After giving the impression that it had rock solid evidence to nail Justice Adeniyi Ademola, his wife and a senior lawyer, the government was shocked by the trial court’s decision upholding the defendants’ no case submission. Davidson Iriekpen considers how the case was bungled.
Five months after they were charged before an Abuja High Court, a judge of the Federal High Court in Abuja, Justice Adeniyi Ademola, his wife, Olabowale, and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Joe Agi, were last Wednesday discharged and acquitted of the 18-court criminal charge filed against them by the federal government.
Justice Ademola was one of the seven judges whose residences were raided by the Department of State Services (DSS) last October on allegations of corruption. He was arrested and subsequently charged to court for receiving gratification, illegal possession of firearms among others.
The federal government claimed it had a solid evidence to convict the accused persons. It lined up 19 witnesses against the accused persons. But gradually, what the government thought was a solid case started crumbling like a pack of cards. The defendants took advantage of the weakness in the prosecution case and filed a no-case submission by the defence team.
To prove their innocence and perhaps return to their jobs, Justice Ademola and his wife had opted for an accelerated trial.
Justice Okeke’s Judgment
Ruling on the no-case submission filed by the defendants through their lead counsel, Onyechi Ikpeazu (SAN), the trial judge, Justice Jude Okeke held that the prosecution failed to establish a prima facie case against the defendants. He described the charges as highly speculative and without an iota of merit.
The judge, who took time to review all the counts one after the other, said the conspiracy charge in count one was not established against Justice Ademola, his wife and the senior lawyer, who was charged along with the couple.
Justice Okeke found that the prosecution did not in any way prove the ingredients of conspiracy against the defendants, as it failed to establish where they met and conspired to commit any crime.
The judge also dismissed counts three, four and five, which bordered on the receipt of gratification. On the alleged N30 million gratification found in the account of Mrs. Olabowale Ademola, which was said to have been donated by a group of lawyers during her daughter’s wedding, the judge said that the prosecution failed woefully to establish that the donations by the lawyers were meant to influence cases before Justice Ademola, if at all there was any. He said that a witness of the prosecution made it clear to the court that there was no evidence linking the donation for the marriage ceremony to influence any matter before the first defendant, hence the judge dismissed the charge on the grounds that the prosecution failed to discharge the burden of proof on it.
On the BMW car said to have been delivered to Ademide Ademola, son of Justice Ademola, the judge said that from the beginning to the end of the transaction that led to the delivery of the car, the prosecution did not establish any link to prove that Ademide Ademola negotiated in any way on behalf of his father. He further held that count nine was bereft of evidence against the judge because there was no iota of evidence, both oral and written, that the vehicle in question was meant for the judge as all documentary evidence, including the invoice pointed to the fact that Ademide negotiated for the car and it was even delivered to him in his house, a fact not disputed by the prosecution.
On the foreign currencies found in the residence of Justice Ademola, Justice Okeke held that the prosecution failed to establish against the first defendant that he acquired the money through unlawful acts and that none of the prosecution witnesses who testified on the charge was able to prove that the money was acquired through fraudulent means as required by law. He said that the charge had to be resolved in favour of the first defendant in view of the glaring inability of the prosecution to prove a prima facie case against the defendant.
Justice Okeke also resolved the charge on unlawful possession of firearms in favour of the judge on the same grounds of the failure by the prosecution to support the charge with any reliable evidence. He also said that he believed the evidence provided by Justice Ademola that the two guns found in his house belonged to him and another judge of the Federal High Court, A. R. Mohammed, having tendered before the court and without contradiction from the prosecution, the letters approving and releasing the two guns to them on different dates by the appropriate authority.
The judge said that he disbelieved the claim of the prosecution that the two judges had no requisite licences to operate the guns, adding that the prosecution who had initially stood its ground that there were no licences, suddenly somersaulted when the licences were tendered by the defendants, noting that the allegation of the prosecution was changed completely to the fact that the licences were not tendered on time.
The court held that there was no evidence that the prosecution ever demanded that the defendants produce the licences and that when provided and admitted by the court, the allegation of the prosecution became empty.
In all, Justice Okeke held that the prosecution failed to establish a prima facie case against the three defendants by failing to provide evidence to link them with the alleged offences and consequently dismissed the 18-count charge against the defendants, discharged and acquitted them from the alleged offences.
Turning Point of the Case
Perhaps, the turning point in the case was when the 16th prosecution witness, Babatunde Adepoju, mounted the witness box. He admitted under cross-examination that the N30 million transferred by Agi, to the account of Justice Ademola’s wife, Olabowale (2nd defendant) cannot be described as a bribe.
