By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
THERE seems to be a widening crack in the special team of prosecutors the Federal Government constituted to handle high-profile corruption cases across the country. The team, comprising of 80 senior lawyers drawn from private law firms and the Federal Ministry of Justice, were grouped into 20 sub-teams with each led by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN.
Cases are assigned to the teams by the National Prosecution Coordination Committee, NPCC, which is headed by Prof. Itse Sagay, SAN, but supervised by the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN. The AGF had explained that the rationale behind assembling the special team was to ensure speedy prosecution of cases, especially the ones involving public officials.
Among such high-profile matters currently being handled by the lawyers include trial of superior court Judges that were arrested by the Department of State Service, DSS, between October 7 and 8, 2016. Meanwhile, barely eight months after the prosecution teams were inaugurated, there appears to be a rift between some of the senior prosecutors and the NPCC.
Apex court’s treasury
The issue became more pronounced on February 9, after a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Court of Justice, ICC, Mr. Charles Adeogun-Philips, pulled out from handling the trial of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court, who is currently facing 16-count corruption charge.
At the resumed hearing of the case, Adeogun-Philips, who had previously led the star witness, Mr. Chukwuebuka Nwamba, in evidence, told trial Justice, John Tsoho, that he would no longer participate in the trial owing to “some domestic issues”. He did not adduce further reasons behind his decision to hands-off the case.
Nevertheless, a source at the Ministry of Justice told Vanguard in confidence that the ex-ICC prosecutor was disappointed that the Federal Government decided to withdraw criminal charges against three top officials of the Supreme Court accused of diverting over N2.2billion from the apex court’s treasury without notifying him, the prosecuting counsel.
Those charged before an Abuja High Court at Jabi were chief registrar of the Supreme Court, Mr. Saleh Gambo, the deputy director of finance, Sharif Abdulrahman and the assistant director of finance, Rilwanu Lawal.
They were specifically alleged to have diverted N2.2billion belonging to the Supreme Court of Nigeria, into personal bank accounts domiciled at United Bank For Africa Plc with account number 2027642863. However, the Federal Government suddenly withdrew the nine-count corruption charge against them, even as it was struck out by trial Justice Abba-Bello Mohammed.
Adeogun-Philips had reportedly confronted the NPCC to express his displeasure that the matter was withdrawn because the defendants were northerners.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government, in a statement by media aide to the AGF, Mr. Salihu Isah, insisted that Adeogun-Philips was disengaged “over non-disclosure of conflict of interest and other sundry reasons.”
Isah maintained that the ex-ICC prosecutor was sacked via a letter the NPCC wrote to him on February 6, 2017. The letter was signed by Secretary of the NPCC, Sylvester Imhanobe. “Contrary to impressions given by Charles Adeogun-Philips, the lead prosecutor in the suit against Supreme Court judge, Justice Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta, in various reports suggesting that he withdrew from the case on his own volition, the National Prosecution Coordination Committee, NPCC, that engaged his services actually withdrew the fiat issued to him to prosecute the case over non disclosure of conflict of interest and for other sundry reasons.”
Government said it uncovered that the prosecutor was also defending an ally to former Petroleum Minister, Deziani Allison Madueke, in a trial initiated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
Besides, there is equally an indictment that the government is set to sack five SANs who are currently members of the special prosecution team for also failing to disclose their personal interests in some pending high-profile criminal cases.