The recent conviction of a former Minister of Water Resources, Sarah Reng Ochekpe, along with two others, was a significant step in Nigeria’s fight against corruption. Their conviction on the two-count charge proffered against them was secured on February 22, 2022 by the Gombe Zonal Command of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The two other convicted persons are Evan Leo Sunday Jitong and Raymond Dabo, who respectively served as deputy director for the Goodluck/Sambo 2015 election campaign and former acting chairman of PDP in Plateau State. Ochekpe served under the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan.
The EFCC spokesman, Wilson Uwujaren, said the trio were convicted and sentenced to six years imprisonment each by Justice H. M. Kurya of the Federal High Court, Jos, Plateau State, on an amended three-count charge bordering on conspiracy and money laundering. He said “They were alleged to have received the sum of N450 million from Fidelity Bank through cash and wire transfer by some oil companies and former Petroleum Resources Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, to influence the outcome of the 2015 presidential election.
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Investigations by EFCC showed that on March 26, 2015, the sum of N450 million was withdrawn from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) by the Jos main branch of Fidelity Bank and was handed over to the defendants in cash after which they signed for collection. Although the defendants claimed that they handed over the money to late Senator Gyang Pwajok, the Plateau State PDP governorship candidate in 2015, they could not provide any evidence to support their claim.
Count one of the charge which reads in part: “That you, sometime in March 2015 at Jos, Plateau State of Nigeria within the jurisdiction of this honourable court, without going through the financial institution, did conspire amongst yourselves to accept cash payment of the sum of four hundred and fifty million naira (N450,000,000) from one Annet Olije Gyen, Head of Operations, Jos branch of Fidelity Bank which sum exceeded the amount authorised by law and thereby committed an offence contrary to the provisions of Section 18(a), Section 16 (1) (d) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2012 (as amended) and punishable under Section 16 (2) (b) of the same Act.
While the defendants were convicted on count one, bordering on conspiracy to accept cash payment above threshold under the Money Laundering Prohibition Act, 2012 (as amended) and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment with an option of N2,000,000 (two million naira) fine each, they were convicted on count two and sentenced to three years imprisonment with an option of N2,000,000 (two million naira) fine each. The sentences are to run consecutively. The court, however, discharged and acquitted them on count three which borders on retention of funds.
The conviction of Sarah Ochekpe and two others over charges of conspiracy and money laundering is a good development that should deter public officers from abusing privileges of office. It is yet a remarkable precedent even when a convicted public officer chooses the option of fine over jail term. At least, the shame shall, for eternity, remain with them. The mere published fact of being a suspect in a corruption trial is enough embarrassment for anyone, much more someone who has served as a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This humiliation is bad enough to withhold anyone from taking advantage of any future opportunities that come their way that is if at all they do. This is indeed a lesson for other public officers who may be engaged in corrupt practices or other acts that are not in the interest of the people, that someday the law will catch up with them.
We urge the EFCC to go after all others who have been indicted in corruption cases and see them through to completion. Nevertheless, the period it took the EFCC to secure the conviction of the defendants in this case, like many others, is something to worry about. Prosecuting counsels for the EFCC and other anti-graft agencies in the country are encouraged to prepare and file charges against suspects in a manner that would fast-track trial. This would require thorough investigation, well-prepared charges and strategic presentation of prosecuting witnesses. Given the scale of corruption cases reported in the media, the convictions so far secured by the anti-graft agencies comparatively fall below public expectations. Some public officers convicted in the past include former Governor Joshua Dariye, former Governor Jolly Nyame and Farouk Lawan, a former member of the House of Representatives.
While we urge the government to withdraw any national honours earlier granted to a public officer convicted in a corruption case, we advise that thorough checks be done before the conferment of such awards going forward. Public officers must obey financial regulations and desist from abusing public trust.