John Yusuf, a former assistant director of the federal civil service, whose 2013 sentencing of two years in jail with an option of N750,000 for stealing N33 billion of police pension fund caused widespread outrage in the country, will now spend six years in prison in addition to paying a fine of N23 billion, the Court of Appeal ruled on Wednesday.
Mr. Yusuf was tried on a 20-count charge in 2013 alongside four other officials – Atiku Abubakar, a permanent secretary; Ahmed Wada, a director; Veronica Onyegbula, a cashier; and Sani Zira, an ICT officer.
He, thereafter, pleaded guilty to betraying trust and fraudulently converting N2 billion of the police pension to personal use.
After his guilty plea, Abubakar Talba, the trial judge of the High Court of the Federal Territory, Abuja, sentenced him to the maximum two years jail term for each of the three count he pleaded guilty to but surprisingly gave him the option of avoiding jail with a fine of N250,000.00 for each of the counts.
The ruling caused outrage among activists. Olarenwaju Suraj, a Lagos-based anti-corruption activist, had described the ruling at the time as a “handshake ruling.”
“This casts aspersion on the integrity of the judge and it may assure those willing to try something like this that crime pays,” Mr. Suraj had said.
Dissatisfied with the high court’s ruling, the prosecuting agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) filed an appeal at the appeal court to set aside the ruling.
The anti-graft commission questioned the discretion of the judge in imposing sentence on the respondent who pleaded guilty to counts 17, 18 and 19 of the charge in which he admitted converting an aggregate sum of over N24 billion of police pension fund into his personal use.
In its brief of argument filed on September 17, 2013, the EFCC asked the appeal court to determine, “whether the trial judge exercised his discretion judicially and judiciously when having convicted the respondent of a three count charge of conversion of over N3 billion contrary to section 309 of the Penal Code, His Lordship imposed two years imprisonment with an option of fine of N250, 000 on each of the three counts.”
Mr. Yusuf, however, argued that the notice of appeal was filed outside the mandatory 90 days and was therefore in contravention of Section 24 (2)(b) of the Court of Appeal Act 2010. He therefore asked the court to dismiss the appeal.
However, the appeal court judges, in a unanimous decision dismissed his objection and ruled that “Having considered the computation of time volunteered by both parties, the question to be answered was whether the day the judgment of the trial court was delivered was to be inclusive in the computation of the mandatory 90 days for which a notice of appeal was to be filed?
“That the day the judgment of the trial court was delivered being the 28th January, 2013, was not to be included in the computation of the 90 days.
“That since the day of the Judgment is not included, the 90 days starts running from the 29th January, 2013 and the 90th day will fall on a Sunday.
“That by virtue of s. 15(2) of the Interpretation Act CAP 123, where the last day is a holiday, the counting shall continue until the end of the next following day which is not a holiday.
“That since the 90th day was a Sunday and by virtue of s. 15 (5) of Interpretation Act, a Sunday is a holiday, the next day which the notice of appeal was filed is within time, hence the appeal is competent and is therefore allowed”.
The judges were also unanimous in their ruling that the sentence of the high court does not serve as serve as deterrence to both the convict and others and consequently ordered that the sentence should be quashed and reviewed.
On Counts 17, the respondent was sentenced to two years imprisonment with a fine of N20 billion. On Counts 18, he was similarly sentenced to two years imprisonment with a fine of N1.4billion Naira; and on counts 19, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment with a fine of 1.5billion Naira”.
The sentence of imprisonment is to run consecutively, and the fine is to be cumulative, the court ruled.
An Elaborate Scam
The pension scam involved several billions of naira stolen from retired police officers. Mr. Yakubu and his colleagues were suspended indefinitely in 2012 after the scandal broke.
The EFCC said the complex scheme involved several transfers of huge sums between banks and use of illegal accounts and falsification of names; which were said to have been conducted between the officials and a former Director of Police Pension Fund, Esai Dangabar.
Mr. Dangabar was charged. He later told the EFCC part of the money was shared among the officials and the pension committees of the senate and the House of Representatives.
The National Assembly at the time denied the allegations, calling it a “pack of lies” asking him to provide proof that he shared the money with its members.