The recent freezing of an account belonging to a human rights lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome, by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission raises concerns about a commission that is already overstretched. Davidson Iriekpen writes
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) recently bit more than it could chew, when he obtained an order from the Federal High Court in Lagos for the temporary forfeiture of N75 million in the account of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mike Ozekhome, domiciled with the Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB). The court, presided by Justice Abdulaziz Anka, gave the order while ruling on a motion ex-parte filed by the anti-graft agency seeking that Ozekhome’s account be temporarily frozen.
EFCC’s prayer is on the grounds that the money paid Ozekhome as professional fees were proceeds of crime. Arguing the application which was filed by Rotimi Oyedepo, counsel to the EFCC, Idris Mohammed, informed the court that the application was brought pursuant to Section 29 of the EFCC Act. He informed the court that three exhibits marked 01, 02 and 03 were attached to the motion ex-parte.
He also said an affidavit of urgency, sworn to by an investigator of the agency, Tosin Owobo, was also attached to the application. Mohammed, therefore, urged the court to grant the motion ex-parte and order a temporary forfeiture of funds in the account for 120 days.
Delivering a bench ruling on the motion, Justice Anka ordered that Ozekhome’s account with the sum of N75 million be forfeited for 120 days. The judge however said any party, dissatisfied with the ruling, could file an appeal.
Ozekhome is the counsel for the Governor of Ekiti State, Mr. Ayodele Fayose, whose accounts had again been frozen by the EFCC for alleged money laundering. When the case came up before Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court in Ado-Ekiti, the EFCC lost woefully. The human rights lawyer is also counsel to Chief Raymond Dokpesi, founder of Daar Communications, who is presently standing trial for receiving over N2billion from the former National Security Adviser (NSA), Sambo Dasuki.
But a shocked Ozekhome has accused the anti-graft commission of descending into the arena of politics rather than concentrating on its constitutional duties of fighting graft. He said the freezing of his accounts by the anti-graft agency was politically-motivated and calculated to embarrass him for his criticism of the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led federal government.
Speaking with journalists in Ado Ekiti, last Thursday, the human rights lawyer alleged that the EFCC has become “an instrument of political oppression and intimidation unleashed by the APC government on perceived opponents and critics.” He vowed to file a suit against the EFCC to reverse the blocking of his account “very soon.”
The lawyer said he was being punished for defending Fayose, his aides and associates in series of court cases in the country, saying the money paid to him was his legitimate professional fee which had nothing to do with money laundering.
He said: “I can’t be ruffled for this action, because I have not done illegal, illegitimate or illicit or something out of the ordinary. Governor Fayose paid me my professional fee, which was a sum of N75million out of the humongous amount owed me over cases I am handling for him, his aides and friends.
“I am currently prosecuting eight cases on his behalf – the ones involving Abiodun Agbele and Zenith Bank, Femi Fani-Kayode’s wife and others. As a professional, I had given my professional fees but the governor could not pay because his accounts had been frozen by EFCC, which makes the governor financially strangulated.”
No doubt Ozekhome’s case is the latest in the series of highhandedness exhibited by the EFCC under its acting Chairman, Ibrahim Magu. Last year, in a daring tone, Magu 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. He accused 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: those who went to good schools here, when Nigeria was good, many of them, on government scholarship; they whom 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.”
It is not only lawyers that the EFCC boss has so far criticised. He had equally at in different fora taken a swipe at the judges for frustrating the fight against corruption only to quickly withdraw his statement. It was the fallout of these comments that a sting operation on judges of courts and justices of the Supreme Court were carried out last October.
Today, a number of these judges are standing trial for corruption-related offences. Also standing trial are some senior lawyers such as Dr. Joseph Nwobike, Joe Agi, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa and others under investigation.
Many cannot understand Magu’s disdain for lawyers for doing their job. While a generality of the people want the commission to deal with the unscrupulous characters, they wonder if the EFCC boss knew that no matter how grievous a crime is the culprit or defendant would certainly need a lawyer to defend him/her and professional fees paid. They also wonder if the anti-graft lawyer does pay the lawyers it uses to prosecute its cases against alleged corrupt persons.
