TUNDE OYESINA writes on how a convicted former Taraba State governor, Jolly Nyame rose from political grace to grass following his conviction and sentence to 14years for N1.64 billion fraud last week
To the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), it was another feat recorded last week in its unending war against corruption. It has added conviction of a former governor of Taraba state, Jolly Nyame to its list of convicts in three years of President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration.
But to admirers of the former governor including camp of former political officeholders, it is indeed a bitter pill to swallow. While to the judiciary, Jolly Nyame’s conviction was another victory. Jolly Tavoro Nyame’s conviction, however, swelled EFCC’s anti-graft war as Nyame’s became its 647th convict in three years.
Nyame’s from grace to grass began when he emerged as the governor of Taraba state under the People’s Democratic Party in 1999 and was consequently sworn in on May 29 of the same year as the governor of the state. Nyame, who was born on December 25, 1955 and clergy man presided over the affairs of the state till May 2007.
Notwithstanding his numerous achievements in its eight years in office, they were not enough to save Nyame from spending a decade and a half in jail for fraud.
Precisely, 11 years after office, Justice Olubukola Banjoko convicted the former governor of fraud to the tune of N1.64 billion and consequently sentenced him to 14 years imprisonment without an option of fine.
Nyame’s travail began immediately he left office in 2007 when a petition jointly signed by one Umar Baba and Kelas Obadia entitled “Taraba State in a mess, the Commissioner of Finance goofed” written on behalf of concerned citizens of the state.
Following the petition, the anti-graft agency swung into action, arrested the former governor and arraigned him on July 13, 2007 before the court on a 41-count charge bothering on criminal misappropriation, diversion of public funds and breach of public trust.
Nyame, however, pleaded not guilty to the charge when it was read to him. He further objected to the charge on the grounds that it was incompetent and brought in bad faith.
The trial court, however, overruled the objection and ordered that the trial should proceed. Dissatisfied, Nyame had approached the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court to stop the trial. But the two courts gave their nod that the trial must go ahead.
In the cause of the trial which lasted for 11 years, the prosecution called 14 witnesses and presented documentary evidence which among other things revealed that N250 million was shared and never utilised for the purpose for which it was approved.
Evidence also showed that N180 million was diverted to the bank account of Salman Global Ventures Limited, which provided no services to the state. However, delivering judgement in the matter on May 3, the trial judge, Justice Banjoko in a 300-page judgement which lasted over six hours found Nyame guilty on 27 of the 41-counts.
The court in its pronouncement sentenced Nyame to 14 years for criminal breach of trust, 2 years for misappropriation, 7years for gratification and 5 years for obtaining valuable public properties without consideration. Justice Banjoko held that the sentence would run concurrently. The court however, discharged the defendant on 14 counts of the charge.
Before the final judgement was given, Nyame had pleaded for leniency. The trial court, however, turned down the plea for leniency on the ground that that the court was “morally outweighed by facts of the case.” In her judgement, Justice Banjoko held that “Citizens of Taraba had elected the defendant, a clergyman, in three separate occasions to govern them, which shows constant level of trust.
The expectation must have been so high. “As a Reverend, he must have been seen as an epitome of morality, piety and everything good.
How will Reverend Nyame begin to explain to people of Taraba State his actions and inactions? “How can he justify causing such a collosal loss to the state?”
The judge further held that the defendant committed “catalogue of crimes” a month before he vacated office “while under intense searchlight from security agencies.
The evidence before the court showed that while officials that served under the defendant were returning their loot to the EFCC after they were questioned, the defendant was still busy committing more crime.
“One of such crimes included N100 million the defendant withdrew from the state treasury to host former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who paid a one-day visit to Taraba State in 2007.
“After a careful examination of all the evidence, prosecution tendered before the court, it is my opinion that either the defendant entered into office without a corrupt mind and became corrupted, or he was corrupted ab-initio.
“There was such a crazy level of corruption in the air in Taraba State Ministry of Finance. It is however amazing that none of the officials were arraigned.”
The court also held that Nyame “behaved like a common thief with unbridled greed”, adding that his sentence would serve as a deterrent to other public office holders.
“With the overwhelming evidence before the court, the court is left with no option than to do justice in this trial. And the justice in this trial is to impose a punishment that will serve as deterrent to others.
The defendant is hereby convicted of the charge before the court. He is therefore sentenced to 14 years for criminal breach of trust, 2 years for misappropriation, 7 years for gratification and 5 years for obtaining valuable public properties without consideration. The terms are to run concurrently,” the court held.
