Major conviction boosts anti-corruption hopes in Nigeria

Lagos (AFP) –


Nigerian lawyers and activists on Thursday welcomed the jailing of a former state governor for corruption, hoping it will set a precedent for a string of other high-profile suspects.

Jolly Nyame was sentenced to 14 years' jail on Wednesday for looting millions of dollars as governor of northeastern Taraba state between 1999 and 2007.

The judge at the court in Abuja condemned his crimes, which included inflated contracts for office equipment and stationery, "outright theft".

Nyame, a church pastor, was one of more than a dozen governors who left office in 2007.

They were questioned at the end of their tenures by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Theirs and dozens of other high-profile graft cases, some dating back to the early 2000s, are still before the courts, having been delayed by repeated adjournments.

But EFCC spokesman Wilson Uwujaren said Nyame's conviction would boost anti-corruption efforts and potentially help to speed up pending cases.

"There are a number of former governors still being prosecuted by the EFCC for corruption," he told AFP. "Some of the cases have progressed substantially.

"With the diligence of the EFCC in prosecuting these cases, hopefully the nation will witness more conviction of former political office holders."

- Revolution -

President Muhammadu Buhari, a no-nonsense former military ruler, has vowed to recover what he said were "mind-boggling" sums of public money looted by officials over decades.

The EFCC, the country's main anti-corruption agency, has been at the forefront of efforts to stamp out the practice, and has brought dozens of high-profile individuals to court.

But with many of them members of the former administration of Goodluck Jonathan and his Peoples Democratic Party, Buhari has been accused of conducting a political witchhunt.

He has also failed to secure a big-name conviction to date -- Nyame's prosecution began before he took office -- although his supporters counter critics by pointing to the sheer volume of cases currently being heard.

The conviction of Nyame and the renewed spotlight on the other outstanding cases from more than a decade ago indicate that corruption is not just a recent phenomenon.

Two years ago, Buhari's government claimed just 55 people stole more than $6 billion between 2006 and 2013.

Leading human rights lawyer Femi Falana said Nyame's case was significant and proved the worth of new legislation designed to eradicate "frivolous adjournments" and delaying tactics.

"In Nigeria the rich always connive with lawyers to frustrate their trials," he said, citing the example of James Ibori, the former governor of the oil-rich southern state of Delta.

He was acquitted in Nigeria of using stolen public money to buy luxury homes, top-of-the-range cars and a private jet.

But he was jailed for fraud in London in 2012 "because the English legal system could not be compromised", said Falana.

"But with the Administration of Criminal Justice Act that came into force in 2015, lawyers are no longer allowed to ask for a stay of proceedings to suspend trials," he added.

"You can no longer suspend your trials. This is a judicial revolution that has started and will see to other high-profile cases being concluded on time."

- Injustice -

Nigeria's highest-ranking judge, Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, has instructed courts to devote more time to hearing corruption cases across the country.

There have also been calls for special courts for corruption cases and punishment for judges and lawyers who deliberately delay cases.

Debo Adeniran, from the Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership lobby group, said Nyame's conviction would help drive the crusade against graft.

"It shows that no matter how long it takes, criminals will not go unpunished," he said.

"It's a shame that some 22 former governors are still in court after many years without their cases being concluded. This is against social justice and the rule of law."