At a time when corruption in high places has reached an unprecedented height in recent times in Nigeria, the stories we hear of ‘petty thieves’ who out of hunger, deprivation or want, had committed acts against the Nigerian state and then eventually put behind bars for their crimes, paints a sad picture of how the justice system is being run in the country. The story reported on the Metro section of pages 4 and 5 of The Punch of Thursday, July 5, 2012 titled ‘Teenager released four years after phone theft’ attests to the fact that there was miscarriage of justice in the case of theft brought against Miss Blessing Effiong.
Blessing, a 19 year old teenager, according to the case brought against her, was charged with possessing suspected stolen property and was said to have been found in possession of a Starcomms handset reasonably suspected to have been stolen and was therefore unable to give satisfactory account of how she came by the same. Her action(s) went contrary to Section 430 (1) of the Criminal Code Law, Cap. C17, Vol.2, Laws of Lagos State 2003. All these surprisingly had happened on or about the months of July and August 2008 and with the maths, one would not be wrong to say at the time the so called theft happened, Blessing was just 16 years.
The question on this writer’s mind is two-some. The first being why the judge who sentenced Blessing to four years imprisonment did not recognise her as a teenager and being a first time offender could not temper justice with mercy? The second being why the judge did not have a premonition that the teenager might not have understood the enormity of the crime she had committed and how she could have been helpless in a court whose duties she might have found strange as a result of her age? Besides, was the judge who sentenced the teenager to four years imprisonment for contravening the Criminal Code Law, Cap. C17, Vol.2, Laws of Lagos State 2003, oblivious of the same Section of the Lagos State constitution (until it was amended in 2011) which carried about six months sentence or N200 fine for one ‘possessing suspected stolen property’?
There are so many questions that need answers in the Blessing case simply because she was a teenager (and still is) at the time, who might have been lured into stealing the handset and even if she had acted alone, commonsense ought to have prevailed in her sentencing. Besides, a young girl of her status who was still growing up to become an adolescent shouldn’t have been sentenced to a prison like Kirikiri where hardened and all kinds of criminals are kept. In saner climes, the crime Blessing had committed would have been overlooked, categorised perhaps as a first time offence or a bail would have sufficed and even if those two avenues were not exhausted, a lighter sentence would have been given, while she would have been taken to corrective centres.
This writer is of the opinion that whoever had sentenced Blessing in 2008 did not consider a lot of things before handing her a four year sentence, one which was very harsh and unfortunate. Even the amendment embarked upon by the Lagos State government in 2011 on the same Criminal Code Law carried a six months sentence or a fine of N90, 000 and for that reason question the rationale behind the four year sentence given to Blessing.
It is pertinent to state here that this writer does not support whatever contravenes the law, most especially those which have to do with stealing or illegal possession of stolen property, but when judges give sentences, ‘tampering justice with mercy’ should always play a big part in whatever is meted out to suspects of a particular crime, especially petty crimes like the ones Blessing committed. Had it not been that both the prosecuting lawyer and defendant had entered into a plea bargain, Blessing would still have been in prison and probably rot away like many.
A judicial system which quickly puts behind bars petty criminals and thieves, while leaving those who steal heavily, collect bribes or give bribes, to walk freely does not augur well for the polity. Blessing’s case gives a grim picture of the unabashed social inequality and judicial impropriety rampant in the Nigerian society where those who ordinarily in saner climes would have been cooling their feet behind bars are the ones who are praised by the vast majority of people and allowed to hold leadership positions in the country.
There are bigger thieves everywhere, most especially those who possess unimaginable wealth stolen from the peoples’ commonwealth, therefore, for us to have a just and equitable society, petty thieves and bigger rogues who possess all kinds of stolen properties must be tackled by the judiciary and given judgement accordingly. It is not enough for those who hold political power in the country to tell us they are not soft on corruption or the judiciary making noise about blank reforms. People like Blessing who ordinarily ought to be in school would forever hold the Nigerian state responsible for keeping her in isolation when she could have had a better life. If the judge who had sentenced her had applied commonsense, justice would have prevailed in all ramifications.
Raheem Oluwafunminiyi is a social commentator and political analyst who could be reached via [email protected]