As part of its intimidation and harassment of lawyers in the country, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission last week bore its fangs this time, on a human rights lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, over what at best described as ‘spurious’ allegation,’ writes Davidson Iriekpen
In what many have seen as clampdown on lawyers in the country, especially those defending suspects alleged to have committed various offences, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) last week arrested and arraigned a human rights lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, before a Federal High Court in Lagos on a one-count charge bordering on a lease of a forfeited in Lagos property.
Adegboruwa is a Lagos-based lawyer, who has handled and won many cases for a lot of less-privileged people free of charge. He abhors corruptions and had on many occasions challenged both federal and Lagos State governments on some questionable contracts and obnoxious policies in courts and won.
Recently, he was briefed by a Niger Delta militant, Government Ekpemupolo aka Tompolo and Azibaola Robert, a cousin to former President Goodluck Jonathan, to represent them in court. Tompolo was recently declared wanted by the anti-graft commission over allegations of corruption and Robert has been detained by the commission over a contract that was awarded to him by the last administration for which he has been refused bail despite a court order.
The EFCC said Adegboruwa acted illegally by leasing out the said property situated at House 105, NICON Town Estate, Lekki-Lagos, to one Shelf Drilling Nigeria Limited at the sum of N61, 631, 944.65, because it is a subject of an interim forfeiture order by a Lagos State High Court. It further alleged that the lawyer obtained money under false pretense by knowingly renting out the forfeited property without due authorisation. The payment was said to have been credited to his bank account, from where he disbursed the funds to others, including churches.
But the fiery lawyer, who knows where his problems are coming from, denied the allegations, saying his arrest and prosecution are linked to his brief by Tompolo and Robert. In a statement signed and released by his law firm, Kogun Chambers, Adegboruwa said he has no fraud case to answer, rather he said he was being ‘persecuted’ for his hard stance against the President Muhammadu Buhari administration.
According to the firm, the fact was that the property in dispute was owned by one Mr. Jonathan Udeagbala. He said the transaction took place long before the Buhari administration came into existence. He added that before his arrest, he had been receiving unofficial complaints and threats from the anti-graft commission about his opposition to the Buhari administration.
“But the threats became more rampant upon his brief in the case of Tompolo and especially, Mr. Azibaola Robert, cousin to former President Jonathan.
“On May 4, 2016, our firm appeared in Tompolo’s case at the Federal High Court, Lagos and May 4, 2016, our firm filed a suit in court, for the release of Jonathan’s cousin. On May 5, 2016, EFCC filed a case against Adegboruwa. So, there is no fraud case against Adegboruwa. He is being persecuted for speaking against the Buhari regime.
“There is no way a criminal case can be maintained against Adegboruwa as the criminal case upon which the case is based has been dismissed. He did not collect money for any property but acted as a mediator for settlement and he acted upon the lawful instructions of his client.”
Explaining the facts of the transaction on the alleged forfeited property the firm said: “In or around May 2013, our law firm was approached by one Mrs. Sylvia Udeagbala, to represent her husband in a criminal case. In our first appearance in court, it transpired that the complainant in the case, Chief Leonard Okafor and the defendant, Mr. Jonathan Udeagbala, were from the same town. It was thus decided to settle the case amicably out of court, and the court and the prosecutor were so informed.
“Udeagbala owns a five-bedroom duplex in Nicon Town Estate in the Lekki area of Lagos. He had a business agreement with Okafor, for telecommunications. The business didn’t go as planned, so Okafor demanded a refund of his investments, which caused Udeagbala to issue several cheques, which were alleged to have bounced, hence a criminal charge was filed against him in court, in Charge No. LCD/129/2012.
“Upon the intervention of our law firm, several peace meetings were held with the complainant in the case, Okafor, and it was agreed that Udeagbala’s house in Nicon Town should be sold or leased to offset the money outstanding in favour of Okafor. Mrs. Udeagbala then secured a tenant, Shelf Drilling Company Ltd, for a five year long lease of about N11million per annum.
“This was disclosed to Okafor and it was agreed by the parties that the proceed of the lease be used to offset part of the money being claimed by Okafor, as follows: Okafor – N35million; Mr. Udeagbala – N12million; renovation of the house by the contractor chosen by the tenant – N8million; fee paid to the agent – N2.5million and legal fee paid to our office – N2.5million.
“The above sums were by agreement of all the parties duly disbursed, with documentary evidence of collection. When EFCC got to know that the said property had been let out to Shelf Drilling for five years at the rate of N10million per annum, they told Shelf Drilling that the earlier money paid had been forfeited.
“EFCC then asked Shelf Drilling to pay N12million per annum. A sum of N24million has so far been collected by EFCC. In fact, we are informed that as at yesterday, May 10, 2016, EFCC served the tenant another invoice for rent for 2016. Part of the terms of settlement was that Okafor will withdraw his petition and criminal complaint to the EFCC which he did through a letter of withdrawal written by his lawyers Atuegwu Egwuatu and Associates dated August 19, 2013, and which was received by the EFCC on September 17, 2013.
