On April 15, the National Council of State (NCS) granted state pardon to ex-governors Joshua Dariye and Jolly Nyame of Plateau and Taraba states, respectively. The two governors were among the 159 convicts granted pardon by the council at a meeting held in Abuja. There were 162 applications for prerogative of mercy for convicts and inmates in Nigerian correctional centres. While the clemency granted to 157 Nigerians was not criticised, that of Dariye and Nyame had attracted a deluge of criticisms, with some Nigerians arguing that it was politically motivated.
Not even the explanation by the presidency that the former governors were granted pardon on health and age grounds could assuage the ill-feelings of many Nigerians over the pardon. Nyame, 66, who was governor of Taraba State from 1999 to 2007, was serving a 12-year jail term at the Kuje Prison for misappropriation of funds while he was in office. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction in February 2020. Dariye, 64, who governed Plateau State between 1999 and 2007, was jailed for stealing N2 billion of public funds during his time as Plateau State governor between 1999 and 2007. He was sentenced in June 2018.
Apart from the governors, other beneficiaries of the state pardon include a former military General and Minister under the Sani Abacha regime, Tajudeen Olanrewaju, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Akiyode, who was an aide of erstwhile Chief of General Staff, Oladipo Diya; and all the junior officers jailed over the 1990 abortive Gideon Orkar coup. The pardon followed the recommendations of the presidential advisory committee on the prerogative of mercy as approved by Buhari.
The Nigerian Council of State, which granted the pardon, is an organ of the Nigerian Government as stipulated in the Third Schedule Part 1B of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). It is created by Section 153 (1)(b) of the 1999 Constitution, and referred to in an obligatory sense in Section 175 (5) and (6). The Council is more of a ceremonial or advisory body and has no powers to overrule the president in respect of state pardon.
The membership of the Council includes the President, who is Chairman; the Vice President, who is Deputy Chairman; all former Presidents of the Federation and all former Heads of the Government of the Federation; all former Chief Justices of Nigeria; the President of the Senate; the Speaker of the House of Representatives; all the governors of the states of the Federation; and the Attorney-General of the Federation.
The Council has power to advise the President in the exercise of his powers with respect to – national population census and compilation, publication and keeping of records and other information concerning the same; prerogative of mercy; award of national honours, among others. What the NCS did in pardoning the 159 persons was in line with the provisions of the constitution. However, some critics believe that pardoning Nyame and Dariye will likely send wrong signal in the fight against corruption. The Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, some human rights activists, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), and other concerned Nigerians have faulted the clemency granted the former governors.
Soyinka said the pardon showed that the Buhari administration’s anti-corruption fight was over. Soyinka, in a statement, likened the state pardon to Dariye and Nyame to an egg smashed against the faces of Nigerians, saying it would take a long time to be wiped it off. SERAP argued that the reprieve to the ex-governors undermines the authority and independence of the judiciary and access to justice for victims of corruption and calls for its withdrawal. According to SERAP, “presidential pardon for corruption cases is inconsistent with the rule of law, and the public interest, as it undermines the principle of equality before the law. It will undermine public confidence in your government’s fight against corruption and the justice system.”
Inasmuch as the President has the power to grant amnesty, we urge for restraint in the exercise of such power. The constitutional power of prerogative of mercy must be exercised in good faith. It should not be politicised. Unrestrained use of prerogative of mercy by the President, especially in corruption, armed robbery and murder cases, will not serve the interest of the nation but will rather portray her as not being serious in punishing crime. We recognise also that offences can be forgiven when there is remorse and perhaps when punishment has been half served, but it should not be done in a way to erode public confidence. Court convictions and jail terms are meant to serve as deterrent. Canceling them, which is what state pardon is, could be misinterpreted to mean erosion of court powers.
To a very large extent, undue exercise of presidential pardon in corruption cases is an indirect mockery of the judicial system. It may dampen the war against corruption.