Between EFCC, Obla and the law

On November 28, 2016, Chief Godwin Obla (SAN), a former prosecutor with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), was arraigned before a Lagos High Court in Suit No: LD/3671C/16 alongside the Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia, then a Judge of the Federal High Court, on the allegation that he bribed the latter with the sum of N5 million to secure the conviction of the Defendant in Charge No. FHC/L/C/482C/10 between the Federal Republic of Nigeria vs Raymond Temisan Omatseye.

Interestingly, the case of FRN V Omatseye was a criminal prosecution in respect of which the EFCC itself had briefed Obla and provided the proof of evidence, witnesses and other information utilized by Oblain the course of the trial.

This trial commenced in February 2011 before Justice Binta Nyako until 2013 when Obla filed an amended Charge and the Defendant was consequently re-arraigned before Justice Ajumogobia.

The entire trial spanned the course of five years, i.e. between the first arraignment in 2011 and May 20, 2016, when the judgement convicting the defendant for sundry breaches of the Public Procurement Act was delivered.

In this five-year period, Obla appeared before the court on at least 46 occasions along with junior counsel on behalf of the EFCC.

It is on record that Omatseye’s conviction was very significant in the fight against corruption and was widely celebrated as the first conviction ever secured by the EFCC for breach of contract approval thresholds under the Public Procurement Act.

One factor which lends credence to this assertion was the wide celebration by the EFCC of this conviction/judgement. For instance, the EFCC in its press release dated May 20, 2016 (which continues to appear on its website had the following to say about the judgement:

“After five years of grueling legal battle, justice is finally served as a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos today convicted a former Director General of the Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Mr. TemisanOmatseye.

Again, on May 27 2016, the Acting Chairman of the EFCC, whilst speaking at the launch of the “Clean Hands Against Corruption Campaign” at the Eagle Square in Abuja alluded to the conviction of Raymond Omatseye as one of the “140 convictions the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has secured in six months.”

It is perhaps curious that the same EFCC which lauded the conviction of Raymond Omatseye at several fora, made a complete volte-face to allege that the conviction was secured as a result of “perversion of justice”, moreso as no indication has been given as to whatever motivation Obla might have had to pay a bribe to secure a conviction on a case investigated by the EFCC and for which the EFCC itself provided the witnesses and proof of evidence.  By alleging that Obla attempted to “pervert the course of justice” in the case of FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA v. OMATSEYE, one wonders whether the EFCC was contending that the accused person in that case- who was investigated by the EFCC itself, ought not to have been tried at all, much less convicted and instead ought to have been discharged and acquitted.

By virtue of the various instructions of the EFCC to Obla for these various cases, Obla led the prosecution of over 40 cases and spearheaded the recovery of various properties and assets (including cash and shares in Banks and other companies) for the benefit of the EFCC and the Federal Government of Nigeria. All of these forfeited properties/monies were duly handed over to the EFCC.

Despite the EFCC’s treatment of Obla’s request for fees, to ensure the unimpeded prosecution of these cases, many of which were at crucial and delicate stages of trial, Obla, on behalf and with the full knowledge of the EFCC, continued to incur out-of-pocket expenses to cover filing fees, transport costs for himself and junior colleagues (including flight tickets to attend matters outside jurisdiction), clerical and secretarial costs, accommodation, telephone services, appearances costs etc., all of which culminated in several judgments/rulings/orders in favour of the EFCC and the forfeiture of significant assets and properties (real and monetary).

The case has recently started de novo before the Justice Adeniyi of the High Court of the FCT.

Attempt to pervert the course of justice contrary to Section 97 (1) of the Criminal Law of Lagos state, No. 11, 2011.

The trial before the Lagos state High Court spanned more than two (2) years and came up on more than 22 separate dates between28th November 2018 and 16th April 2019 as follows: 28thNovember 2016, 8thDecember 2016, 9thJanuary 2017, 30th January 2017, 10th March 2017, 17thMarch 2017, 28th April 2017, 26thMay 2017, 1stJune 2017, 6thJuly 2018,  29thSeptember 2017, 10th November 2017, 26th January 2018, 23rdFebruary 2018, 23rdMarch 2018, 20thApril 2018, 25thMay 2018, 8th June 2018, 14th September 2018, 2ndNovember 2018, 14thDecember 2018, 25th January 2019 and 16th April 2019.

At the Lagos High Court, the EFCC called 14 witnesses and eventually closed its case on14th September 2018.

Consequently, after more than two years of trial, Justice H. Oshodi on 16th April 2019delivered a ruling striking out the charge before the Lagos High Court. The Court held that based on the judicial precedent set by the case of Nganjiwa V. FRN, the High Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the suit, as the EFCC “jumped the gun” in filing the Amended Information.

The court, in its Ruling, seriously deprecated the conduct of both the EFCC and its Counsel, Rotimi Oyedepo, and condemned its prosecution of the case in the following words:

For instance, why did the prosecution deliberately refuse to notify the Lagos State High Court that the Court lacked jurisdiction as soon as it became aware of that fact? This is even more curious when it is considered that the EFCC was a party to the NGANJIWA case and that it was in fact the same prosecutor (Rotimi Oyedepo) that appeared for the Federal Republic of Nigeria in that case that prosecuted the case against Obla and Ajumogobia at the Lagos State High Court. Again, it is worth asking what the prosecution intended to achieve by calling more witnesses in the trial even after becoming aware that by the decision in NGANJIWA’s case the Court lacked the jurisdiction to try the case, only to subsequently concede to the court’s lack of jurisdiction several months after at the time it did.

It would seem from the observations made by Justice Oshodi J. in his ruling, that the prosecution’s desire to proceed with a trial even when it was apparent that the court lacked jurisdiction smacked of an intent to persecute the defendants, and not to prosecute them within the bounds of the law.

On April 16, 2019, the same date the Lagos High Court delivered its judgment striking out the Information against Obla and Ajumogobia-Obla filed a notice of appeal (APPEAL NO: CA/LAG/CR/517/2019)challenging the decision of the Court to merely strike out the Information without acquitting him. This Notice of Appeal was subsequently replaced by one filed on April 30, 2019.

In effect, therefore, the filing of this fresh Charge at the Federal High Court on the same facts and evidence as the Information previously struck out by the Lagos High Court (and which is the basis of Obla’s pending appeal) appeared to be an abuse of Court process.

In line with the above, Obla filed an application at the Federal High Court to quash the charge for being an abuse of Court process and a constructive attempt to render Obla’s pending appeal nugatory.

The motion also sought an alternative order permitting the separate trial of the Defendants. This Application was predicated on the following points:

On June 28, 2019, Justice R. Aikawa of the Federal High Court, Lagos Division, delivered a ruling dismissing this application. Curiously, for more than three months after the delivery of this ruling, despite numerous and sustained attempts to obtain a copy of the ruling, Obla was unable to obtain a copy of this Ruling for the purpose of appealing against it until 15thOctober 2019.

The eventual release of the copy of the ruling bearing the text of the judge’s ruling followed after a ruling without any text was initially handed over to Obla’s lawyers. This blank ruling was thereafter retrieved and replaced with the correct ruling in circumstances that seemed to suggest that the ruling was either not written initially or was deliberately withheld from Obla in order to frustrate his appeal.

The case at the Federal High Court is currently awaiting the decision of the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court as to whether the Charge should be re-assigned to another Judge of the Federal High Court or not. In the meantime, the case has been adjourned to April 29, 2020.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              …Atavti writes from Abuja   

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