request. Even when they took a while to bring the fuel from where they kept it, I still waited. When they eventually appeared, there was a sense of unease about them that worried me. “Why are you looking scared?” I asked. One of them responded: “The police people are always after us and they have arrested many of our people.”

Although I kept asking questions, wanting to know more about the nature of their trade and the inherent risks, it was evident that they were more in a hurry to conclude their business, collect their money and go. But with almost three-quarter of the fuel discharged into my car, a pick-up van drove in almost from nowhere as seven gun-wielding policemen jumped out of the vehicle to engage the boys in what became a hot pursuit in different directions. With the police vehicle packed beside my car, I saw no fewer than 30 jerry cans of different sizes, filled with petrol which I presumed were seized from the boys selling at black market.

I decided to hang around because I had not paid for the fuel but since the police vehicle also refused to move, the boys never returned. The period of my waiting provided me ample time to reflect on what had just happened. The first question for me was whether it is a crime to be selling fuel at the black market. That question comes against the background that the boys were merely taking advantage of a problem they did not create (and in the process meeting the need of those of us who have neither the time nor the temperament to spend a whole day at fuel station). But it is a hazardous job because one of them was shot dead last month at the intersection between Maitama and Wuse in Abuja during one of such raids. Yet, these basically are young boys who live on the margins of society and cannot be held accountable for the fuel scarcity that has become our lot as a people.

Besides, assuming what the boys were doing was criminal, how many of such people have been arraigned in court in Nigeria? None! Since many of them are arrested every day, it means that their cases usually end up in police stations where they either pay to regain their freedom or are dumped there to swell the list of detained people. A corollary to that is the issue of the “exhibit”. What happens to the fuel usually seized from those boys? Do the police and other security outfits like the Civil Defence Corps whose men also pursue the boys have the right to deploy for their own use “proceeds of crime”, if we assume that selling black market is a crime in Nigeria?

That now brings me to the most important issue. As I watched the drama and waited, I expected to be accosted by the policemen when they returned to their vehicle. If by selling fuel at black market rate, the boys were committing a crime, the implication would be that the person also buying such product should be deemed to be committing a crime also. But the policemen didn’t bother about me as they entered their vehicle to wait. After a while when it occurred to me that they would not leave, I had to drive off. 

Now, as I reflect on that incident and the enthusiasm with which the policemen pursued those boys, I cannot but wonder about how we have come to a situation in which the laws (including the ones that may not be in any statutes book) are made only for the poor. The message from the episode was simple: While those boys were pursued like common felons, I (as the big man in the scenario) was left alone because I was deemed to be above the law, even if the crime was an invented one. That unfortunately depicts the story of Nigeria where there is one set of laws for the rich and another set for the poor. And the problem goes even beyond the police to the courts.

Indeed, nothing demonstrates this as graphically as two contrasting verdicts delivered within an interval of five days in January 2013 – one in Abeokuta, Ogun State, and the other in Abuja. In Abeokuta, a magistrate court sentenced a 49-year-old man by name Mustapha Adesina to two years in prison for stealing vegetables valued at N5,000. But five days later in Abuja, a former director of the Police Pension Board, Mr. John Yusuf, who admitted to stealing N2 billion in the N32.8 billion police pension scam, was sentenced to two-year imprisonment with an option of N750,000 fine. From media reports, the man practically dipped his hands into his babanriga, paid his fine and was driven home in an SUV, perhaps with some drummers in tow!

In fact, no case has exemplified the rot in the Nigerian justice system than that of the pension scam. As at the time the man at the centre of the whole tragedy was declared wanted both by the police and the Senate for allegedly stealing several billions of naira belonging to police pensioners, he was being driven around, including into Aso Rock then, in a long convoy of vehicles with contingents of policemen to guard him. That character, a mere assistant director in the civil service who absconded from duty, is now back in circulation and given the way we are in Nigeria, could even become the Minister of Police Affairs tomorrow! The question therefore is: how can such a system dispense justice?