The trial turned messier when reference was made to President Muhammadu Buhari. Agi was alleged to have given a N30 million bribe to Justice Ademola through his wife, Olabowale in three instalment of N10million each. But the lawyer, in his statement to the DSS during investigation and interrogation, had said the said money was a gift from Ken Hubert and Bassey Bassey who are friends of the judge for the wedding of his daughter.
To clear his name that the money was not a bribe, Agi revealed that one of the lawyers in the team that defended the suit seeking to prove that Buhari did not have the basic qualification to aspire to the office of the president, Mr Kola Awodein (SAN), also gave N500,000 to the judge as a gift during his daughter’s wedding.
Adepoju, while in the witness box announced to the consternation of everybody in the courtroom that Agi told him during investigation that Awodein, who was one of the lawyers in the team that defended the suit against Buhari, gave N500,000 to the judge as a gift during his daughter’s wedding. Because the president had now been dragged into the case, the witness recapitulated, saying such a gift could not be described as a bribe. He said it was customary in Nigeria that friends and well wishers shower gifts on family celebrating the wedding of their daughters. This, to many observers, was the joker that turned the case around and in favour of the defendants. In addition, the witness admitted that there was no petition from anybody that the monies recovered from Justice Ademola’s house which the government had relied upon to nail the embattled judge, were proceeds of a crime or bribe.
Adepoju under cross-examination on whether Agi told him that the gifts of N30 million from Ken Hubert and Bassey was a gift to the judge for the wedding of his daughter and the witness answered in the affirmative. The witness was also asked whether Agi told him that it was not only Hubert and Bassey that gave gift to the judge but that Mr. President’s lawyer, Awodein, also passed a gift of N500,000 to the judge. He also said yes.
When the witness was further asked whether Agi told him that the N500,000 gift was given to the judge by Awodein during the pendency of the Buhari’s certificate suit before Justice Ademola, he admitted that he was told. He also was asked whether as an investigator, if he investigated the assertion that the said gift was given during the pendency of the suit. He, however, answered that he did not investigate.
At this point, the defence team tendered the court papers of a suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/01/2015 dated February 9,2015 wherein on Chukwuwinke Okafor sued General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) over his qualification to run for the office of the president. He was however asked to read out the name of the third counsel defending Buhari in the matter. The witness read out the name of “Kola Awodein.” The court in turn admitted the papers in evidence.
The witness was then asked whether it was right to say that Buhari had bribed Ademola on the basis that his lawyer gave the judge a gift of N500,000 for his daughter’s wedding. The witness answered no. He was further asked whether it could be said that Agi bribed Ademola with the said N30 million when such gift passed through him (Agi) for the judge’s daughter’s wedding. The witness also answered no.
He was then asked why he did not believe when Agi and the givers of the said N30 million gift said it was a gift for the judge’s daughter’s wedding. The witness said he did not just believe. However, a letter written by Hubert and Bassey backing up the cash gift was given to him to read and same was tendered as evidence before the court.
At this point, the witness was also asked whether in the cause of his investigation, he found any case which Agi was handling before Justice Ademola that could warrant the payment of such N30 million. Adepoju, however, answered that he did not see any such case.
To prove that the charge was a vendetta, the defence asked the witness whether anyone filed any complaint against the judge and the witness said no. The defence also asked whether anyone has laid claim to the monies recovered in the judge’s house, the witness said nobody had come to claim the monies and that Justice Ademola had insisted that the money was his.
Justice Ademola Maintains His Innocence
From the onset, Justice Ademola had maintained his innocence. He accused the Department of State Services (DSS) and the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN of being behind his ordeal. He said the immediate reason for his arrest was his decision to grant bail to former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, and a pro-Biafra leader, Nnamdi Kanu who are standing trial on separate charges of corruption and treason.
The judge also cited a longstanding friction with Malami as a reason too. He denied the allegations against him, including charges that he was in possession of unlicensed firearms. He explained that Malami instigated his arrest to take his pound of flesh after he (the judge) had pressed a case of professional misconduct against the minister while he (the minister) was still practising as a lawyer in Kano. He said he was then a judge of the Federal High Court serving in the Kano Division.
A letter he wrote to the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed reads: “What is more intriguing in this whole episode is that I see it as revenge from Malami. While I was in Kano between 2004 and 2007 as a Federal High Court judge, he was involved in a professional misconduct necessitating his arrest and detention by my order. However, with the intervention of the Nigerian Bar Association, Kano branch, the allegation of misconduct was later withdrawn by me. Consequently, the National Judicial Council referred Malami to the Nigerian Bar Association’s Disciplinary Committee.”
