By Oscarline Onwuemenyi & IKECHUKWU NNOCHIRI , Abuja
An Abuja high court sitting at Apo, yesterday, declined to quash the 17-count criminal charge that was preferred against the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Dimeji Bankole and his erstwhile Deputy, Usman Nafada Bayero, by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
The court okayed the duo for trial on the premise that the proof of evidence tendered against them by the anti-graft agency, established a nexus between them and the offence they were alleged to have committed.
Ruling on two separate preliminary objections raised against the trial, the presiding judge in the matter, Justice Suleiman Belgore, yesterday, said he was convinced that the accused persons have explanations to give pertaining to an alleged N40 billion loan scam that culminated to their arraignment on July 13.
EFCC had in the substantive charge before the court alleged that the accused persons, being entrusted with House of Representatives’ Account No. 00390070000018 with the United Bank of Africa, Plc and the Overhead Account of the House of Representatives with First Bank of Nigeria, Plc, properties of the Federal Government of Nigeria, dishonestly used the accounts to obtain loans totaling to about N40 billion.
It equally accused them of breaching public trust by agreeing to approve the allowances and ‘running costs’ of members of the 6th session of House of Representatives, in violation of the approved remuneration package for political, public and judicial office holders by the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission, as well as, the extant Revised Financial Regulations of the Federal Government of Nigeria, 2009.
The said crime which they allegedly committed contrary to section 97(1) of the Penal Code Act, Cap 532, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (Abuja) 1990, is punishable under section 315 of the same Penal Code Act.
Dismissing their request for the charges to be quashed as lacking in merit, the high court yesterday maintained that it has the requisite jurisdiction to try them over the matter, even as it gave the prosecution the nod to call witnesses against them on November 21.
“The accused persons are facing trial on allegations bothering on conspiracy, theft and breach of public trust. They were leaders of the House of Representatives at the material time the subject matter of litigation before this court arose and they participated in all the activities relating to the secured loan.
“The 1st accuse is alleged to have given approval for it. Having gone through the proof of evidence before me, it is my view that there is sufficient link between the two accused persons, the witness statements and other relevant documents before this court.
“The cause of justice will be better served if this case proceeds to trial. This application is therefore lacking in merit and is hereby dismissed. The charge cannot be quashed and it is not quashed” the judge held.
Justice Belgore equally dismissed contention of the former Speaker that the EFCC was bereft of the statutory powers to delegate authority to a private legal practitioner to prosecute offences created by or under the Penal Code Act in any court of law, without firstly securing the FIAT of the Attorney-General of the Federation, AGF.
“Is FIAT a sine-qua-non for a private legal practitioner to prosecute? I make bold to say no. Under section 174 of the 1999 constitution, any person can initiate or undertake to prosecute with or without the FIAT of the AGF.
“The office of the AGF no longer has the monopoly of prosecution and any legal practitioner has the right of audience before any court of law in the country so far such practitioner is found worthy in accordance with the Legal Practitioners Act, he has the constitutional right to prosecute a criminal matter in court.
“However, the only caveat is that the AGF has the power to take over the proceeding at any stage before judgment is delivered and determine whether to continue or discontinue with the case.
“In the instant case, the AGF is still in office and has not taken over the matter from the EFCC. I hold that Mr. Festus Keyamo is legally qualified to prosecute this case and therefore the application by the accused applicant failed”, the judge held.
Ruling on another application by the former speaker seeking the disqualification of the EFCC lawyer from the case on grounds that, Keyamo ab-initio wrote petitions against him whilst he was still in power, the trial judge relied on a Supreme Court decided case law in Fawehinmi V. Akilu, reported in the 4 NWLR, 1987, and held that for a prosecutor to be able to prove his case effectively, he ought to show elements of bias against the accused person.
The judge said the accused persons should not worry over the perceived negative disposition of the prosecuting counsel towards them, saying the only bias that is of significant consequence in a criminal proceeding is that of the judge.
According to him, “a prosecutor need not be completely free from bias once he accepts the brief of the matter, I cannot see from any decided case where either the apex court or any other court for that matter, said the prosecution must be unbiased.”.
Immediately the rulings were delivered yesterday, EFCC told the trial court that it intends to call five witnesses against the accused persons. Consequently it was given one clear week starting from November 21, just as the judge expressed his determination to deliver judgment on the matter before December.
It would be recalled the Bankole and his deputy had approached the court begging it to quash the 17 count charges against them. They had challenged the competence of the suit, contending that no court has the jurisdiction to try them over actions they perfected while exercising their powers as the speaker and deputy speaker of the lower chamber of the legislature.