By Kenneth Atavti
The trajectory of the recently terminated trial of Chief Godwin Obla, an ex-prosecutor with the EFCC, before the Lagos State High Court by the very same Commission he acted for over the course of several years undoubtedly raises some interesting issues for any keen observer.
It would be recalled that the EFCC had previously dragged a former Judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria, Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia and Godwin Obla (SAN) before Justice Hakeem Oshodi of the Lagos State High Court, Ikeja, on a 31-Count Amended Information dated 21st February 2018.
The prosecution had initially arraigned the Defendants on a 30-count Information dated November 17, 2016. The trial before the Lagos State High Court spanned more than two (2) years and came up on more than 22 separate dates between 28th November 2018 and 16th April 2019 as follows: 28th November 2016, 8th December 2016, 9th January 2017, 30th January 2017,10th March 2017, 17th March 2017, 28th April 2017, 26th May 2017, 1st June 2017, 6th July 2018, 29th September 2017, 10th November 2017, 26th January 2018, 23rd February 2018, 23rd March 2018, 20th April 2018, 25th May 2018, 8th June 2018, 14th September 2018, 2nd November 2018, 14th December 2018, 25th January 2019 and 16th April 2019.
At the Lagos High Court, the EFCC called 14 witnesses and eventually closed its case on 14th September 2018. In response, Obla filed a no case submission urging the court to discharge and acquit him on the allegations in the charge on the ground that the prosecution had not made out a prima facie case against him.
On her part, Hon. Justice Ajumogobia thereafter raised an objection to the jurisdiction on the ground that, being a judicial officer and by virtue of the judgment of the Court of Appeal in the case of NGANJIWA V FRN (delivered on 11th December 2017), the charge against her could not have been filed until after disciplinary action by the National Judicial Council. Not a few persons were surprised when the EFCC’s Counsel, Rotimi Oyedepo, in his response to Hon. Justice Ajumogobia’s objection, hurriedly conceded to the absence of jurisdiction and in fact urged the court to strike out the charge and discharge the defendants.
It is noteworthy that Obla contended that, not being a judicial officer, the court had jurisdiction over him and ought to proceed with the severance of the charge to allow for his separate trial. Curiously, the EFCC which initiated the trial in the first place vehemently opposed this application and instead urged the court to discharge both defendants in the charge. It could be asked whether the EFCC’s opposition to Obla’s application to continue with his trial is not proof that the EFCC was not necessarily interested in the speedy and conclusive trial of Obla as much as it was in maintaining a media campaign to discredit him and damage his professional reputation.
Eventually, after more than two years of trial, Justice H. Oshodi on 16th April 2019 delivered a ruling striking out the charge before the Lagos High Court and 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 also had some harsh words in its ruling for the prosecution counsel and the EFCC for what the Court described as their “unfortunate” conduct in the trial as follows:
“Before concluding, the Court will want to make one or two comments.
As noted above, the Prosecution, as at Monday 11th December 2017 was aware, as a result of the decision of the Court of Appeal in HON. JUSTICE HYELADZIRA NGANJIWA V FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA (Supra) that the Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the criminal action filed against the 1st Defendant. As a t that day, the 1st Amended Information was yet to eb filed. As at that day, the 12th (twelfth) witness for the Prosecution was still giving evidence. One would have thought that the Prosecution would have urged the Court to strike out the case as a consequence of the decision of the Court of Appeal.
But no! the Prosecution still persisted, like a bull running amok, amended the Information and called 2 (two) further witnesses.
It ought to be pointed out for record purpose that a counsel is a minister in the temple of justice and as an officer of the Court, a counsel has a duty to assist the Court rather than mislead it. In other climes, where learned counsel that find themselves in such a position, as an officer of the court, will have brought a proper application to have the case abated.
