By Abdulwahab Abdulah & Ikechukwu Nnochiri
Undoubtedly, 2017 was quite an eventful year for the judiciary. Aside plethora of criminal and civil cases the judiciary had to grapple with in the fading year, there were equally some landmark administrative decisions that were taken by the National Judicial Council, NJC, to ensure speedy determination of pending corruption cases.
Also, there were steps taken by the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, that shaped the Bar for advancement and promotion of justice.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen had within the year, directed all Heads of Courts in the country to compile and forward to the NJC, comprehensive lists of all corruption and financial crime cases being handled by their various courts.
The CJN, who gave the directive during a special court session the Supreme Court held to mark the opening of the 2017/2018 legal year, noted that “inexplicable and seemingly intractable delays”, has been the bane of criminal justice administration in the country.
He decried that such delays, “result in the unfortunate disruption of due process.”
Consequently, Justice Onnoghen ordered all the Heads of Courts to designate at least one court in their various jurisdictions as Special Courts, solely for the purpose of hearing and speedily determining corruption and financial crime cases.
As a follow-up action, the NJC, appointed a former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami to head the Corruption and Financial Crimes Cases Trial Monitoring Committee, COTRIMCO, which was established by the CJN. The legal body took the decision at the end of its 82nd meeting in Abuja.
However, Justice Salami rejected his appointment, saying he was comfortable to be a part of the panel. Owing to Salami’s decision, the Council, picked a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Suleiman Galadima as the new chairman of its COTRIMCO.
The year under review equally saw the continuation of cases against Justices Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court and Adeniyi Ademola who hitherto served on the bench of the Federal High Court in Abuja.
Justice Ngwuta is answering to a 13-count charge that borders on money laundering , age falsification, as well as his alleged possession of multiple international passports.
On the other hand, Justice Ademola who was among eight superior court judges that were arrested after a “sting operation” the Department of State Service, DSS, conducted in October 2016, bowed out of the bench albiet in a controversial circumstance. Whereas the Judge claimed he voluntarily retired, the NJC however insisted that he was sacked.
Justice Ademola was earlier suspended from the bench by the NJC but later recalled after an Abuja High Court quashed the 18-count corruption charge the Federal Government preferred against him, his wife, Olabowale and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Joe Agi
FG had alleged that Ademola who is a grandson to a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, had in the discharge of his official duties, received bribe from Agi to the tune of N38.5million and perverted the course of Justice.
Nevertheless, the trial court, in a judgement that was delivered by Justice Jude Okeke on February 5, discharged the defendants on the premise that FG failed to prove its allegations against them.
While the embattled Judge, on December 6, said he had resigned, however, the next day, the NJC, said it had at the end of its 84th Meeting in Abuja, sacked him and Justice O. O. Tokode from the Federal High Court Bench.
The legal body said it had previously written to President Muhammadu Buhari, recommending that Ademola must immediately proceed on compulsory retirement, even though he would actually be officially due for retirement on April 8, 2018, when he would have clocked the 65 years mandatory retirement age. However, NJC acknowledged that Justice Ademola had previously on October 10, forwarded to it, his notice of retirement against next year.
Another major case that shaped the 2017 legal year was that of the leader of Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu, who on October 17, failed to appear in court for continuation of his trial.
Inability to trace the whereabouts of the IPOB leader led the trial Justice Binta Nyako of the Federal High Court in Abuja to order his three sureties- Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, a Jewish High Priest, Emmanu El-Shalom Oka BenMadu, and an accountant, Tochukwu Uchendu- to either produce him or risk jail/ forfeiture of the N100m bail bond they entered with the court.
Kanu was to be re-arraigned on an amended five-count treasonable felony charge FG entered against him and four other pro-Biafra agitators, Chidiebere Onwudiwe, Benjamin Madubugwu, David Nwawuisi and Bright Chimezie.
Justice Nyako had in a ruling on April 25, released Kanu on bail after he had spent a year and seven months in detention, though the court okayed his co-defendants to remain in prison custody.
Meantime, the Acting Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Abdul Abdu-Kafarati had on September 20, proscribed the IPOB as an illegal organization.
The IPOB was outlawed on the strength of an ex-parte motion the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, filed on behalf of the government.