The judge said when Malami’s petitions to the NJC against him dated October 10, 2006 and December 11, 2006, backfired, the minister was forced to withdraw them through a letter dated December 14, 2006, but the NJC considered the withdrawal to be late.
In one of the documents, the minister was alleged to have indicated in a correspondence to the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee, the body that confers SAN rank on deserving lawyers, how his allegation against the judge had cost him the rank of SAN in 2007. He subsequently wrote a letter to the LPPC indicating that he had apologised and obtained Justice Ademola’s forgiveness so that the matter would not jeopardise his bid to become a SAN in 2008.
The judge further said in the letter: “The search of my residence was based on these allegations: “(i) Petition of Hon. Jenkins Duvie dated 4th of April 2016 to the National Judicial Council (NJC); (ii) Granting bail to Col. Sambo Dasuki and the unconditional release of Nnamdi Kanu. (iii) Using my office to secure my wife’s appointment as the Head of Civil Service Lagos State through Senator Bola Tinubu.” He said the DSS connived with Malami to use his decisions on the bench against him.
No Nonsense Proceedings
One of the uniqueness of the proceedings was
Justice Okeke’s position that he would not tolerate pranks from the parties, particularly from the prosecution to delay and frustrate the trial. At one of the trial sessions, the prosecution counsel, Segun Jegede, demanded an adjournment due to alleged threats to the life of a prosecution witness, Shuaibu Teidi, who himself is standing trial for pension funds theft.
Jegede told the court that Teidi’s life was under threat and that the witness reported the matter to the police, who took him to a safe place.
According to him, the development resulted in the inability of Teidi to attend trial that day. He demanded that the court be adjourned to allow him time to contact the witness. Knowing what this would cause, the judge quickly dealt with it. In a ruling, he noted that the prosecution had listed 14 witnesses intended to be brought to court. The judge said since the prosecution had only complained about a threat on the life of one witness, he wondered how that could be used as a basis for seeking an adjournment.
How the War against Corruption Shifted to Judges
The arrest of the judges had caused a stir in the polity with a cross-section of Nigerians condemning it and a few others seeing it as long overdue to tame the excesses of the judiciary.
For those who condemned the invasion of the residences of the judges and their arrest in the middle of the night, their worries were predicated on the fears that the executive arm of government wanted to intimidate the judiciary.
President Muhammadu Buhari exhibited his frustration with the judiciary while on official trip to Ethiopia on January 30, 2016, he informed the Nigerian community there and the international community as well that as far as his anti-graft war was concerned, his main headache was the judiciary. He said that he contested for the presidency three times and was robbed by the judiciary. He noted that it was God and the electronic voting system which made him to succeed in his fourth attempt.
Soon after, the president approached the National Assembly to grant him emergency powers to turn the country around but when the Senate refused his request on the grounds that granting him emergency powers would make him a tyrant and a dictator, he turned to the judiciary accusing it of corruption.
Consequently, the AGF alleged that his office received complaints from concerned member of the public over alleged corrupt practices of some serving justices of the superior courts of record. He however did not bring the allegations against the judges to the National Judicial Council (NJC). However, the DSS, an agency under the president whose primary duty is for intelligence gathering within the country and for the protection of senior government officials, invaded the residences of some judges.
Though the AGF while appearing before an ad hoc committee of the House of Representatives last year said there were reasonable grounds to justify the arrest of the judges and alleged that the NJC was unwilling to act.
In view of the judgment acquitting Justice Ademola, many analysts are wondering if there was any reason in the first place to arrest and prosecute the judges. They also wondered if the charges filed against other judges would not suffer the same fate. Investigation revealed that it was against this background that Charles Adeogun-Philips, the counsel engaged from the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the federal government to conduct the prosecution of a Supreme Court judge, Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta, for similar offences withdrew from the matter. It was gathered that after carefully analysing the case, Adeogun-Philips saw that the federal government and DSS could did not produce strong evidence to prosecute the case. The DSS particularly, was believed to have done a shoddy job of invading the judges’ residences rather than placing them on proper surveillance for a period of time in order to gather strong evidence against them.
As FG Appeals, What’s the New Evidence?
Sensing that the acquittal of Justice Ademola, his wife, Olabowale, and a legal practitioner, Agi could be very fatal to the fight against corruption, the federal government last Thursday said it would appeal against the decision of Justice Jude Okeke. But the question begging for answer is what new evidence is government banking on?
Analysts believe that one of the major mistakes the federal government made was charging Justice Ademola before the High Court instead of the Code of Conduct Tribunal. But with all the mistakes it has made so far, it is not clear how it ever hopes to secure a conviction either at the Court of Appeal or CCT.