Until he goes back to court to ask for his bail conditions to be varied, the possibility of the former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Prof. Maurice Iwu meeting the conditions is slim, writes Davidson Iriekpen
Former National Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Maurice Iwu, penultimate Friday, was shocked when Justice Chuka Austine Obiozor of the Federal High Court in Lagos slammed a cumulative sum of N3 billion on him as part of his bail conditions.
The amount believed to be the highest ever slammed on anyone undergoing trial in the country in recent times, is meant to ensure that Iwu frequently attends court sitting till the determination of the charge against him.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had on August 8 arraigned the former INEC chairman before the court on a four-count charge bordering on money laundering to the tune of N1.2 billion.
In a charge marked FHC/L/270c/19, the anti-graft commission alleged that Iwu had between December 2015 and March 27, 2015, procured a firm, Bioresources Institute of Nigeria (BION) Limited, whose account with number 1018603119 domiciled in United Bank for Africa (UBA) Plc, aided in laundering the sum of N1.203 billion.
He and a lawyer, Victor Nwachukwuani, were alleged to have retained the sum of N407 million of the said laundered money through the firm’s account with UBA.
The offences, according to the prosecution, are contrary to sections 18(a), 15(2) (a) of the Money Laundering Prohibition Act, 2011 as amended and punishable under Section 15 (3) of the same Act”.
While taking his plea, Professor Iwu denied the allegations, and the matter was adjourned for his bail application to heard and argued.
At the resumed hearing of the bail application penultimate Friday, Iwu’s lawyer, Mr. Ahmed Raji (SAN), urged the court to grant his client bail either on self-recognisance or in the most liberal terms. He pleaded with the court to consider his client’s age and health status, as well as the service he rendered the country while serving as a former INEC chairman.
But EFCC’s counsel, Rotimi Oyedepo, in urging the court to refused the application, said the defendant is ‘flight risk’ and that there is possibility of interfering with the commission’s witnesses most of whom he said are INEC officials.
Oyedepo also told the court that the defendant has not furnished the court with the state of his health.
While noting that in the unlikely event that the court grants the application, it should be with the conditions that would ensure that the defendant comes to court till the determination of the charge against him.
Ruling on the application, Justice Obiozor ordered that the former INEC be remanded in prison, pending when he fulfils the bail conditions granted him. The judge, after citing plethora of authorities, held that granting bail is at the discretion of the court, which must be done judicial and judiciously.
Consequently, the Justice admitted bail to the defendant in the sum of N1 billion with two sureties in like sum. He also stated that one of the sureties must have a landed property in Lagos, while the other must be a Professor or a civil servant on Grade Level 16 and above.
The judge further ordered that both sureties must furnish the court with their statements of account with standing balance of N1 billion with their current two passport photographs. He added that each of the sureties must show evidence of three years tax payment and means of livelihood.
Justice Obiozor ordered Iwu to deposit his international passport with the court’s Deputy Chief Registrar (DCR) and to cease from interfering with INEC staff, while ordering that the former INEC chairman be remanded in prison custody pending the fulfilment of the bail terms.
Iwu served as INEC chairman from 2005 to 2010. Sources close to the commission revealed that his trouble started, when he was accused of working in favour of former President Goodluck Jonathan during the 2015 presidential election to counter his successor, Professor Attahiru Jega, who superintended over the 2015 general election.
The source also alleged that in the last general election, it was Iwu’s contacts in INEC that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar accessed to the commission’s server and other vital information, which they are using to prosecute their petition at the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal. The Department of State Services (DSS), it was gathered, picked the former INEC chairman up in his village in the morning of the presidential election and was kept in custody till after the governorship election of March 9.
One week after the order was given, the former INEC chairman was still in prison as at last Friday due to the stringent nature of the bail conditions. Though his counsel, Raji, confirmed that everything was in top gear to perfect the conditions.
Many analysts are surprised about why the court would come down so hard on Iwu and why the bail bond would be almost thrice the amount he was alleged to have laundered.
Second, people hold the view that the courts have completely been intimidated and cowed by the government that they quickly dance to the tune of anti-corruption agencies in order not to be accused of frustrating the fight against corruption.
A majority of those who spoke to THISDAY wondered why Justice Obiozor did not make his orders liberal, considering Iwu’s age. Even though his order came first, they based their arguments on Justice Nicholas Oweibo’s order.
