February 19, 2020

N3.1bn fraud: Appeal Court orders Justice Abang to hands-off Suswam’s trial

N3.1bn fraud: Appeal Court orders Justice Abang to hands-off Suswam's trial

By Ikechukwu Nnochiri

The Court of Appeal in Abuja, on Wednesday, ordered Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja to hands-off the trial of former governor of Benue State, Dr Gabriel Suswam.

Suswam who piloted the affairs of Benue State from 2007 to 2015,‎ is answering to a nine-count money laundering charge alongside his erstwhile Commissioner for Finance, Mr Omodachi Okolobia.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, alleged that the duo looted over N3.1 billion, being proceeds of shares owned by the Benue State government and Benue Investment and Property Company Ltd.

The appellate court, in a unanimous judgement by a three-man panel of Justices, ordered that the defendants’ case-file should be returned back to Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the high court who had made appreciable progress before the matter was transferred to Justice Abang.

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In its lead judgement that was delivered by Justice Emmanuel Agim, the appellate court ordered that Justice Mohammed who had shown unjustified reluctance in entertaining the case should give the trial an accelerated hearing.

The court held that Justice Mohammed was wrong to have recused himself from conducting the trial on account of fear, when all the parties had expressed confidence in him.

Despite commending Justice Abang for his diligence in conducting the trial after the case was handed to him, the appellate court said its decision to return the case-file back to Justice Mohammed was to correct the error the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court made by reassigning the case to him.

This, Justice Agim explained, was to strengthen the path of justice and protect the institution of the Judiciary, noting that the CJ misapplied his discretion when he reassigned the case to Justice Abang, rather than directing Justice Mohammed to continue with the trial.

It stressed that though the CJ the powers under section 19 of the Federal High Court Rules to assign cases to any Judge of the court, such discretion must be “exercised properly and not recklessly so as to meet the justice of the case”.

According to the appellate court, “Unfortunately, the Chief Judge did not exercise his discretion correctly. The re-assignment of the case to Justice Abang amounted to a transfer in a matter that was part heard.

“Four witnesses had already testified and an accused person is entitled to a trial within a reasonable period of time.”

The court however held that the improper exercise of discretion by the CJ did not invalidate the in proceedings that took place before Justice Abang.

“The action of the Chief Judge is an administrative one and therefore, proceedings by Justice Abang cannot amount to a nullity.

“The Federal High Court is one court and the Judges are the same. It is within the administrative powers of the Chief Judge to re-assign cases and any judge has the jurisdiction to hear to cases assigned to them by the Chief Judge of the court.

“Our decision is merely to correct the error by the Chief Judge. Justice Abang was right to assume jurisdiction since he has the statutory duty to obey the Chief Judge.

“Justice Abang has no powers to challenge or question the Chief Judge. He has a duty to take a case assigned to him and deal with it. He did what the law allowed him.

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“In fact, if the ruling of Justice Abang did not touch on the reasons given by Justice Mohammed to recuse himself, this appeal would have no life.

“Abang has shown commendable diligence in the trial. But since Justice Abang went to determine the propriety of Justice Mohammed’s recusal from the case, the appeal has live issues”.

It held that since Justice Mohammed dismissed the allegation that led to his recusal as baseless, he ought to have continued with the trial.

“The reasons he gave were not tenable since all the parties had expressed confidence in him.

“More so, since he adjudged the allegations as baseless, he should have summoned the courage to proceed with the case.

“A Judex is supposed to determine cases before them without fear and favour. The conduct of Justice Mohammed was very intriguing as Judges fear is not a consideration in determining issues of partiality or impartiality of the court.

“We have taken this decision to correct the error of the Chief Judge. More so, Justice Mohammed had called four witnesses. If the case will go back to him, the prosecution will proceed with the fifth witness. It is for that reason that we have to allow this appeal.

“It is hereby ordered that the trial of the case should go back to Justice A.R. Mohammed for continuation in an accelerated manner since all the parties have expressed confidence in him”, the appellate court held.

The judgement followed an appeal Suswam and his co-defendant lodged to challenge the re-assignment of their trial to Justice Abang.