Justice Abubakar Talba, the Federal High Court, Abuja, judge who sentenced John Yusufu, former director in the Police Pension Office, to two years in prison with an option of N250,000 fine on each of the three counts, breached an agreement reached by parties in the case.
In the controversial ruling delivered on January 28, Mr. Talba sentenced Yusufu, who pleaded guilty to three of 20 counts charges bordering on embezzlement of over N23 billion, to two years in prison but gave the accused person an option of fine. The ruling drew anger from many Nigerians, including legal experts, who believe that granting an option of fine for such a monumental fraud would encourage corruption by public officers.
But Justice Talba’s judgment equally shocked parties in the case, particularly the prosecution team. According to some source, the prosecution and defense lawyers actually had an agreement on specific outcomes of the case which included a custodian sentence which was breached by the judge. Mr. Yusufu, it was learnt, had approached officials of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC who investigated the embezzlement case against him and others seeking a deal.
The accused person’s offer was that he be made a prosecution witness. He promised to expose all the rot that had gone on at the Police Pension Office for years and testify against his former colleagues for a deal that would ostensibly free him. However, the EFCC did not take the bait, arguing that its investigations had been so thorough that it had unearthed all that transpired in the pension office. It argued further that Mr. Yusufu had been neck deep in the criminal diversion of pensioners' funds to be let free.
However, Mr. Yusufu and his lawyers came up with another offer, a plea bargain deal which would entail him pleading guilty to lesser charges in order to get a light sentence. When the EFCC and its lawyers were approached with the deal, the commission insisted that two conditions being met. First, it said that Yusufu had to give full disclosure of his assets and forfeit everything he had acquired with the money he got from pension funds. Also, the commission and its legal team insisted that the accused person must receive custodian sentence, meaning that he had to spend some time in jail.
A source in the commission said that the anti-graft agency considered the plea bargain deal because if it could get Mr. Yusufu to agree to voluntarily declare and forfeit his ill-gotten assets, it would save it time and resources. Besides, the commission reasoned, if it could get one of the pension thieves to plead guilty, it would strengthen the case against the others who had pleaded not guilty. In any case, prosecutors and investigators also reasoned, a key goal of the whole case was to retrieve what had been stolen, so it was fine by them if Mr. Yusufu was offering to relinquish his loot willingly.
On its part, the defense team agreed to these conditions but pleaded that the accused person be charged with lesser offences that would carry minimal sentence. That was why Mr. Yusufu was charged under Section 309 of the Penal code, the maximum sentence of which is two years in jail. Our source disclosed that when the two parties reached an agreement on the details of the deal, they approached Justice Talba. Although no formal agreement was written or signed by any of the parties, the two side agreed with the judge that first, the accused person would declare and forfeit all assets he acquired with proceeds of the funds he stole.
Secondly, the parties agreed that he would be given custodian sentence with no option of fine. The EFCC lawyers were very insistent on this, arguing that in spite of the plea bargain, the accused must serve a jail term to serve as deterrent to others. It was however left to the discretion of the judge whether to apply the maximum sentence of two years or not. However, prosecution lawyers were shocked on February 28 as the judge sentenced Mr. Yusufu to the maximum of two years in prison but with an option of fine which was not in the agreement.
Some in the prosecution team alleged that Mr. Yusufu and his lawyers went behind to "induce" the judge to give him an option of fine. After his sentencing, Mr. Yusuf drove home a free man after paying the total of N750 imposed on him by the judge. However, the convict was mistaken if he thought he had succeeded in playing a fast one on the prosecution and the EFCC. What he did not know was that investigators had discovered that he did not make full disclosure of his assets and finances as an account controlled by him was discovered. He was discovered to own a company, SY-AGlobal Services Limited, into which he had kept N250 million. Two other account controlled by him were also found containing N29 million and N10million.
Based on this, Mr. Yusufu was rearrested the next day after he gained his dubious freedom and slammed with a four – count charge of false declaration of assets before Justice Adamu Bello of the Federal High Court, Abuja. Under the EFCC (establishment) Act 2004, the new charge against Mr. Yusufu carries a five years prison sentence without any option of fine.
Section 27 (30 of the Act states: "Any Person who – (a) knowingly fails to make full disclosure of his assets and liabilities; or (b) knowingly makes a declaration that is false; or (c) fails, neglects or refuses to make a declaration or furnishes any information required, in the Declaration of Assets Form; commits an offence under this Act and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of five years."
Justice Bello ordered the accused person to be remanded in Kuje prison pending the March 1 date for commencement of trial.