Following the recent controversy over the issue of whether or not stealing is corruption, it has become necessary to elucidate this issue particularly from the context of Nigerian criminal law. The issue came to the fore for the first time when the President, during a media chat sometime in 2014 made the statement that stealing and corruption are not the same. The President reiterated this in a recent media chat on February 11, 2015 where he noted that he actually made the statement based on an observation by the then Chief Judge, Justice Musdapher who stated that most of the files referred to him as cases of corruption were actually cases of stealing. It is pertinent to note that the President clearly condemned both acts of stealing and corruption but stated that they should be dealt with properly rather than being confused for what they are not.

Corruption

I read with dismay an article by the punch newspaper where a respected Professor of Law and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Itse Sagay was reported to have said stealing and corruption are technically the same thing. Sagay attempted to define both words generally and drew a correlation between the two thereafter. Whilst the issue of corruption which has bedevilled the nation for decades should not be trivialised in any form, the vice of corruption is not reduced by merely asserting that stealing and corruption are the same. The fact is that they are not the same, whether generally or technically.

In ordinary English parlance, stealing means taking the property of someone else without permission or legal right and with no intention to return it. Corruption means dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power typically involving bribery. What this means is that corruption is wider in scope than stealing because it covers all kinds of fraudulent and dishonest conducts which could also include stealing. Thus, where one takes a bribe to do or refrain from doing something he ordinarily is expected to do, he has not stolen but he has acted corruptly. This is a simple interpretation but it is insufficient for the purpose of this piece. Therefore it is necessary to review the subject briefly in the light of the provisions of the relevant laws because both stealing and corruption are offences under the law.

A quick analysis from the criminal code Act Cap 77 LFN 2004 (Criminal code) should shed more light on this issue and hopefully put it to rest. The law deals with stealing and corruption in two different chapters: corruption and abuse of public office in chapter 12 and stealing in chapter 34. Stealing is defined as the act of fraudulently taking anything capable of being stolen or fraudulent conversion to one’s own use or to the use of any other person anything capable of being stolen. {See s. 383(1) Criminal Code}. The punishment for the offence of stealing generally is three years imprisonment.

However, the law provides for some other cases depending on the nature of the stolen property or circumstances under which the stealing took place. For instance a person who steals a testamentary instrument whether or not the testator is alive is liable to life imprisonment; while theft of an animal is punishable with N200 or two years imprisonment. Where the stolen item was taken from a public office in which it was deposited or kept, the punishment prescribed by law is seven years. Where an offender is a person employed in the public service and the property stolen belongs to the state or came into the possession of the employer by virtue of his employment, the offender would be liable to seven years imprisonment {see s. 390(5) Criminal code}.

On the other hand the term “corruption” is not defined in the criminal code. However, the law provides, and I think it is necessary to reproduce S. 98(1) Criminal Code verbatim;

“any public official …who –

(a) corruptly asks for, receives or obtains any property or benefit of any kind for himself or any other person; or bribes, etc.,
(b) corruptly agrees or attempts to receive or obtain any property or benefit of any kind for himself or any other person, on account of-

(i) anything already, done or omitted, or any favour or disfavour already shown to any person, by himself in the discharge of his official duties or in relation to any matter connected with the functions, affairs or business of a Government department, public body or other organisation or institution in which he is serving as a public official, or

(ii) anything to be afterwards done or omitted, or any favour or disfavour to be afterwards shown to any person, by himself in the discharge of his official duties or in relation to any such matter as aforesaid,

is guilty of the felony of official corruption and is liable to imprisonment for seven years”.

Similar provision is made in s. 98(B)(1) applicable to persons who are not public officials. A public official according to the law means a person employed in the public service or any judicial officer and this captures a a wide range of persons including but not limited to persons in the employ of any Government department, persons belonging to the military or police forces of Nigeria, etc {See ss 1(1) and 98(D) Criminal code}

From the above provisions of law, there is a clear difference between stealing and corruption. An accused person cannot successfully be charged for the offence of corruption when the facts relate to the offence of stealing and vice versa. Practising lawyers know that you cannot afford to charge an offender wrongly otherwise the offender may be let off the hook.

In the light of the foregoing, the simple conclusion is that stealing and corruption are both offences under Nigerian legal system but cannot be used interchangeably because they do not mean the same thing. A person may be corrupt because he gives and takes bribes but the same person may never have stolen. In the same vein a person may be convicted for stealing without any single charge of corruption in the suit against him. This is not to say that a person cannot steal and be corrupt at the same time. That is a possibility but it certainly doesn’t change the meaning of both terminologies whether generally or technically.

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blossomnnodim.com OP-ED: This post reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of blossomnnodim.com as a publication.

Teingo Inko-Tariah: Lawyer,  blogger and editor. She is a Partner at Accord Legal, a law firm based in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. She is passionate about advocacy generally and consumer protection in particular. She blogs to highlight and discuss topical issues relating to business and investments and follow up on trends in the Nigerian corporate and commercial landscape. Outside of legal practice, Teingo is involved in volunteering, table and lawn tennis. She also enjoys watching soccer. Teingo can be reached on Linkedin and Google+.