For instance, last Wednesday, the same EFCC arraigned Abdullahi Babalele, the son-in-law of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, his lawyer, Uyiekpen Giwa-Osagie, and his brother, Erhunse Giwa-Osagie on a two-count charge of alleged money laundering.
While Babalele was accused of laundering $140,000 during the last general election, the Giwa-Osagie brothers were accused of laundering $2million. They all pleaded not guilty.
After their arraignment and plea taken, they were remanded in custody for their bail applications to be heard. When the court reconvened on Thursday, Babalele’s counsel, Chief Mike Ozhekome (SAN), while arguing the application, told the court that his client has been a faithful and decent Nigerian, who believes that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) and constituted authorities should be respected.
“He is not the kind of person that will jump bail and abscond from justice. If he didn’t do that with EFCC, why will he now dare now that he is before a court of law? This is a matter of discretion, one that should be exercised judiciously.
“Discussing whether he is guilty or not is premature at this stage but if you look at the proof of evidence filed by the EFCC, my client has said he paid N50 million to Bashir Mohammed to send to the Obasanjo Library for intellectual development and that he never handled dollars.
“If Bashir Mohammed in his wisdom changed it to dollars it means the wrong person is in the dock. The transaction my client did was a bank transfer. It does not lie with the prosecution to say they are still investigating. It is assumed that you have finished your investigation the moment you charge an accused to court. “He will not jump bail or abscond from justice. He will not interfere with witnesses or obstruct the course of justice,” Ozekhome said.
Ahmed Raji (SAN) who spoke on behalf of Norrison Quakers (SAN) for the Giwa-Osagie, said the alleged offence was bail-able. He urged the court to grant Uyiekpen bail on self-cognisance, having practised law for over 30 years.
“A party who voluntarily submits to an investigating agency should not be denied bail,” he said.
In response, Usman Buhari, representing the EFCC, told the court that bail is not the right of the defendant but at the discretion of the court. He said the defendant “has not placed any evidence before the court to warrant the court exercising its discretion; therefore the application of the defendant should be rejected.” In his ruling, Justice Nicholas Oweibo granted the trio N2million bail each with one surety in like sum. The judge held that the sureties must be resident in Lagos and must produce evidence of means through an affidavit. He also ordered that they deposit their passports, which have been with the prosecution.
While the judge ordered Babalele to be remanded in EFCC’s custody pending when he meets his bail conditions, he released Giwa-Osagie brothers to their counsel, Raji and Quakers for 14 days, pending the perfection of their bail terms.
The EFCC had first arrested Babalele last February. It said it suspected that the $140,000 allegedly laundered was for vote buying. He was placed on administrative bail while investigations continued.
He was, however, rearrested on August 9, prior to his arraignment last Wednesday. The offences were said to be contrary to Section 18(c) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2011 as amended and punishable under Section 16(2)(b) of the same Act.
Responding to their arrest and arraignment, the presidential candidate of Action Democratic Party (ADP) in the last general election, Sani Yabagi, criticised President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration over the handling of corruption cases.
He said the prosecution of Babalele, would now create an impression that the presidency was intimidating the opposition. This, according to him, was because Atiku was challenging the victory of President Buhari at the recently held polls before the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal.
“I understand that Atiku’s lawyer and brother-in-law have been put behind bars by the EFCC and the court. That is not in tandem with what the political situation in the country is. It has a negative impact because we have not forgotten that Atiku is in court and people will think this is another way of intimidating the opposition.
“So I think no matter what the case may be, in terms of what Atiku’s lawyer and the in-law must have done, I will expect that some decorum is exhibited, because this is somebody that is in court with you. People will think you are trying to intimidate the opposition,” he said.
Reacting, a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Daniel Bwala, said Babalele’s prosecution by the anti-graft agency shows the commitment of the current administration to the rule of law.
Bwala, who is also a member, Lincoln’s inn, London and aide to the Deputy Senate President on Legal Affairs, said the stature of the law is blind, stressing that immunity does not cover relatives of people vying for public offices.
“In an ideal democratic society, the rule of law thrives. And the law does not grant immunity to somebody or his family simply because the person is running for office in government. And of course, the stature of the law is blind.
“Otherwise, people will think that if I want to get some degree of immunity, I just run for office and every member of my family will be protected. I don’t think it’s a valid argument,” he said.