Why the Prosecution went on with proceedings when it is obvious that all what the Court was doing amounted to a nullity is best known to them. Precious judicial time had been wasted. Though the Court is aware of the provision of Section 285 (1) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law 2015, which is against a Private Prosecutor, it is so unfortunate that in our judicial system, we have still not devised ways and means to condemn a Prosecuting Agency of the Government, be it State or Federal, in a criminal action by the payment of heavy cost in situations as this instance, having in mind that a Defendant will have incurred cost in defending the charge, albeit a worthless charge.
It has to be restated that there is no doubt that a counsel is duty bound to present his clients’ case with utmost devotion. But such devotion must be coloured with professional discretion. In other words, counsel must be the master in the conduct of his client’s case and should not be dictated to by his client as to how to conduct the case. It is in recognition of that authority of counsel that Rules 14(c) and 18(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, published as Government Notice No. 69 in Federal Official Gazette No. 5 of 18th January 1980 which deals with how far a lawyer may go in supporting a client’s case and the right of the lawyer to control the incidents of the trial, makes it a provision of a law.
No fear of judicial disfavour of public unpopularity should restrain counsel from the full discharge of his duty. In the judicial forum the client is entitled to expect his lawyer to assert every such remedy or defence. It must however be borne in mind that the great trust of the lawyer is to be performed within and not without the bounds of the law…”
The scathing remarks made by the Hon. Justice Oshodi in his ruling marked an extraordinary denouement to a trial which appeared to have generated an unusual media frenzy, perhaps at the prompting of the EFCC. The media currency given to this trial was so intense that an observer may be forgiven for categorizing it as the usual “media trial”, which the EFCC has often been accused of pursuing, as opposed to court-based evidence.
The trial before the Lagos State High Court would seem even more confusing to many Nigerians, when considered against the background of the fact that the Charge centred around a prosecution successfully undertaken by Obla on behalf of the EFCC against a former MD of NIMASA. The charge alleged that Obla bribed a Federal High Court Judge, Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia with N5 million to pervert the course of justice and to secure conviction in Charge No.: FHC/L/C/482C/10 between the Federal Republic of Nigeria v. Raymond Temisan Omatseye. Curiously, the Charge itself filed against Obla was silent in mentioning the names of the parties in Charge No. FHC/L/C/482C/10. This would appear to be because it would have interested the public to know that it was an EFCC matter.
In counts one to four on the charge sheet filed at the Lagos High Court, Obla was said to have offered gratification in the said sum, by transferring the money from his company’s account Obla & Co., domiciled with the United Bank for Africa (UBA), to Nigel & Colive Ltd. The said transfer was alleged to have been made in order to restrain a public officer from acting in exercise of her official duties.
But Obla has since denied the allegation, saying that the payment of N5 million under reference was a payment he made to a company named Nigel & Colive Nigeria Ltd, for the purchase of building materials for his construction site in Abuja. This position was conveyed in a widely circulated Press Release issued by Obla and published in several national dailies on the 9th of November 2016. Obla further clarified that at that material time of the said commercial transaction and till date, he had no knowledge that Justice Ajumogobia had any interest whatsoever in the company.
Interestingly, the EFCC alleged that Obla paid a bribe of N5 million in the case of FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA v. RAYMOND TEMISAN OMATSEYE- in which Obla acted as the prosecutor for the EFCC and which commenced in 2010 and terminated in 2016. This prosecution resulted in a landmark conviction of a former Director-General of NIMASA on allegations of approving contracts in excess of lawful thresholds and other infractions under the Public Procurement Act.
Importantly, the conviction of Mr. Raymond Omatseye was very significant in the fight against corruption and was widely celebrated as the first conviction ever secured by the EFCC under the Public Procurement Act 2007. This was evidently the reason for the EFCC’s celebration of this conviction/Judgment. For instance, the EFCC in its Press Release dated 20th May 2016 which appears on its website www.efccnigeria.org commented on the Judgment as follows:
“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. Temisan Omatseye.
Justice Rita Ofili- Ajumogobia in a landmark ruling convicted the former DG on 25 of the 27-count charge bordering on alleged contract variation, bid rigging and awarding contract above his approval limit which violates the provisions of the Public Procurement Act, brought against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.”
