THE decision of an Ikeja Special Offences Court presided over by Justice Mojisola Dada to sentence a 32-year-old vulcaniser, Chidozie Onyinchiz, to death by hanging on Tuesday, January 17 for robbing a nurse of N57,000 has generated reactions from Nigerians.
Justice Dada held that the prosecution had proved the three-count charge of conspiracy, armed robbery and membership of an unlawful society against Onyinchiz.
Dada said the convict’s attempt to wriggle out of the charges was futile.
“The defendant had stated that the complainant pointed at him as one of the boys armed with a pair of scissors and forcefully snatched her bag containing N57,000 at Akesan Bus Stop.
“In his confessional statement, Onyinchiz stated that he met Ediri Endurance in a public bus, and Endurance took him to his father’s house after the bus developed a fault.
“He also stated that they ended up sleeping in an uncompleted building because Endurance’s father did not open the door for them to spend the night in his house.
“The statement corroborated the submission of the victim that she was accosted at about 4.30 a.m. by two boys holding an iron rod and a pair of scissors on the day of the incident.
“She said the two boys were the ones who robbed her.
“The totality of the evidence before the Court is compelling, and I find the defendant guilty of the charges preferred against him.
“He is hereby sentenced to death by hanging and may God have mercy on his soul,” Justice Dada said.
The state prosecutor, Afolake Onayinka, had earlier told the Court that the convict committed the offences with an accomplice still at large.
Onayinka submitted that the offences contravened the Criminal Law of Lagos State, 2015.
The judgement has, however, generated many comments among Nigerians, with many wondering why some politicians allegedly steal billions and yet are given lighter punishments while some supposedly “small” offences get the death sentence.
Twitter users react
A Twitter user @DanielRegha tweeted, “A man (Chidozie Onyinchiz) was reportedly sentenced to death by Justice Dada for robbing a nurse of N57k; The man deserves to be punished, but the death sentence is extreme. Many found guilty of worse were sent to prison, so why is he being killed? Section 390 states otherwise.”
Another Twitter user, @MrJamal001, said, “If he used any form of weapon (Knife, broken bottle, gun etc.), it amounts to armed robbery and the term under the Law is a mandatory death sentence. It’s immaterial the value of what was stolen. The Court’s hands are tied in circumstances like this one.”
@owendino01, in his own comment on the matter, said, “This judgment, in my opinion, is politically motivated; a Yoruba Judge sentenced an Igbo Nigerian to death for theft speaks volumes. I believe he can appeal the judgment; hence he will probably do time in jail! There’s always double standard in our judicial system!”
Also reacting, @chaeyyilaw said: “Armed Robbery is Death Sentence; as long as the convict is armed (gun, table knife, scissors) while committing the crime, he will be charged for Armed Robbery. The Law doesn’t care about your emotions; the Law is the Law.”
In his reaction another Twitter user, @realDan32, said, “Our justice system in this country is biased, a vulcaniser can be sentenced for 57,000 but Uzo Kala was discharged and set free after looting billions. God dey oooo.”
Giving a legal opinion on the matter in a chat with The ICIR, a lawyer Abiola Kolawole, said that once it has to do with armed robbery, the penalty is the death sentence.
“This can’t be the fact of the case. It is either the method of getting the item was armed robbery or someone was killed in the process of the stealing.
“The fact of the case is always important; context is important. If you look at what I pointed out earlier, I said robbery is different from stealing.
“Yes, the offence of armed robbery is death. Now, that’s the difference with stealing. Now Let me play the devil’s advocate here.
“Do yahoo boys who defraud people of millions get sentenced to death? No, taking advantage of a society is different from armed robbery.”
Kolawole stressed that the law is strict with armed robbery because weapons are involved.
Also commenting on the verdict, an Abuja-based legal practitioner, God’sglory O. Ifezue pointed out that while it would appear harsh to the average Nigerian, it is what the law provides for.
She pointed to the Robbery and Firearms (Special Provisions) Act which provides in Section 1(2) that the penalty for armed robbery is death, whereas the penalty for robbery simpliciter is a term of imprisonment not less than 21 years (section 1(1) of the same Act).
“And you’re probably wondering, what is the difference between the two? Well, the two offences are not considered the same under the law. It is considered robbery simpliciter when a person robs another without any weapon.