Nevertheless, IPOB approached the court to challenge the legal validity of the order it said was surreptitiously obtained by the AGF.
Similarly, a team of lawyers representing the ‘missing’ leader of the proscribed IPOB, asked the high court to compel the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai, to produce their client in court.
Kanu’s lawyers, led by Mr. Ifeanyi Ejiofor, told the court that they have not seen or heard from their client since September 14 when the “Nigerian Army invaded the Applicant’s house on a murderous raid, where life and mortar bullets were fired on unarmed and defenseless populace, leaving 28 persons dead and abducting many”.
Ongoing trial of erstwhile National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Olisa Metuh, got a new twist, after the court summoned former President Goodluck Jonathan to appear as a witness in the case.
Trial Justice Okon Abang issued subpoena ad testificandum for both Jonathan and former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki, retd, to appear as witnesses, based on an application from Metuh.
Metuh who is answering to a seven-count charge the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, preferred against him and his firm, Destra Investment Limited, had described the duo as his crucial witnesses.
EFCC alleged that the former PDP spokesman had before the 2015 presidential election, received N400million from the Office of the National Security Adviser, ONSA, without executing any contract.
It said the fund which was released to Metuh and his firm by the erstwhile NSA, Col. Sambo Dasuki, retd, was part of about $2.1billion earmarked for the purchase of arms to fight insurgency in the North East. He was equally accused of money laundering. EFCC alleged that he was engaged in an illicit transaction that involved $2m.
However, Jonathan had since challenged the summon against him which he asked the court to set-aside.
In the alternative, Jonathan, in a motion he filed through his counsel, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, asked Justice Abang to direct Metuh to deposit with the court, for and on behalf of himself, the sum of N1billion in line with provisions of Section 241(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015.
He said the N1bn would cover travelling expenses for himself and his security personnel from his home town, Otuoke in Bayelsa State, to Abuja and also for time that he might spend appearing before the court as President of Nigeria between 2010 to 2015.
The former President was not the only one that had an encounter before the court. His wife, Patience, also had a running battle with the EFCC which was bent on confiscating funds and assets belonging to her Foundation.
After a legal face-off between the agency and the former first lady, the high court, on December 5, vacated an order it made on May 30, freezing 16 separate bank accounts linked to Jonathan’s wife.
Justice Binta Nyako lifted the order that barred Mrs. Jonathan and 10 different organizations connected to her, from having access to the bank accounts containing aggregate sums of $5.8million and N3.5billion.
The court took the decision after it heard an application that Mrs. Jonathan and the 10 companies filed to challenge an ex-parte order that granted EFCC interim ownership of funds in the accounts.
The companies that were cited as co-applicants in the motion that the ex-first lady filed through her team of lawyers led by Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, were the Incorporated Trustees of Ariwabai Aruera Reachout Foundation, Pagmat Oil and Gas Nigeria Limited, Flinchley Top Homes Limited, Incorporated Trustees of Women for Change and Development Initiative Nigeria, Transocean Property and Investment Ltd, Seagate Property Development Investment Company, Globus Integrated Services and Pluto Property and Investment Company Limited.
Another case that refused to be laid to rest in 2017, is the trial of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki.
The Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja, on December 12, gave FG the nod to re-open the case it entered against Saraki before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT.
The appellate court, in an unanimous judgement by a three-man panel of Justices led by Justice Tinuade Akomolafe-Wilson, said it was satisfied that Saraki has a case to answer before the CCT in respect of three out of the 18-count corruption charge FG preferred against him.
The court however dismissed 15 counts of the charge. Specifically, the appellate court panel directed Saraki to return to the tribunal to defend counts 4, 5 and 6 of the amended charge, which relates to allegation that the defendant as a public officer, engaged in the sale of rice and sugar.
Saraki had claimed that he used proceeds of the business to settle a loan debt he incurred with the Guarantee Trust Bank.
In the Lagos division, Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa of Federal High Court, Bayelsa Division, was docked on Friday, June 23, 2017 before a Lagos High Court sitting in Igbosere for alleged unlawful financial enrichment.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, arraigned Mr. Nganjiwa on a 14-count charge bordering on unlawful financial enrichment to the tune of $260,000 and N8.7 million (approximately N81.7 million). He pleaded not guilty to all the 14 counts.
