Lagos lawyer and activist, Femi Falana, has lambasted some Nigeria’s senior lawyers and judges for allegedly frustrating corruption cases in the country.
He identified the trials of the former Chief Executive of the defunct Intercontinental Bank Plc, Erastus Akingbola and former governor of Delta State, James Ibori as well as the celebrated Halliburton bribery case as some of the high profile cases the Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs, had succeeded in undermining.
In a paper he presented at the 2014 Law Week of the Aba Branch of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, Mr. Falana, who is also a SAN, narrated how his colleagues frustrated the three cases he listed.
According to him, Mr. Akingbola had a N10 billion charge against him at the Federal High Court struck out by retired Justice Clement Archibong for alleged prosecutorial irresponsibility by four SANs.
He stated that the trial in the sister case of N47 billion fraud filed against the defendant at the Lagos State High Court was concluded and adjourned for judgment before the trial judge, Wale Abiru J. was promoted to the Court of Appeal. He said as the trial was abruptly terminated the trial of Mr. Akingbola commenced de novo.
He added, “But the defendant had challenged the jurisdiction of the same court to try him for stealing and fraud arising from the alleged manipulation of the capital market.
“Although, the ruling of the trial court has been fixed for May 2, 2014, the civil suit filed against the defendant in a British High Court by the Access Bank Plc was concluded in July, 2012.
“In granting the reliefs sought by the plaintiff the trial court ordered the defendant to refund the sum of N212 billion illegally diverted from the bank. The foreign judgment was registered at the Federal High Court in Lagos last week.”
On Mr. Ibori’s case, Mr. Falana said in a bid to shield the former governor from prosecution, “a number of judges and lawyers threw caution to the winds,” notwithstanding that his (Ibori) record of conviction for stealing building materials in 1995 was tampered with and destroyed at the Upper Area Court. The case, he said was determined in favour of Mr. Ibori even though the judge who jailed him gave oral testimony in a case well conducted at the High Court by the Late Gani Fawehinmi.
He recounted that upon his arraignment the accused pleaded not guilty and raised a preliminary objection against the charge.
He noted that though the trial judge, Awokulehin J. struck out the charge and freed the former governor. As the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, took steps to re-arraign the defendant vamoosed and re-appeared in Dubai, United Arab Emirate where he was arrested and deported to London.
“It is interesting to note that Chief Ibori’s objection to the charge on the ground that he had been tried and freed of the same charges by a Nigerian judge was dismissed with an embarrassing indictment of the Nigerian judiciary,” Mr. Falana said.
Mr. Falana, who is a delegate to the ongoing National Conference in Abuja, said from the reports of several investigation panels in the Halliburton scandal, three former heads of state, a former Inspector-General of Police, former ministers, permanent secretaries and other officials of the Federal Government were indicted.
He explained that although some of the suspects indicted in the inquiry made confessional statements, they were not charged to court. He added that some of the privies of the principal suspects who were eventually arraigned in court were left off the hook for want of diligent prosecution.
The lawyer lamented, “In exasperation, the trial judge struck out the charges. The official connivance in sweeping the scandal under the carpet has since exposed the nation to undeserved ridicule at home and abroad.”
Mr. Falana stated that the national embarrassment was aggravated when it was found that Halliburton and its official who bribed the indicted Nigerian officials pleaded guilty to charges of bribery and corruption before criminal courts in the United States and were accordingly convicted.
“While Halliburton was ordered to pay fines of millions of dollars, the convicted officials were sentenced to prison terms,” he stressed.
“However, the former US Vice-President, and the CEO of Halliburton at the material time who was charged before an Abuja Court by the Mrs. Farida Waziri led-EFCC for his role in the scandal was “freed” without any arraignment whatsoever.”
While stating that without doubt, the decision of the Jonathan administration to re-open the Halliburton case was in the national interest, Mr. Falana said Nigeria’s Attorney General should ensure this time around that the trial of all the persons involved in the scandals perpetrated by Halliburton, Wilbros, Siemens, Julius Berger, Daimler AG, Panalpina and Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Co. Ltd. was handled by a team of incorruptible prosecutors.
He also asked the NBA to, in the public interest, appoint some lawyers to hold a watch brief at the trial.
“It is painful to note that the lawyers involved in the prosecution and defence of the cases referred to in this paper are Senior Advocates of Nigeria,” he said.
“The Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, owes the legal profession a duty by calling lawyers who frustrate the prosecution of corruption cases to order. Trial courts are also enjoined to report such lawyers to the Disciplinary Committee of the NBA for appropriate actions.”
Mr. Falana said a situation whereby the poor are daily railroaded to prison while criminals who are rich and powerful are allowed to breath the air of freedom has to stop.
He said, “Judges should therefore desist from conferring immunity or granting perpetual injunction restraining anti-graft agencies from investigating and prosecuting politically exposed persons.
“In a display of class solidarity with the ruling class the EFCC charges the rich accused of looting the treasury with money laundering while the poor are charged with stealing.
“Since the penalty for money laundering is two years or payment of fine while stealing attracts seven years imprisonment the discriminatory treatment of the two sets of criminal suspects should stop in the interest of justice and fair play.”
Mr. Falana said the new practice directions of the Federal High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court required accelerated hearing of cases pertaining to corruption and terrorism as well as appeals arising from them.
He stressed, “For instance, the trial of such cases is required to be conducted day by day at the Federal High Court. Regrettably, the practice directions are not been adhered to by all the relevant stakeholders.
“Hence, corruption cases are adjourned for all manners of reasons contrary to the letter and spirit of the law.
“In a recent case involving an ex governor who is facing a serious corruption case, the defence counsel, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, applied for adjournment sine die to allow the defendant to contest a gubernatorial election in one of the States. The trial court rightly rejected the application.”