“However, should any arms or offensive or harmful weapon enter the equation, it automatically changes the offence to armed robbery.
“To make it clear, any robbery with any of the firearms or offensive weapons mentioned next is armed robbery under the law and attracts the death penalty – “any canon, gun, rifle, carbine, machine-gun, cap-gun, flint-lock gun, revolver, pistol, explosive or ammunition or other firearms, whether whole or in detached pieces,” Ifezue stated.
She added that the reason for this law was because of the high rise in cases of robbery involving arms and offensive weapons, especially after the civil war. Thus, the law was passed to nip that mischief in the bud and deter would-be offenders.
However, some Nigerians are wondering why petty criminals such as the vulcanizer who was sentenced to death for stealing N57,000 do not benefit from plea bargain, like prominent people, including former governors who were convicted for stealing billions.
What is a Plea Bargain?
This is an agreement between the prosecutor and a defendant who pleads guilty to a lesser charge or to one of the multiple charges in exchange for a more lenient sentence or a dismissal of the other charges. In other words, it is an agreement in a criminal trial in which a prosecutor and a defendant arrange to settle the case against the defendant on terms accepted by the prosecutor, which terms are premised in the interest of justice public, interest, and public policy.
Politicians that benefitted from Plea Bargain
In 2008, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) entered into a “plea bargain” agreement with the former governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion.
Igbinedion was charged with stealing up to N4.4 billion, but in the ruling given by a judge at the Federal High Court in Enugu, he was fined only a paltry N3.5 million, with no option of jail time for the crime.
Tafa Balogun, a former Inspector-General of Police, also benefited from plea bargain.
CSO/Human Right intervention
According to a Human Rights/Youth Activist, Rinu Oduala, the death sentence imposed on the man who stole N57,000 should prompt Nigerians to look into the selectiveness of the country’s justice system.
“Recently, Governor Dariye and Senator Nyame were pardoned after a landmark ruling sentenced them to prison for stealing billions.
“This is a reflection of our society, in which the powerful are let off the hook while the poor are lynched.
“Our politicians’ theft has never resulted in the death penalty. If we are sentencing petty thieves to death, the obvious question is what about our politicians?” she asked.
In his submission on the issue, the Director General of the Centre For Credible Leadership And Citizens Awareness, Gabriel Nwanbu, said issues like this are unbecoming of the judiciary system we have in Nigeria.
“The kind of money they steal is enough to build an entire country, but they are kind of plaguing the treasury of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and sadly there is this clause we have in our criminal justice system that they call plea bargain.
“The plea bargain gives them room to keep perpetrating criminalities. It gives them the courage to keep stealing; it makes them to be somewhat kind of immune.
“Moreover, the kind of money people in government steal is so much that it is becoming worrisome because the country is now going handicapped to finance the budget of the country,” Nwambu said.
He said a mechanic or vulcaniser who stole N57,000 should have the same punishment as somebody who stole over a hundred billion naira.
“The idea is that there should be consequences for a crime, there should be consequences for offences. If we are looking for an egalitarian society, it should be a society where everybody should be equal before the law. We should be able to ensure that there is a rule of Law in Nigeria.”
What the Law says
The following can attract the death penalty in Nigeria: armed robbery, murder, rape, terrorism-related offences, treason and kidnapping.
Under Section 297(2) of the Criminal Law Ch. C17 Vol. 3 Laws of Lagos State, 2015, any person found guilty of armed robbery is convicted and sentenced to death.
The same Law provides death as punishment to any person convicted of murder (Section 223 of the Law).
However, by Section 308 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law Ch. A3 Laws of Lagos State, 2015, the Governor, upon advice from the Advisory Council of Prerogative of Mercy, may commute death sentence to life imprisonment, any specific period or decide to pardon or grant a reprieve.
Section 402. of the Criminal Code Act states that: “(1) Any person who commits the offence of robbery shall, upon conviction, be sentenced to imprisonment for not less than 21 years.(2) If ‐ (a) any offender mentioned in subsection (1) of this section is armed with any firearms or any offensive weapon or any obnoxious or chemical materials or is in company with any person so armed; or (b) at or immediately before or immediately after the time of the robbery, the said offender wounds any person, the offender shall, upon conviction, be sentenced to death.”