For sure, I have no problem with the police chasing those who steal chicken and vegetables in the market or those who sell fuel by the roadsides, assuming that is also a crime. But if the police expend a little of that energy checkmating the big men and women who conspire to steal, almost on a daily basis, about 250,000 barrels of Nigerian crude oil or their “petty cousins” who divert tanker loads of petrol from their designated depots, our society would be a better place for all of us, including them.

However, in all of us this, it is President Muhammadu Buhari that worries me. The thinking that he (with his military background and reputation as a no-nonsense man) would restore order while his deputy (also with his academic and professional background as well as reputation for standing by what is right) would help with the law aspect remains no more than mere speculations 62 clear days after they were sworn in. That perhaps explains why the criminal cartels that help themselves to our crude oil are still in business, as revealed by the president himself last week.

Ordinarily, the two most critical appointments any President makes on assumption of office are that of Finance and Justice/Attorney General but President Buhari has given no indication yet that he is ready to name such officials. In fact, he has told Nigerians that we have almost two more months to wait before he makes the appointments. This then raises questions about his recent United States trip since there was no Nigerian team in these two critical areas to engage their American counterparts. We see the same situation at home where the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Mr Godwin Emefiele, is practically left to run both monetary and fiscal policies in an economy that was already in serious trouble even before the change of guards in Aso Rock.

I know this is a touchy issue because one of President Buhari’s spokesmen said recently that it is politicians who are looking for jobs that are using journalists to raise the issue of critical appointments. But Nigerians will not be blackmailed into silence on what affects them. There is no law compelling the president to appoint all his ministers at once and I would want to believe that he cannot still be thinking of who to appoint as his finance minister, chief economic adviser, chief of staff, etc., more than four months after his election which, for the first time in our history, was not even challenged in court. Even the 15 advisers approved for him by the 7th Senate in the first week of June have not been appointed except for the NSA and that of Media while he runs his administration without a policy orientation in any sector, which is almost akin to piloting a jumbo jet full of passengers without a compass or GPS.

Today, the gap between the official rate of the Naira to a Dollar and that of the black market rate is almost N50. That is a tidy sum of money to play with by anybody with some measure of connection in a nation where rent seeking is the order of the day. In the downstream sector of the oil and gas industry, it is the same: with an official rate of N87 per litre at a time many Nigerians buy a litre of the product for between N100 and N150. When you create such perverse incentives for malpractices, even if the citizens are paragons of virtue, you are likely to breed more criminals than you can deal with. That is the story of Nigeria today.   

Meanwhile, in their reaction to my piece of last week, The Multi-billion Naira Fuel Bazaar, a management staff of Mobil Nigeria Limited (reported to have diverted five trucks of PMS) called to explain their side of the story. He said the letter the company actually got from the PPMC was that six trucks were diverted and they have sent an official reply to dispute the allegation. Even if Mobil is correct (and I take their word for it), the issue here is the system that allows some operators to engage in such diversions. It is going on because those involved know that there would be no consequences for their action since the police are more interested in pursuing the “retailers” who sell such products by the roadside than the “wholesalers” who are deemed to be above the law.

To the extent that the embarrassing inequality that we have in our system today is the product of a justice administration that places those who ordinarily should be in jail (crooks, paedophiles, plain thieves and sundry others) above the rest of society, the task ahead is very daunting. And as I have stated repeatedly, I sympathise with President Buhari because of the accumulated mess he is inheriting for which there are no easy solutions. But he will succeed only if he realises that he cannot do the job alone. He must therefore learn to find the right people in every sector, especially in justice administration and economic management. And he must quickly put such team in place so that they can begin what will be a most difficult but important task, for the restoration of our country. 

•This piece by Adeniyi (shown in photo) originally appeared in his column “The Verdict” in today’s edition of ThisDay. Adeniyi can be reached via

Source: News Express

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