Protesters at the gates of Nigeria's justice ministry. Photo published on Twitter by Philipe Edime.
Hundreds of protesters descended on Nigeria’s justice ministry in Abuja on Wednesday after a court handed down a strangely lenient sentence to an official convicted of embezzlement. The former boss of Nigeria’s police pension fund, John Yakubu Yusufu, was convicted Monday with stealing 23.3 billion Nigerian naira (about 110 million euros) meant for retired police officers. A judge gave him the choice of either spending two years in jail or paying 750,000 naira (about 3,500 euros). Unsurprisingly, he chose the latter option.
Even in a country where corruption is seen as rather commonplace -- Nigeria ranks 139th out of 174 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index -- the sentence has shocked many. Anti-corruption activists joined up with youth organisations to protest against what they consider an outrageous decision on the part of the case’s judge. Demonstrators chanted and booed at the justice ministry’s gates until representatives were allowed in to drop off a petition. They demanded that not only Yusufu’s case be re-tried, but also that the judge be investigated and that vast reforms be undertaken to improve the country’s judicial system.
In a surprising twist of events, Yusufu was remanded to prison on Wednesday evening on separate charges involving the alleged embezzlement of another 289 million naira (about 1.3 million euros) from the police pension fund. Anti-corruption campaigners say their protest may well have inspired this move. Yusufu has pleaded not guilty to these new charges.
Protesters at the justice ministry's gates, and later marching to the supreme court. Video courtesy of BattaBox.

“This sentence was nothing more than a slap on the wrist”

Otunba Dino Melaye is the founder of the Anti-Corruption Network in Abuja.
The sentence given to Mr. Yusufu was nothing more than a slap on the wrist. He was not asked to reimburse the vast sums of money he stole from thousands of pensioners who are now left with nothing. Nor was he once asked where all this money went. [Editor’s Note: Reports in the Nigerian media make no mention of this question being addressed]. This case is really shocking when you compare his sentence with others – for example, just two days ago, a young man was sentenced to three years in jail for stealing a smartphone. And he was not given the option of paying a fine to get out of it!
We want a full investigation into what happened with Mr. Yusufu’s case. We’re guessing that to have handed out such an absurd sentence, the judge must have been compromised. We also believe that Mr. Yusufu couldn’t possibly have embezzled so much money alone, and so we want those who helped him to be found and tried. Furthermore, we want all corrupt judges to be replaced, and an overhaul to this country’s laws to get rid of loopholes that allow for too much discretionary power on the part of judges. In Nigeria, too often, courts are not for the people – they’re for the highest bidders.
“It’s not easy to fight corruption … I’ve received threats from people threatening to kill me or kidnap my children”
If we don’t get a satisfactory response to our demands within two weeks, we’re going to give the government what I call the Egyptian treatment: we’ll occupy the Supreme Court for as long as it takes. [Editor’s Note: Egyptians camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during their revolution.]
It’s not easy to fight corruption in a country where it is systemic. I’ve received many threats. During Wednesday’s protest, I received lots of text messages from people threatening to kill me or to kidnap my children. But I’m not discouraged, as more and more Nigerians are joining the fight against corruption.
Photo of protesters courtesy of our Observer.