Monday, February 24, 2014 5:01 PM / by Sofunde Osakwe Ogundipe & Belgore
White Collar Crime – Nigeria
In December 2013 the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal's decision affirming the conviction of a high-profile political appointee, Bode George, for improprieties while in office. George was a senior member of the ruling People Democratic Party and had been appointed chairman of the state-controlled Nigerian Ports Authority by former President Obasanjo in 1999. He and the board of the Nigerian Ports Authority were dismissed four years later, and the new chief executive engaged external auditors to conduct an investigation into major contracts awarded by the previous board. The investigative report formed the basis of further investigations commenced by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in 2005.
George, a former senior Navy officer, was seen as very close to Obasanjo. The commission took no action against George following its own investigation until August 2008, after Obasanjo had left office and after the commission chairman, Nuhu Ribadu, had been removed from office by Obasanjo's successor. George and five others were convicted of abuse of office in October 2009 and were sentenced to a term of 30 months' imprisonment. The acts held to have amounted to abuse of office comprised of awarding contracts with values in excess of that which the Nigerian Ports Authority board was authorised to award through the expedience of splitting the contracts into smaller ones, thereby reducing the value and avoiding the restriction imposed by applicable rules. George's appeal to the Court of Appeal failed in January 2011. However, his subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court – after he had already served his term – succeeded in December 2013. The Supreme Court's decision is final.
The decision has attracted criticism from civil groups lamenting the reversal of a rare conviction of a high-profile politician, and from leading lawyers faulting the Supreme Court's reasoning. The decision has been described as "perplexing", likely to "encourage corruption in the country" and "the latest in a long line of judicially orchestrated set-backs for the fight against corruption in Nigeria". However, George's supporters praised the decision, claiming that it vindicated George and proved that he had been the victim of a politically motivated prosecution.
The issues raised in the appeal turned essentially on a proper interpretation of the charges preferred against George and others, and raised no particularly difficult issues of law. The Supreme Court appears to have taken the view that George was convicted of splitting contracts to reduce their value, which is not an offence under Nigeria's laws – rather than of disobeying lawful orders and abuse of office, which are offences. The decision appears to lend more weight to those critics who claim that Nigeria is not fully committed to punishing corruption in high places.
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