By Innocent Anaba
The prosecution of Mr Iorwase Hembe and Azubogu Ifeanyi, both members of House of Representatives for stealing $4,095 estacodes given to them by Securities and Exchange Commission, SEC to travel overseas had attracted comments both in Nigeria and overseas.
It is important to review the charges for better appreciation of the issues.
“That you, Hembe sometime in October 2011 in Abuja within the judicial Division of the High Court of Abuja, dishonestly converted to your own use the sum of $4,095 being money given to you by SEC as your travelling allowance to PUNCTA CANA, Dominican Republic to attend a conference which you did not attend and thereby committed an offence contrary to section 308 of the Penal Code Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (Abuja) 2004 and punishable under section 309 of the same code.
“That you, Ifeanyi sometime in October, 2011 in Abuja within the judicial division of the High Court of Abuja, dishonestly converted to your own use the sum of $4.095 being money given to you by SEC as your travelling allowance to PUNCTA CANA, Dominican Republic to attend a conference which you did not attend and thereby committed an offence contrary to section 308 of the Penal Code Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (Abuja) 2004 and punishable under section 309 of the same code.”
The dislike for members of the National Assembly, clearly manifested itself, as Nigerians were not ready to give Hembe and Ifeanyi, the benefit of the doubt, when Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, accused them of shady deals.
A more careful scrutiny of the charges by EFCC against Hembe and Ifeanyi would show that they ought not to have been charged in the first instance, as they were alleged to Converted to their own use, $4,095 about N600,000 given to them by SEC as travelling allowance to a conference in Dominican Republic in October, 2011.
After pleading not guilty to the charges, the accused persons prayed the court to quash same. As expected, the trial judge declined. During trial, the prosecution called five witnesses including staff of SEC.
The evidence tendered in court showed that despite the fact that SEC knew it was impossible for the accused person to arrive the conference venue before the event started; it nevertheless paid for the tickets and also sent the estacodes.
When it became clear to Ifeanyi that he would not get a flight to Puncta Cana, Dominican Republic where the conference was staled, he returned the tickets and the estacodes. However, SEC returned the tickets with a promise to arrange another trip to Russia with them. SEC by its conduct also allowed the lawmaker to keep the estacodes for the planned trip to Russia.
All staff of SEC, who gave evidence during trial testified to the fact that the commission did not ask for the esatacode to be paid back to it; the commission does not always collect estacodes back rather another trip would be schedule for the person who could not utilised the first estacodes and in the circumstance, the lawmakers could not be said to have criminally converted the estacodes to their own use.
After EFCC had called five witnesses, the accused persons were confident that no criminal case had been established against them. They consequently submitted a no case submission, arguing that there was no evidence to prove the essential element in the alleged offence and that the evidence adduced by the prosecution, had been so discredited as a result of cross-examination or was so manifestly unreliable that no reasonable court could safely convict based on same.
It had been suggested in some quarters, that the case against the lawmakers was a mere persecution, manifestly unjust and meant to distract them from performing their legislative functions.
It was also alleged that the presidency using EFCC wanted to harass them for daring to confront the Director General of SEC, Ms Arunma Oteh with allegations of abuse of office.
It will be recalled that the House of Reps, had faulted the appointment of Oteh, arguing that she was not qualified to hold the office, in addition to being questioned on why she was so profligate with public funds.
While the court adjourned to rule on the matter, an apparently apprehensive EFCC, fearing that it might lose, raised spurious allegation of bias against the trial judge, Justice A.S. Umar.
Observers have raised concern that the anti-corruption agency was deploying every antics, to win its cases in court, expressing fear that the commission, was in the process, destroying the judiciary and the integrity of a helpless judge because it want a conviction at all costs.
EFCC had asked the Chief Judge of the Abuja High Court, Justice Lawal Gummi to re-assign the case to a new judge for fresh trial.
Director of Legal Services, Mr Chile Okoroma, who has never appeared in court since the commencement of trial, appeared in court just as the court was to deliver its ruling on the application to quash the charges based on a no case submission to raise allegations of bias against the trial judge, without evidence of any sort.
It had been argued that the protest by EFCC was a calculated attempt to further delay trail as the Commission had no credible evidence to proceed thus buying more time to continue, even though it does not have more evidence.
Observers saw this as another way of wasting public funds by EFCC as the case had shown that the Commission was only being used as a tool of persecution due its continued face off with the Presidency, otherwise, how can one justify the Commission spendings millions to chase a N600,000 estacode that the said lawmakers had even returned but were only told to keep and tickets, as there were plans to arrange another trip as confirmed SEC’s staff that were witnesses when the Commission closed its case?
Can one explain why Oteh, who had earlier accused the lawmakers of demanding N44 million as bribe did not take the case to court? Why was she not invited by the Commission to throw more light on the bribery scam? Did she ever asked the lawmakers to return the so called estacode, which they were told to keep, for another trip as was collaborated by staff of SEC as a normal practice to use a belated estacode for another trip?
These are questions that are begging for answers as the case progresses.
It was gathered, that the case had been transferred to Justice Peter Kekemeke and the suspects had since been re-arraigned, fresh plea taken and admitted to bail.
It must be noted that it is the turn of Hembe and Ifeanyi today, whose turn it will be tomorrow? Only EFCC and the Presidency know. Must prosecution be at the whims of the government of the day? While one cannot be seen to condone criminal acts or argue for the non arraignment suspects, but must same be done to please anybody? The answer certainly should be no. Cases must be prosecuted or defended on merit. That is the only way to enthrone due process, fairness and good governance.