In criminal justice, it is trite that a suspect charged in court must engage the services of a legal counsel and must be paid professional fee except the lawyer chooses to handle the case pro bono (free of charge). To explain how important a lawyer/counsel is in criminal justice system, if a defendant is unable to afford a counsel, the state often weighs in to bear the burden.
This is why observers have warned that rather than continue to criticise and intimidate lawyers, the EFCC boss should ensure that he puts together a brilliant prosecution team to counter the defence lawyers. If a lawyer brilliantly defends his client and secures his freedom, how is that a crime?
Before the appointment of Magu at EFCC, successive chairmen of the commission had often attributed different reasons why the agency under them did not perform optimally. While the first chairman of the commission, Nuhu Ribadu, identified his challenges to include lack of law by the executive arm of the government, his successor, Farida Waziri, held the judiciary (judges) responsible for her non-performance, while Ibrahim Lamorde held the executive arm of government responsible for his own failure to successfully prosecute the war against corruption.
In 2011, following the heat some judges of his court received for frustrating the anti-graft agency, the incumbent Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, was forced to pay a courtesy visit on the chairman of the commission, where he explained that rather than blame the court for not doing enough on the corruption cases before them, the judges were often helpless as the commission in their cases make quick dispensation of the cases uneasy.
Auta said the visit was “to show the world that we are ready to work with EFCC with respect to the law and to see that due process is followed always.”
According to him, a situation where the charges against a suspect numbers up to 125, the judge was bound to hear all of them, a process that may take a whole day. He squarely placed the blame for the delay in trial of corruption cases on the commission’s constant amendment to preferred charges. He added that incessant amendments to charges filed by the commission and too many charges in one case for the accused to take a plea, among other such actions, amount to “dancing in one spot.”
The CJ further stated that prosecution lawyers object to such charges and the judge adjourns for further hearing only to be faced with a request to amend the charge sheet or the challenge of the EFCC refusing to produce witnesses on the adjourned dates. All these, according to him, add to the length of prosecution time.
Justice Auta reprimanded the commission for lacking investigative and prosecution prowess to prosecute corruption cases. He stated that bogus count charges, frequent amendment of charges and the rush to arrest a suspect without investigation was a problem for the commission.
As a way out, the CJ suggested that in cases where the charges against a suspect are numerous, the key ones should be used while the less important ones should be dropped in order to save time on hearing the cases. He also suggested that the EFCC should endeavour to conclude investigations before arraigning suspects in courts so as to avoid a situation where charges would have to be amended. This way, he said corruption cases could be concluded in good time.
Also, while delivering judgment in the fundamental rights enforcement suit instituted by the former Director General of the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE), Prof Ndi Okereke-Onyuike, against the EFCC recently, Justice Ayotunde Phillips of the Lagos High Court not only restrained the anti-corruption agency from arresting Okereke-Onyuike, but lambasted the agency for always rushing to arrest suspects without evidence.
The judge held that it was imperative that security agencies such as the EFCC, must first establish reasonable suspicion against a suspect before effecting his or her arrest. The judge, who urged men of the nation’s law enforcement agencies to learn from their counterparts abroad, cautioned them against being in a hurry to arrest suspects when they were yet to complete investigation and arm themselves with enough facts and evidence to secure conviction.
It is against this background that the duo of Magu and the Muhammadu Buhari-led federal government are being admonished not to undermine their own legacies by enthroning a brusque and irregular method all in the name of fighting corruption.
“In this country, Buhari was asked to produce his West African School Certificate (WASC) Examination result. What did he do? Rather than bringing out the result, he hired over 25 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) and other lawyers to defend him in court. So it is sad that the same Magu whom lawyers rescued when Farida Waziri almost sacked him is the one denigrating lawyers now. Let him continue, some day he will realise that he needs the services of the lawyers he is abusing now,” said a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) who did not want his name in print.
While a generality of the people want the commission to deal with the unscrupulous characters, they wonder if the EFCC boss knew that no matter how grievous a crime is the culprit or defendant would certainly need a lawyer to defend him/her and professional fees paid. They also wonder if the anti-graft lawyer does pay the lawyers it uses to prosecute its cases against alleged corrupt persons