Ofili-Ajumogobia’s Long Walk to Freedom

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BRIEFINGNOTES

After going through four judges, from the Lagos High Court to the Federal High Court, the joy of Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia knew no bounds when she was set free from money laundering charges preferred against her, Wale Igbintade writes

For Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia, there is certainly every reason to heave a sigh of relief. For over four years, she was traumatised. From the Lagos High Court where she was first set free to the Federal High Court where she appeared before three other judges, it was palpitation galore.

But her joy knew no bounds on Friday when Justice Ambrose Lewis Allagoa of the Federal High Court in Lagos he set her free from money laundering charges preferred against her by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Justice Allagoa discharged her while granting an application to quash and dismiss the charges as argued by her councel, Mr. Olawale Akoni (SAN).

The EFCC first arraigned Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia and a senior lawyer, Mr. Godwin Obla (SAN), before Justice Hakeem Oshodi of the Lagos High Court in 2018.

It filed a 31-count charge bordering on an alleged perversion of the course of justice, unlawful enrichment and forgery against the duo.

But her counsel, Chief Robert Clarke (SAN), challenged the jurisdiction of the court to try his client. In moving his application on the preliminary objection, he told the court that his client was still a judge of the Federal High Court and as such could not be tried in line with the precedent set in the case of Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa.

In his ruling, Justice Oshodi in 2019 freed Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia and Obla by striking out the 31-count charge against duo, stressing that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the suit.

The judge also said the EFCC did not follow the procedures set by the NJC in disciplining erring judicial officers. He held that based on the judicial precedent set by the case of Nganjiwa V. FRN, the High Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the suit as the EFCC “jumped the gun” in filing the first amended charge.

“As at Monday, December 11, 2017, the EFCC was aware of the decision reached by the court of appeal in Nganjiwa vs FRN,” the judge said. As at that date, the amended information was yet to be filed and the 12th prosecution witness was still giving evidence.”

As soon as the judgment was delivered, EFCC officials re-arrested Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia as she was making her way out of the court.

In a statement later by the then EFCC’s spokesperson, Tony Orilade, the agency said in view of Justice Oshodi’s ruling and having complied with the NJC procedure, the commission was set to prefer fresh criminal charges against the 59-year-old judge.

“The commission re-arrested Ofili-Ajumogobia in line with the decision of the Appeal Court, Lagos Division, in a case involving Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa, where it said that a judge could not be prosecuted until he or she had either been dismissed or compulsorily retired by the NJC,” the statement read.

“Consequent upon the fact that the commission had presented Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia before the NJC for disciplinary action and that the NJC had taken a position, the commission would now approach the court to prefer fresh charges her.”

Soon after, the anti-graft agency re-arraigned the duo before Justice Rilwan Aikawa on an 18-count.

The anti-graft agency alleged that at various times, the judge indirectly concealed different sums of money, in the Diamond Bank account of Nigel and Colive Limited, a company alleged to be operated by her.

She was also alleged to have on different dates in 2014, retained sums of monies like N5million, 150,000 dollars, 20,000 dollars, 30,000 dollars, 50,000 dollars, and 55,000 dollars in the Diamond Bank account of Nigel and Colive.

The EFCC also accused Ofili-Ajumogobia of indirectly concealing the sum of N12million in the same account, and making a false statement to the EFCC that the money was a payment for the sale of landed property.

The alleged offences contravene the provisions of Sections 15 (2) (a) and 18 (a) of the Money Laundering Prohibition Act, 2011.

Again, on May 18, 2019, her counsel, Clarke (SAN), challenged the jurisdiction of the court to try his client. In moving his application on the preliminary objection, he told the court that his client was still a judge of the Federal High Court and as such could not be tried in line with the precedent set in the case of Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa.

A month later, on June 28, Justice Aikawa dismissed the preliminary objection. He held that Justice Ajumogobia was no longer a judicial officer and could therefore be tried on any criminal offence for which she is accused. Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia went to the Court of Appeal to challenge the ruling which is still before the court.

But following pressures for Justice Aikawa to withdraw from hearing the case, the defendants were re-arraigned before Justice Mohammed Liman of the same Federal High Court in Lagos on an amended 15 counts on March 3 2021.

During the pendency of the case before Justice Liman, counsel to the EFCC, Suleiman Suleiman, applied to the court to withdraw the name of the second defendant, Obla from the charge. The court granted the request and Obla was accordingly acquitted and discharged. This paved the way for the re-arraignment of Justice Ajumogobia as the sole defendant in the amended charge.

No sooner had Justice Liman commence hearing the case than he was transferred out of Lagos and case was assigned to Justice Allagoa.

When the case came up before Justice Allagoa last Friday, her counsel, Olawale Akoni (SAN), in urging the court to dismiss the money laundering charge, said his application to dismiss the case was sequel to an order of Justice Binta Nyako of Abuja Division of the court, which he said had quashed all the recommendations made by the NJC.

Akoni also told the court that by virtue of judgment of Justice Nyako, delivered on November 28, 2019, in Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/638/2018, between Justice Rita Ngozi Ofili Ajumogobia and NJC, the judge had quashed NJC’s report and recommendation. He added that following the judgment, Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia had been reinstated.

Responding to the application, counsel to the EFCC, Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo, informed the court that his commission had responded to the application through a counter affidavit.

The EFCC in a counter-affidavit deposed to by John Michael Idoko said he was informed by S. I. Suleiman, counsel handling the matter that Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia had filed an application dated March 23, 2021, seeking the court to strike out or quash the charge against the applicant for being incompetent and lack of jurisdiction to try same by the court.

The deponent stated that the court had the requisite to hear and determine the allegation of money laundering levelled against the defendant. He added that by a petition dated December 28, 2017, to the NJC, the commission accused Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia of various acts constituting misconduct under Code of Conduct of Judicial Officers

The deponent averred that on September 18, 2018, the NJC’s investigating committee, upon the conclusion of the hearing of the petition submitted its report to the Chairman of the Council recommending appropriate sanction to be imposed on Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia by the council, adding that on November 7, 2018, the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces exercised his constitutional power pursuant to section 292 (1) (b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) and dismissed the applicant as a judge of the Federal High Court.

The deponent stated that upon the exercise of the aforementioned constitutional power, the president equally transmitted a letter to the NJC informing the council of his decision. He said Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia had never been acquitted of the offences contained in the instant charge in any court or tribunal of competent jurisdiction within and outside the shores of Nigeria.

He also stated that NJC’s findings and the recommendation to the president and the president’s letter to the council are all on the record before this court.

He stated that his commission has seen the defendant/applicant’s exhibit wherein Justice Nyako on November 28, 2019 in Suit No, FHC/ABJ/CS/638/2018 between Justice Rita Ngozi Ofili Ajumogobia and NJC held thus: “Consequent on the above finding, I hereby set aside all that the respondent did in respect of this matter premised on the same issues as in the subject matter of the trial before the High Court of Lagos State.”

Ruling on the arguments canvassed by the parties, Justice Allagoa held: “I have looked at the application. I have also looked into the counter-affidavit of the prosecution, it is not indeed controvert the application. I am satisfied that the application has merit, the prayers sought for are hereby granted as prayed”.