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It was best described by Lagos lawyer and activist Bamidele Aturu as official jailbreak. If the overwhelming feeling of outrage and incredulity with which Nigerians from all over the country welcomed last Tuesday’s event was anything to go by, then no description of this sordid affair could be better than Aturu’s.
On Tuesday last week, President Goodluck Jonathan granted pardons to seven persons after he “consulted” with the Council of State. Significantly, there was no official announcement at the end of the Council’s meeting that something of the sort had been done, a very clear indicator that the presidency wanted to grant pardons by stealth. The news however filtered out anyway, and what followed was public anger, outrage, scorn and widespread condemnation.
Seven people received the presidential pardon. They include the late Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, former Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Oladipo Diya as well as the late Major General Abdulkareem Adisa, a former Minister of Works. All three former military men were convicted by Special Military Tribunals for alleged coup attempts against the Abacha regime. Also pardoned was former Bank of the North managing director Alhaji Shettima Bulama, who was convicted for fraud; ex-Major Bello Magaji and Alhaji Mohammed Lima Biyu as well as former Bayelsa State governor Chief D.S.P. Alamieyeseigha, under whom President Jonathan served as deputy governor.
It was not difficult for Nigerians to reach the conclusion that the main beneficiary of the secretive, hasty and ill-conceived pardons was Alamieyeseigha, the man who plucked Dr. Jonathan Goodluck from relative obscurity and propelled him to the deputy governorship of Bayelsa State, after which Providence took over until he arrived in the Presidency. Such suspicions were easily confirmed when gazetted papers later surfaced that showed that Yar’adua received a post-humuous pardon alongside Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in 1998. Diya and Adisa received similar clemency from then military ruler General Abdulsalami Abubakar, a fine distinction that the presidency is now trying to cash upon to justify its rather foolish act of granting pardons twice to the same persons.
The public outrage that greeted the pardons centred, appropriately, around Alamieyeseigha, who was convicted by the courts of mind-boggling corruption. He had earlier been impeached by the Bayelsa State House of Assembly. Even before all of that, Alamieyeseigha had been detained in the UK for money laundering offences. He was standing trial before a British court and was granted bail, only for him to skip bail and flee to Nigeria. It was an episode that gave this country a very bad image internationally. The huge ill-gotten assets that the courts subsequently made Alamieyeseigha to forfeit also badly reflected on the agitation for more resources to the Niger Delta region and proved widespread suspicions that the extra revenues accruing to the oil producing states were being frittered away by their governors.
Among those that condemned the pardon for Alamieyeseigha were many lawyers, civil society groups and opposition parties. They variously said the pardon was an indication that the Jonathan administration was not serious about the fight against corruption. The global anti-corruption agency Transparency International also called on President Jonathan to rescind the pardon granted to Alamieyeseigha. TI’s vice chair Akere Muna said, “This decision undermines anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria and encourages impunity. If the government is serious about uprooting public corruption, sanctions against those who betray the public trust should be strengthened, not relaxed.”
Last Friday, the US Embassy in Nigeria also joined in the chorus of condemnations. Embassy spokeswoman Deb MacLean said they were “deeply disappointed” by the pardon granted to Alamieyeseigha and Bulama and that “we see this as a setback in the fight against corruption.” The Jonathan regime responded harshly to the American criticism, warning the embassy not to meddle in Nigeria’s internal affairs. This was a hypocritical posture at best because on other occasions, the same regime officials had encouraged the Americans to comment on internal Nigerian affairs where these appear to favour the administration.
The presidency’s response to the barrage of public criticisms of its pardon action also left much to be desired. Speaking in Abuja last Thursday, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs, Dr. Doyin Okupe, appealed to Nigerians and members of civil society groups “to keep an open mind on the pardon” granted to Alamieyeseigha. Okupe said the former governor was removed from office “in a manner that was largely seen as not being entirely above board.” He also said Alamieyeseigha “had been adequately punished for his misdemeanour and demonstrated enough sobriety after he served his sentence.” More so, Okupe said, Alamieyeseigha “has shown remorse” for his misdeeds and that he “has been quietly playing a key role in stabilising the volatile Niger Delta region.”
While it is true that many Nigerians saw Alamieyeseigha’s 2005 impeachment as largely fuelled by political disputes with then President Obasanjo, his thieving and roguish ways were adequately proved before civilian courts and even the UK justice system had apprehended him, even though he later escaped. If it is just a matter of showing remorse for past evil deeds, there are thousands of ex-convicts and even serving prisoners in Nigeria who are remorseful but President Jonathan did not stealthily dupe the Council of State into acceding to the plan to pardon them.
With one single misstep, President Jonathan has squandered much political capital and much public goodwill. He has almost irretrievably tarnished his regime’s credentials for tackling corruption, easily seen by most Nigerians as this country’s number one problem. It was a careless, deceitful action in which the names of others were roped in in order to confer a modicum of respectability on Alamieyeseigha’s stage managed pardon. We join all Nigerians in urging the President to reverse it as he reversed other ill-thought out actions in the recent past, such as the renaming of University of Lagos to Moshood Abiola University without any consultation with stakeholders.