The court later directed EFCC to return all the funds it recovered in the process of its investigation into the case, to the coffers of Taraba State. The EFCC had on November 22, 2016, closed its case after it called 14 witnesses, who testified before the court.
Thereafter, the ex-governor testified in defence of himself and called additional three witnesses, who attempted to exonerate him of all the allegations against him.
Nyame had during the pendency of his trial approached the Supreme Court seeking to quash the charge against him. He was however turned down by the apex court on March 5, 2010.
In the charge, he was among other things, accused of diverting N180million out of N250million meant for the purchase of stationeries by Taraba State government between January and February 2005, as a reward for the award of the contract to USAB International (Nig.) Ltd and thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 115, 309 and 315 of the Penal Code Act Cap 532 laws of Federation of Nigeria 1990.
Justice Banjoko had earlier noted that there was a nexus between Nyame and the fictitious N250m contract that was awarded for the bulk purchase of stationaries and office equipment.
The Court noted that Nyame had through his then Commissioner of Finance, Alhaji Abubakar Tutare, approved a Memo for that contract which was awarded to a firm, Saman Global Ventures, on January 1, 2005, side-lining key officials of the Ministry of Finance in the process.
“The defendant gave that Memo life by giving his approval”, the court held. The court also noted that N180m was subsequently diverted from the conctract sum and handed to the ex-governor.
Though the court held that evidence EFCC tendered against the ex-governor in respect of the transaction was “circumstantial” as no other document had his signature apart from the Memo, it however stressed that the manner funds were approved and released from the Taraba State treasury, showed that the defendant acted in breach of his oath of office.
“It is disheartening to note that between 2004 to 2005, the Ministry of Finance in Taraba State was specially an enclave, it was a den of criminal activities best illustrated with Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. “The court finds the defendant guilty as charged.
“The clear purpose of the money was diverted. There was no evidence of purchase of the stationary”, the court held. The Judge also held that convict repeatedly approved release of funds to the firm despite being aware that it neither purchased the stationaries nor executed any contract.
The court held that there was no evidence that Nyame who had within five weeks, moved over N345m from the Taraba State coffers for purchase of stationaries, made any attempt to prosecute the firm or to set up a panel of inquiry, when the fraud was brought to his attention.
The progenitor of this impunity was no one else than the defendant himself.The defendant cannot feign ignorance of this collosal fraud. He who approves must be accountable to what he approved.
The defendant had the dominion over the state fund and only him could say opensesame to the vault of Taraba State. “The defendant cannot escape responsibilty or cling to the thin plank of mere approval”, the court held.
The court also held that the defendant “dishonestly” diverted public funds through the Taraba State Liaison Office, on the guise that it was used for the purchase of Rice that was shared to his supporters.
It further held that the defendant committed “criminal breach of trust beyond reasonable doubt,” when he approved N111m to host guests when the Mambilla Power Project was commissioned, even as it equally found him guilty of receiving gratification to the tune of N80m.
The court held that it was amazed that Nyame had in his bid to defend the charge, “provided the entire arsenal for the prosecution.” Justice Banjoko held that the defendant admitted to certain offences, seeking at the end for a plea bargain.
“He was also very inconsistent especially regarding the presidential visit and the issue of security votes.” Nyame had after he was found him guilty, prayed the court through his counsel, Olalekan Ojo, to tamper Justice with mercy, insisting he had no previous criminal record.
In his plea, he told the court that he had dependents that rely on him for their subsistence. Ojo, however, prayed the court to punish the convict by imposing fine rather than imprisonment. Prosecuting counsel, Oluwaleke Atolagbe, urged the court to impose the maximum sanction to serve as a deterrent to other public office holders.
Aside the former finance commissioner in Taraba State during Nyame’s tenure, Tutare, among those that testified before the court included a compliance officer with Zenith Bank Plc., Mr. Olubunmi Ogunode, as well as the Permanent Secretary to Taraba State government, Mr Dennis Okuma Nev. In his own witness, Nev told the court that he was at a time, compelled to raise three separate memos for the withdrawal of N100million, which he said was used by Nyame to host former President Olusegun Obasanjo when he visited the state in 2001.
Similarly, an Accountant with the Rural Electrification Board in Jalingo, Taraba State, Mr. Abdulrahman Mohammed, narrated before the court, how the ex-governor used his name to withdraw N282m from Zenith Bank Plc., using 20 separate cheques.