…….as court rules on defendants’ objections May 12
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, on Friday, fixed May 12 to determine whether it has the jurisdiction to try 23 officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, accused of collecting N360million bribe from Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State.
Trial Justice John Tsoho reserved ruling on the issue on a day the Federal Government adduced reasons why it decided to prosecute the defendants in Abuja instead of in Rivers State.
FG had in a seven-count criminal charge it filed before the high court on March 7, alleged that the indicted INEC officials, got the bribe money from Governor Wike during the December 10, 2016, legislative re-rerun election in Rivers state.
Those cited as defendants in suit marked FHC/ABJ/CR//42/2017, were Shittu Mohammed Lamido (Shettima), Henry Owokure, Peter Ewatade, Mrs. Mary Jummai, Tunkoyo Pennap, Gwatana Jibril, Ivase Stephen, Abdullahi Ogabo, Gayus Hassan, Hussaina Yahaya, James Ogwuche, Karimu Aminu and Adedokun Najeem Ayotunde.
Others include, Balogun Funmilayo, Adams Kadiri, Akinwande Adesoji, Lukeman Olabimpe, Tiamiyu Arowolo, Akinwoye Amodu, Nwoha Yusuf, Patrick Anuke, Iro Abali, Nwosu Oluchi and Arukwe Chinelo.
The defendants had on March 14, declined to enter their plea to the charge, insisting that the court in Abuja lacked the territorial jurisdiction to conduct their trial based on the alleged offence.
They challenged the legal propriety of FG trying them in Abuja over a crime they allegedly committed in Rivers State.
The defence lawyers led by Mr. Ahmed Raji, SAN, and U.O Ukairo, said they had on March 13, filed motions to challenge powers of the high court in Abuja to adjudicate on an offence that took place in Rivers State.
They dared FG to take them before the Port Harcourt Division of the high court, saying the court should in the alternative, strike out the charge for want of competence.
Nevertheless, in urging the court to dismiss the motions, government lawyer, Mr. Aliyu Alilu, maintained that Rivers State is “highly unsafe” to conduct such trial.
FG, in a counter-affidavit it filed before the court, cited an intelligence report by the police alleging that thugs loyal to the Wike-led administration, had threatened to rise violently against the trial of the perceived allies of their benefactor if the case was conducted in the state.
It told the court that “the safety of witnesses, prosecutors, court officials and other civilians cannot be guaranteed” if the trial is conducted in Rivers State.
“That lives of security agents and civilians are usually in serious danger each time perceived allies of the present state government are being investigated.
“That defendants in this case are being charged in respect of the gratification they received from the present Governor of Rivers State, Governor Nyesom Wike.
“That intelligence report reaching the Police Force Headquarters is that prosecuting the said defendants in the same Rivers State will constitute security risks to prosecutors, the court and witnesses and even innocent civilians as political thugs, loyal to the incumbent administration in the state, have vowed to rise violently in opposition to the prosecution of perceived allies of their benefactor.
“That it is in consideration of security of lives of prosecutors, witnesses, court officials and innocent civilians that this matter be heard before this division of the Federal High Court”, FG added.
Besides, FG narrated before the court, how a Deputy Superintendent of Police, Mohammed Alkali, and Sergeant Peter Uchi of the 48 Police Mobile Force were “gruesomely murdered and beheaded by thugs and cult gangs” on the day of the rerun elections, despite the deployment of law enforcement agencies ahead of the exercise.
It told the court that before the election, three other policemen and four operatives of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps were equally murdered in cold blood at Omoku and Ido Camp of Agip Oil Company, Obiafo community.
“That the late DSP Mohammed Alkali and Sergeant Peter Uchi were ambushed, gruesomely murdered and beheaded by political thugs and cult gangs in Rivers State.
“That shortly before the election three personnel of the Police Mobile Force, Squadron 19 and four personnel of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps were gruesomely murdered at Omoku and Ido Camp of Agip Oil Company, Obiafo community respectively.
“That all arrested cultists and political thugs during the elections confessed to have been sponsored by some politicians in the state.”
FG further stated that during investigation into the crimes committed during the rerun elections, many eyewitnesses and victims refused to give information to the police out of fear of being killed by cult groups.
“That the few individuals, who braved the odds to meet the team of investigators, expressed their concern that informants could alert cultists to go after them”, it added.
However, the defendants prayed the court to disregard FG’s counter-affidavit, saying they are civil servants who are mostly resident in Rivers State.
They maintained that they do not have the resources to constantly travel to Abuja to face trial over offence they allegedly committed in Rivers State.
FG had alleged that the N360million was proceeds of governor Wike’s criminal conduct which it said constituted economic and financial crimes.
It alleged that the accused persons had between December 7 and 10, 2016, converted, concealed and took possession of the sum of N360million bribe, in violation of various provisions of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2011 and the Economic and Financial Crimes (Establishment, etc) Act, 2004.
FG alleged that action of the defendants contravened section 15(1)(a)(ii), 17(b) and 18(a) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2011.
In Count-4 of the charge, FG, alleged that the defendants, being “electoral officers and staff of the Independent National Electoral Commission, between December 7 and 10, 2016, at Port Harcourt, Rivers State, did commit an offence to wit: possession of the sum of N360,000,000, being money you received from Governor Ezenwo Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, knowing that the said money represented proceeds of bribery and corruption in connection with the Rivers State rerun election which took place on December 10, 2016.”
It alleged in count-5 that the defendants committed an offence to wit: “used the sum of N360,000,000 being money you received from Governor Ezenwo Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, knowing that the said money represented proceeds of bribery and corruption in connection with the Rivers State rerun election which took place on December 10, 2016.”
Count 6 alleged that they committed an offence to wit: possession of the sum of N360,000,000 being money you received from Governor Ezenwo Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, knowing that the said money represented proceeds of economic and financial crime to wit: bribery and corruption in connection with the Rivers State rerun election which took place on December 10, 2016.
In the last count, FG alleged that the defendants “did commit an offence to wit: used the sum of N360,000,000, being money you received from Governor Ezenwo Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, knowing that the said money represented proceeds of economic and financial crime to wit: bribery and corruption in connection with the Rivers State rerun election which took place on December 10, 2016.”
FG earlier revealed that each of the electoral officers got N15million, while three senior electoral officers for the Senatorial Zones, received an extra N5million each, bringing the total bribe sum to N360million.
Already, it has lined up 14 witnesses, mostly policemen, to testify against the defendants.