Obla...learning the hard way

Davidson Iriekpen likens the travails of a prosecutor of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Godwin Obla, to what successive chairmen of the commission had suffered in the hands of the federal government

After detaining him for two weeks, a former prosecutor with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Godwin Obla (SAN), was penultimate week arraigned before a Lagos High Court. His offence was the allegation that he bribed a Federal High Court judge, Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia with the sum of N5 million to influence him. The said sum was alleged to have been transferred to one Nigel & Colive Limited, to which Ajumogobia is said to be the sole signatory. It was alleged to have been made in order to influence a public officer in the exercise of her official duties.

But Obla had since denied the allegation, saying the payment he made on May 21, 2015 to the company, Nigel & Colive Nigeria Limited, was for the purchase of building materials for his construction site in Abuja. He further clarified that at that material time of the said commercial transaction and till date, he had no privy knowledge that Justice Rita Ajumogobia had any interest whatsoever in the company.

A bewildered Obla said he was shocked to be confronted with the allegation of possible bribery to Justice Ajumogobia ostensibly in return for judicial favours. He insisted that there was no foundation or basis whatsoever for making any such payments. He acknowledged that Justice Rita Ajumogobia was his classmate 33 years ago and has always been his friend but that he had minimal professional contact with the Judge.

According to him, the records would indicate that in all her years at the Bench, the only matter he had before her was the case of FRN v. Raymond Omatseye, which commenced in 2010 and terminated in 2016, wherein he acted as a prosecutor for EFCC.

“For the record, I re-state that the only matter in which I have ever appeared as a lawyer before her Lordship, Justice Rita Ajumogobia was in Charge No: FHC/L/C/482C/10 between FRN v. Raymond Omatseye, whose trial commenced by a criminal charge dated 22 December, 2010 before another Court and was later re-arraigned before her lordship, Justice Rita Ajumogobia on an amended 27 count charge dated January 16, 2013.

“I acted as prosecutor for the EFCC and the trial culminated in the conviction of Mr. Raymond Omatseye in the judgment delivered by the court on 20 May 2016. 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,” he explained.

He alleged that notwithstanding the diligent and successful prosecution and conviction, the EFCC for whom he acted and who has deemed it a matter of public interest to make this bribery allegation has neither settled expenses he incurred over a six year period in prosecuting this matter nor paid any professional fee whatsoever in respect of the said matter.

Obla said he was at a loss as to why on earth he would be obliged to pay out bribe to Justice Rita Ajumogobia for judicial favours since the only case he had ever taken before her court was as a prosecutor on behalf of EFCC in a criminal charge, which terminated in a landmark conviction for EFCC.

“It is inconceivable that I paid a bribe on behalf of or for the benefit of EFCC to her lordship, Justice Rita Ajumogobia or any other person,” he said.

The senior advocate alleged that all the lawyers, who were interrogated at the EFCC office in respect of alleged various payments to judicial officers were all granted bail on self-cognisance except him. He described it as a mystery that after his meritorious service to EFCC in various capacities, particularly as prosecutor in no less than 40 cases involving the economic and financial crimes and securing convictions, for which his bill of charges continues to lie unsettled at EFCC, the present leadership has elected to treat him with disdain and needlessly detained him in its custody, without the benefit of doubt.

Obla, for the five years was prosecuting for the EFCC. He was moving from one part of the country to another and from one courtroom to another, prosecuting corruption-related cases for the EFCC. But as soon as Ibrahim Magu was appointed to head the anti-graft commission, the table turned. He became the hunted.

First, he was severally invited over his role in the Halliburton bribery scandal, where he was appointed by the former Attorney General Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke, as one of the lawyers to help the country negotiate the plea-bargain with the companies involved in the scandal for which they recovered the sum of $200million and got commendations from the federal government.

When it seemed the anti-graft commission could not establish a prima facie case him, the allegation of bribing Justice Ajumogobia came. He successfully prosecuted the case the anti-graft commission filed against a former Director General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Raymond Omatseye and got him convicted after five years of legal battle.