“Consequent upon the withdrawal, the criminal charge was dismissed by the High Court on December 17, 2015, in a well-considered ruling delivered by Justice D.O. Oluwayemi and the EFCC is aware of this. At all material times, our law firm was not aware of any interim order of attachment obtained by the EFCC on the property. With the ruling of Justice Oluwayemi which has dismissed the main criminal charge, there can be no subsisting order of attachment as something cannot be placed on nothing and be expected to stand.”
For those following the case, there is no doubt that this is a clear case of persecution. Recall that recently, the Chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Magu, had stunned the nation with a declaration that senior lawyers in the country were hampering the fight against corruption.
The EFCC boss who was apparently incensed by what he alleged was damning evidence against a senior lawyer, Mr. Ricky Tarfa, spoke in general terms during a visit to his office by a coalition of civil society groups, as part of their sensitisation programme against corruption accused the top lawyers of assisting corrupt elements who had looted the nation’s treasury to fight the EFCC and escape punishment for their economic crimes.
He said: “One of the big challenges we have in the effective prosecution of the war on corruption is that of very senior lawyers who Nigeria has been very kind to: They who went to good schools here, when Nigeria was good, many of them, on government scholarship; they who Nigeria had given so much opportunity. When we have corruption cases, cases of people who have stolen food from the mouths of our children; when we have cases of people who have stolen money meant to build hospitals and buy drugs; when we have cases of people who have stolen all the money meant to buy guns for our soldiers to fight Boko Haram, when we have all these cases of wicked people who have stolen Nigeria’s money, they run to these same senior lawyers, give them part of the stolen money and mobilise them to fight us, to delay us in court and to deny Nigerians of justice. These are the people who do not want justice for the common man.”
No sooner were these comments made, the commission arrested and arraigned another senior lawyer, Dr. Joseph Nwobike (SAN) who is also the counsel to the former Director General of the Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Patrick Ziakede Akpobolokemi, who is equally standing trial for massive corruption.
Before then, the anti-commission had invited and quizzed five senior lawyers, J. B. Daudu (SAN), Damian D. Dodo (SAN), E.C. Ukala (SAN); Godwin Obla (SAN) and Roland Ewubare involved in the negotiation of the plea bargain with the companies fingered in the Halliburton bribery scandal. It didn’t take long for Nigerians to know that what the lawyers did was to recover millions of funds for the country and collect their legal fees of 10 per cent which is the usual practice.
Investigations revealed that a leading law firm in the United States that was first hired by the federal government to act on its behalf, had proposed the return of 33 per cent as fees as is the standard practice in the US for contingency litigation matters.
THISDAY gathered that it was when the Nigerian government turned down the fees of the US firm that it settled for the Nigerian lawyers.
For many of the lawyers, it is simply incomprehensible why the EFCC after their colleagues. They wondered whether he knows that no matter a grievous a crime is, the culprit or defendant is entitled to a lawyer to defend him/her.
Under the Nigerian criminal justice system, if a suspect is charged to, he must engage the services of a legal counsel. If the accused cannot afford a lawyer, the state often weighs in to bear the burden. This is why most lawyers feel that no matter the blackmail by the EFCC boss, it would amount to a futile attempt to discourage them from defending suspects charged with crime.
They are of the view that rather than criticise or condemn lawyers, the EFCC boss should ensure that the prosecution is brilliantly handled to counteract defence lawyers. When wondered how it would be a crime if a lawyer brilliantly defends his client and secures his freedom.
Though the EFCC boss boasts of adhering strictly to the rule of law, many of the lawyers wondered he is against those who get paid to defend accused persons and those who write to compel the government and the anti-graft bodies to follow due process. On many occasions, many of the lawyers have disagreed with him. For instance, as at the time of filing this report, a Director in the Federal Ministry of Justice, Mrs. Christie Chinyere Ekweonu, is languishing in the custody of the commission.
She was arrested on May 11 on account of the fact that she stood surety for Hon. Chidi Duru in 2010when he was arrested him (Duru) pursuant to an investigation of a petition submitted by some aggrieved shareholders of First Guarantee Pensions Limited on a Target Examination Report prepared by the National Pension Commission.
The arrest and detention of Ekweonu carried out despite the fact that Section 7 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) forbids the arrest of a person in place of suspect. Specifically, Section 78 of the Act forbids the arrest and detention of surety. The best that can be done when a suspect runs away is to forfeit the bail bond signed. For an accused that jumped bail if matter is already in court, the best that could be done is to issue a bench warrant and none of these has been done.
He had been receiving unofficial complaints and threats from the anti-graft commission about his opposition to the Buhari administration. But the threats became more rampant upon his brief in the case of Tompolo and especially, Mr. Azibaola Robert, cousin to former President Jonathan. On May 4, 2016, our firm appeared in Tompolo’s case at the Federal High Court, Lagos and May 4, 2016, our firm filed a suit in court, for the release of Jonathan’s cousin. On May 5, 2016, EFCC filed a case against Adegboruwa