Subsequently, the High Court Judge challenged the jurisdiction of the trial court. The Court of Appeal, Lagos however, struck out the criminal charge filed by the EFCC against the serving judge, Nganjiwa on December 10, this year.
Delivering his judgement, Justice Adele Obaseki quashed the 14-count charges filed against Justice Nganjiwa. The Appeal Court’s ruling followed an appeal filed by the Judge through his lawyer, Chief Robert Clarke (SAN), challenging Justice Akintoye’s jurisdiction to entertain the matter. Clarke had before Justice Nganjiwa’s arraignment on June 23, argued a preliminary objection challenging Justice Akintoye’s jurisdiction to hear the case. He had contended that by virtue of Section 158 of the 1999 Constitution, only the National Judicial Council had the power to deal with the kind of allegations brought by the EFCC against his client, a serving judge.
The commissioning of the first DNA Forensic Centre in West Africa by Lagos State government coupled with the formal adoption of plea bargain by the state were another land mark events that shaped the outgoing year.
Commissioning the center, the state Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode said the move would go a long way in resolving all form of crimes, paternity issues and others through technology which is the modern trend across the world. Giving details of the DNA Centre, the Governor said the facility has capacity to provide the Police, Prosecutors, Defense Attorneys and Private citizens with crime scene processing; serological screening for blood and semen; DNA analysis of bone, teeth and hair; maternal and paternal relationship DNA analysis; expert witness and case handling services; paternal and maternal ancestry DNA analysis; cold case file review and mass disaster human identification.
The arraignment of the most wanted kidnap kingpin,Chukwudumeme Onwuamadike, a.k.a. Evans, on Wednesday, August 30, 2017 before a Lagos High Courts was another milestone event.
The Kidnap kingpin was arraigned before a vacation judge, Justice Hakeem Oshodi of the Lagos High Court, Ikeja, for allegedly kidnapping one Dunu Donatus.
Evans was arraigned alongside five other suspected members of his gang which included a woman, Ogechi Uchechukwu, the third defendant. Others are – Uche Amadi, Okwuchukwu Nwachukwu, Chilaka Ifeanyi and Victor Chukwunonso Aduba. The Lagos State government preferred a two- count charge of conspiracy and kidnapping against them. The offences were said to be contrary to Sections 411 and 271(3) Criminal Law Cap C17 Laws of Lagos State 2015 and punishable under same.
Evans, Amadi and Nwachukwu entered a guilty plea, while his other three accomplices – Uchechukwu, Ifeanyi and Aduba pleaded not guilty to the charges. However, he made a u-turn of non guilty plea during his next appearance.
On October 10, Evans through his lawyers challenged the competence of a fresh (second) charge brought against him and others. Evans was arraigned before Justice Oluwatoyin Taiwo on charges bordering on kidnapping, murder and illegal possession of firearms. Specifically, Evans was arraigned over alleged murder, kidnap of Sylvanius Ahanonu Hafiia and attempted kidnap of the chairman of Young Shall Grow Motors, Vincent Obianodo.
The Nigerian Bar Association under the year in review formed a blue print to guide her activities for the year. It embarked on reform by drawing a regulatory framework of the legal profession. This include advocating for reforms of the regulatory framework governing the legal profession and re-positioning the Nigerian Bar Association’s role in the regulation of the legal profession.
It also engaged in the creation of the NBA Business Development Unit. This involved the restructuring the essential people, processes and pillars of the NBA to enable it become more responsive to the needs of its members, stakeholders and the public.
It also inaugurated her Public Interest Programme. This included the creation of structured Public Interest programmes and projects to be executed by the Association.
It also focussed on her branches nationwide and sections restructuring. Here it engaged members, at Branch and Section levels in the activities of the Bar.
The Bar E-JUSTICE Reporting Platform, meant for accountability and transparency was also brought to fore to ensure accountability and transparency within the legal profession and the Justice Sector.
As the curtain draws on 2017, there is no doubt that 2018, being a year before the general elections, will be a very busy one for the Judiciary.