The conviction was hailed in many quarters as very significant in the fight against corruption and celebrated as the first conviction ever secured by the EFCC under the Public Procurement Act 2007.
On May 27, 2016, the acting Chairman of the EFCC himself, while speaking at the launch of the “Clean Hands Against Corruption Campaign” at the Eagle Square, Abuja, alluded to the conviction of Omatseye as one of the “140 convictions the anti-commission had secured in six months.”

It then became curious that the same EFCC, which lauded the conviction of Omatseye has now made a complete volte face to allege that the conviction was secured as a result of “perversion of justice,” moreso as no indication had been given as to whatever motivation Obla might have had to pay a bribe to secure a conviction on a supposedly watertight case presented by the EFCC.

Perhaps, what the EFCC did not carefully examine before filing the charges against Obla is that by alleging that he attempted to “pervert the course of justice” in the case of Federal Republic of Nigeria v. Raymond Omatseye, was it (EFCC) contending that the accused person ought not to have been convicted, and instead 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, while proceeding to waste precious public funds in the process.

Other questions begging for answers are: are bribes no longer paid for something in return? Even if it were true that the sum of N5million was paid by Obla into Justice Ajumogobia’s account, how can the payment of the said amount more than one year before the date of delivery of judgment in the case of Federal Republic Of Nigeria v. Raymond Omatseye constitute or be interpreted as a bribe? The payment in question was allegedly made on May 21, 2015 while judgment was delivered on May 20, 2016 – exactly one year after.

Recently, Obla’s prosecutorial competence as an EFCC prosecutor was affirmed by the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal in the case of Federal Republic of Nigeria v Hon. Adeyemi Sabit Ikuforiji CA/L/1046C/2014, which he prosecuted on behalf of the EFCC at the Federal High Court to the Court of Appeal respectively.

While ruling on the appeal he filed at the appellate court recently, the court set aside the ruling of a Federal High Court that cleared Ikuforiji, a former Speaker of the Lagos State House of Assembly, and his Personal Assistant, Oyebode Atoyebi of allegations of money laundering.

The appellate court in a unanimous judgment set aside the verdict of the trial judge, Justice Ibrahim Buba, holding that the EFCC had established a prima facie case against the former Speaker to require him to enter a defence to the charge brought against him.

With shoddy treatment of Obla, many are quick to ponder the fate of other prosecutors for the commission. This question undoubtedly flows from the supposition that a prosecutor, who seeks to be diligent, professional and unrelenting against several politically-exposed persons at great personal expense, may eventually find himself on the receiving end of the EFCC’s brutish and ruthless use of power.

A few of the commission’s external prosecutors, who spoke with THISDAY on account of anonymity had expressed disappointment over the unfair treatment being meted out to Obla and grave concerns about their own fate.
Another potentially dangerous outcome of the humiliation, is the leeway it establishes for any person, who was convicted of sundry crimes after a tortuous legal process to allege prosecutorial misconduct.

This prospect, many believe, is likely to usher in an unprecedented wave of allegations that prosecutors now routinely invest themselves in the purchase of convictions for the EFCC or that prosecutors are motivated by a personal desire to secure conviction against accused persons in exchange for the payment of bribes, even if grievous bodily harm would be caused to the accused persons.

This will undoubtedly cast a pall of doubt over all the convictions the EFCC has recorded since its formation, no matter how well-founded in law all such convictions might be.

Thus, to many analysts, the travail of Obla in the hands of the EFCC is synonymous with what successive chairmen of the commission had suffered in the hands of the federal government. Apart from Ibrahim Lamorde, whose tenure was not renewed, others, Nuhu Ribadu and Farida Waziri were removed from office with scorn despite their efforts and contribution to the fight against corruption in the country.

One of the possible fallouts of the EFCC recent posturing may be increased prosecutorial apathy among prosecutors, who, being conscious of the penchant of the commission for “using and dumping” prosecutors in such an ignominious fashion, may think twice about making personal sacrifices on behalf of the commission.

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It then became curious that the same EFCC, which lauded the conviction of Omatseye has now made a complete volte face to allege that the conviction was secured as a result of “perversion of justice,” moreso as no indication had been given as to whatever motivation Obla might have had to pay a bribe to secure a conviction on a supposedly watertight case presented by the EFCC