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 indeed curious that the same EFCC which lauded the conviction of Raymond Omatseye made a complete volte face to allege that the conviction was secured as a result of “perversion of justice”, more so as no indication has been given as to whatever motivation Obla might have had to pay a bribe to secure a conviction in a case investigated and presented by the EFCC itself.
By alleging before the Lagos High Court that Obla attempted to “pervert the course of justice” in the case of FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA v. RAYMOND TEMISAN OMATSEYE, was the EFCC contending that the former NIMASA MD ought not to have been convicted, and instead ought to have been discharged and acquitted? If that is the case, it raises pertinent questions about the investigatory and prosecutorial modus operandi of the Commission; as to whether it randomly embarks on prosecutions where it believes the suspect is innocent, whilst proceeding to waste precious public funds in the process.
Again, at the same time as Obla’s prosecution at the Lagos High Court was ongoing for an alleged perversion of justice in the case of FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA v. RAYMOND TEMISAN OMATSEYE, the EFCC was at the Court of Appeal defending that judgment. Invariably, whilst the EFCC was at the Lagos High Court seeking Obla’s conviction for perverting the course of justice in Omatseye’s case, the EFCC was also at the Court of Appeal defending the validity of the conviction in that case and urging the Court of Appeal to sustain it. Surely, this major ambivalence on the same matter as to whether it is a perversion of justice or not raises more questions than answers.
Unfortunately, Obla was ultimately denied the opportunity to clear his name of the allegations at the Lagos High Court, as the charge was struck out for lack of jurisdiction. Obla has however appealed the decision of the Lagos High Court to merely discharge him instead of making an order of acquittal. Strangely, the EFCC, with uncharacteristic speed and in less than 24 hours after the charge filed at the Lagos State High Court was struck out for lack of jurisdiction and after Obla appealed to the Court of Appeal, proceeded to file another charge in Charge No: FHC/139C/19 against Obla and Ajumogobia- this time before the Federal High Court- on the same offences alleged in the previous charge struck out by the Lagos High Court.
Obla’s travails at the hand of the EFCC- an organization he served as a frontline prosecutor for over five years may not be unconnected with a persecution agenda harboured by some elements within the Commission who have a score to settle with him. The circumstances of his case appear to lend credence to this perspective. Obla, for the five years he was prosecuting for the EFCC, consistently moved from one courtroom to the other prosecuting corruption-related cases for the EFCC and obtaining the forfeiture of cash and assets running into several billions of Naira. However, as soon as a new leadership was appointed to head the anti-graft commission, the table turned, and he became the hunted.
First, he was severally invited over his perceived role in the Halliburton case- for which he was appointed by the former Attorney General Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke, as part of the legal team which negotiate the plea bargain agreements with the companies involved in the scandal, which culminated in the recovery of the sum of $200million for the Federal Government of Nigeria. When it looked like the EFCC would not succeed in establishing a case of wrongdoing against him in that case, the now-defunct charge before the Lagos State High Court was filed.
Obla’s travails may not also be unconnected with his suit against the EFCC before the Hon. Justice V.B. Ashi of the High Court of the FCT in SUIT NO: CV/3220/2017 where he is asking for outstanding professional fees owed to him by the EFCC over the period of 5 years to the tune of over N 685,389,928.10 (Six Hundred and Eighty-Five Million, Three Hundred and Eighty-Nine Thousand, Nine Hundred and Twenty-Eight Naira and 10 Kobo). This suit, according to sources, has seriously rattled the EFCC which has reportedly been unable to present any convincing rebuttal of the claim and the considerable evidence presented by Obla in its support.
It is a mystery that after years of seemingly meritorious service to the EFCC in various capacities, particularly as prosecutor in no less than 40 cases involving economic and financial crimes and securing convictions, the EFCC has chosen to treat him with disdain. It remains to be seen whether the pendulum of justice will eventually swing in Obla’s favour.