“Please God, do not forgive them”-Elie Wiezel
by Ilesanmi Omabomi
The above were the words of the Jewish writer and political activist on the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust. The point here is not to discuss the Holocaust but to point out that to the victims, certain crimes are so heinous, nauseating and horrible that they try to alter even God’s mind on forgiveness. To us the victims of GEJ, PDP, and the entire corruption of the political class, we would wish that God does not forgive them for their atrocities.
Consequently, we seek to make sure that the man who is about to become the president of Nigeria does not forgive those whose greed has left this country prostrate and comatose. Since the voice of the people is the voice of God we believe we might just be able get God and consequently the man we elected not to forgive our thieving politicians. But we all know that as we may not be able to stop God from forgiving, the realities of the emerging political landscape in Nigeria may compel Buhari to forgive people who he would otherwise like to see rot in jail.
The purpose of this article is to propose that any form of amnesty or forgiveness for those who looted our treasuries must also be extended the victims of their crimes: the common criminals in our several jails. Before going ahead to grant amnesty of any sort to treasury looters it must be remembered that we have a lot of Nigerians in jail that ended up there out of desperation in finding a means of feeding and housing themselves, their families and keeping hopes alive. Others like the 419 practitioners are no worse than the politicians who might benefit from a possible amnesty. A critical examination of the circumstances of a lot of these jailed common criminals, whether they were convicted for armed robbery, common theft, robbery, 419, drug trafficking and other economic deprivation crimes, one will almost invariably find a causal link to the conduct of politicians in depriving them of funds meant for job creation, education, health-care, and for preparing them for the future. Obviously, not all of the common criminals fall into this category. Except for rape and a few others, I can see no reason why we should have any common criminal in jail if the treasury looters are granted amnesty. Even those who murdered for pay can, arguably, be described victims of treasury looting and economic deprivation.
Since the election of Mohamadu Buhari on March 28, 2015 Nigerians have been getting signals of a possible amnesty or forgiveness of some sort for the politicians and businessmen who looted our treasuries. I am one person who will like to see treasury looters sentenced to the longest jail terms possible as long as those jail terms were prescribed at the time the looting occurred. I do not support retroactive criminalization. Having said that I also see the wisdom of some sort of amnesty for the corrupt as long as it includes a ban from ever seeking or holding public office (elected or appointed) and those refunding monies are publicly identified and they apologize to the people whose lives they destroyed with their greed. There can be no soft landing!
Amnesty for the corrupt has its own benefits. While Nigerians are likely to look to the president and ex-presidents, governors and ex-governors, minister and ex-ministers, NNPC officials, Central Bank officials and other top government officials for the bulk of stolen money, the fact is that a lot, I mean a lot of money, was stolen by people outside this circle. From federal and state civil servants, Customs and Excise officials, serving and retired military officials, and state and federal legislators trillions of public funds can be found in their bank accounts and life styles. It will be unreasonable to expect the government to have enough time and resources to go after all these “petty thieves” who have stolen enough money to warrant attention. Those who committed crimes by looting the treasury cannot be allowed to be better off financially than those who obey the laws of the land and stayed away from treasury looting. To do so will be tantamount to providing a negative incentive for obedience to the law.
An amnesty program that mandates those who have stolen public funds to publicly confess to the looting within say 30-60 days and return such funds or assets in full along with any accrued interest within say 30 days or face very severe jail terms along will absolve Buhari of the accusation of being draconian and put the onus on the corrupt to avoid long jail terms. Those who are prosecuted and tried after the amnesty expires will be a self-identifying group: those who refused to avail themselves of the amnesty program and refund looted funds. No one will be able to blame Buhari of with hunting.
An amnesty program of this nature backed by a whistle blower law that protects and gives the whistle blower a percentage of the recovered funds will, I believe, result in more people who looted government funds willingly stepping forward and returning more money than any traditional investigation, prosecution and recovery regime will recovery not to mention the enormous resources that such an exercise will consume. The uncertainty of who will be ratted after the amnesty program expires or for a desire to collect the whistle blower compensation will force many looters to step forward. You will have people at the local government level ratting on counselors, local government chairmen and civil servants. People at the state level will be ratting on state legislators, and civil servants, and those at the federal level will be ratting on civil servants and other under-the-rader treasury looters. Like taxation, the broader the broader the base, the larger the revenue that can be collected.
Except in the most glaring cases, these categories of treasury looters will otherwise fly under the radar or inconsequential to anti-corruption investigators. Buhari must give ordinary Nigerians a role to play in recovering looted public funds and preventing further looting of public funds even if it means them ratting on neighbors, friends and family members. Remember: no treasury looting, no ratting. The United States has tried this and it works. No one should have a problem with this unless they are or are planning to loot the public treasury.
Having discussed the likely benefits of an amnesty programs for treasury looters, notwithstanding that famous criminologist and penologist Immanuel Kant will be quivering in his grave, I will not second guess the President Buhari if he chooses to travel that route. However, he must keep his word. If treasury looting is worse than terrorism and he decides to grant treasury looters some form of amnesty, then it behooves him to give imprisoned common criminals a better deal.