There were several opportunities last week for the Nigerian judiciary to showcase its mettle. The result was a mixed bag.
In Lagos, a panel of the Court of Appeal did itself credit by asking Bode George to remain in jail while appealing his conviction for mismanaging public funds when he served as chairman of the Nigerian Ports Authority.
In Abuja, the Supreme Court lifted a lower court’s ruling barring Charles Chukwuma Soludo, former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, from selling himself as the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the Anambra governorship election scheduled for February 6, 2010. The decision, coming a day after the Court of Appeal in Abuja had reaffirmed an earlier order rusticating Soludo, struck some by the haste and vehemence of its rebuke of the lower court.
But it was a money laundering case in a Federal High Court in Asaba that carried the prize for sheer amazement. Justice Marcel Awokulehin ruled that the government had failed to prove a single case of corruption or money laundering against former Governor James Onanefe Ibori of Delta. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission had charged Ibori on 170 counts of corruption and abuse of office. Justice Awokulehin said he was not impressed.
It was hard to find many Nigerians who extol Justice Awokulehin as a Daniel come to judgment. Anybody who followed Nigerians’ comments on several websites, especially www.saharareporters.com and www.nigeriavillagesquare.com, know that the case was widely seen as a case of grave miscarriage of justice. Were Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the afro-beat maestro, alive today, he might have summarized the verdict thus: “De judge talk say money no loss.”
Here’s the kindest response to Justice Awokulehin, who’s reportedly retiring from the judiciary: Whether you gave a sound judgment or not, you will have to answer to your conscience. But this statement assumes, of course, that the man is possessed of that moral equipment called conscience.
I predict that history will take a harsh view of this judgment. Ibori’s wholesale clearance has struck many Nigerians as a case of the Nigerian state displaying its propensity for protecting highly connected suspects from rigorous prosecution. Truth be told, this was a case where, it appeared, the state summoned every available instrument to ensure the exoneration of a man widely perceived as embodying scant regard for the sacredness of the public trust.
When Ibori was first charged to court, Nuhu Ribadu was still at the helm at the EFCC. He’d charged Ibori before a Kaduna Federal High Court headed by Justice Shuiabu, a man reputed for judicial fearlessness and incorruptibility. Mr. Ribadu reported that Ibori tried to bribe him with $15 million to make the corruption case go away. Ribadu refused. Soon, the stubborn EFCC boss was maneuvered out of the anti-corruption agency and subsequently hounded until he fled Nigeria into exile in the UK.
Meanwhile, after suffering several losses on motions in Kaduna, Ibori’s lawyers persuaded a Court of Appeal to wrest the trial from Justice Shuiabu and transfer it to Delta. They invoked the principle that a suspect ought to be tried in the state where his alleged crimes took place. It didn’t occur to Ibori and his lawyers that this was a strange case to make for a man who insisted on his innocence. Interestingly, the federal government offered weak, unserious opposition to Ibori’s argument to be sent home for trial.
Once Asaba was chosen as the address for Ibori’s trial, many observers viewed his acquittal as a foregone outcome. Rotimi Jacobs, a consummate professional who was handling Ibori’s prosecution, was peeled from the case – replaced by Ibrahim Isiakyu. That was, to put it bluntly, a bizarre choice, for Mr. Isiakyu had reportedly written a memo at the behest of Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa to the effect that Ibori's case ought to be discontinued for lack of merit. To ask a man who has openly categorized a case as porous to prosecute the selfsame case is a classic case of prosecutorial mischief, if not misconduct.
But so concerted, and farcical, was the orchestration to find Ibori, a generous investor in Umaru Yar’Adua’s presidential run, blameless. In court, Mr. Isiakyu sometimes came across as part of Ibori’s defense team, rather than the prosecutor he, ostensibly, was. Under his captaincy, the prosecution produced no serious witness against Ibori. It was hardly a surprise since the EFCC had, in a punitive spree, reassigned all of its officers involved in investigating Ibori and producing the considerable rap sheet against him.
When Ibori’s lawyers asked the presiding judge to dismiss the case against their client, the prosecutor, in effect, seconded the motion. He told the press that the defense had made a strong, if not unassailable, case.
Of course, Ibori’s trial in Asaba was always conducted in the shadow of – and, it can be argued, in response to – a money laundering in a UK court against several of his associates, including a younger sister, a mistress, and his British lawyer. Mr. Aondoakaa, who’s made little secret of the fact that he works in tandem with Ibori’s team, made several moves to scuttle the case in London. He sent letters designed to assist Ibori’s associates’ defense to establish that the case against them was unfounded. He even wrote British authorities to testify that Ibori was an upstanding citizen with no whiff of scandal attaching to his person.
The British know better. In the early 1990s, Mr. Ibori was twice convicted by English courts for thefts – in one case, for possessing a stolen credit card. Only in Nigeria would such a character be catapulted, subsequently, into Government House, and handed the treasury of a state to manage as he wished.
The deal is that Judge Awokulehin’s verdict may well be the trump card that Ibori’s besieged associates need when their trial resumes in London. Here’s the simple equation: Since a Nigerian court has established that Ibori stole no money, then a case of money laundering against his associates is, perforce, illogical.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Princeton Lyman, a former American ambassador to Nigeria, told an audience at the Achebe Colloquium in Providence, Rhode Island, that Nigeria’s strategic assets and relevance had seriously eroded. Nigeria makes a further mockery of itself when its official organs organize a patently absurd and ill-disguised farce of a judicial game whose objective is to protect those who have worked hardest to keep Nigeria prostrate.
One of Mr. Aondoakaa’s favorite mantras is what he calls “rule of law.” For Nigerians, that phrase has become a transparently deformed joke. Somebody has tagged it, with pinpoint accuracy, as “ruse of law.” Nigerians have had some bad attorneys-general, but none to equal the notoriety of Mr. Aondoakaa. He leaves the impression of slipping into distress any time a Nigerian “thieftain’s” serenity was disturbed by the EFCC or the courts. He appears content to keep the company of, and be embedded with, those who may have contributed the most to the abortion of Nigeria’s promise.
Judge Awokulehin has rendered the kind of judgment that makes Aondoakaa’s day. Yet, with the Nigerian state coming ever closer to the edge of a precipice, the question begs to be asked: can the Aondoakaas of Nigeria afford a verdict so widely seen as a brazen case of legal manipulation?
In the long run, the “victory” for Ibori may backfire. Even the current leadership of the EFCC, not known for stern language, was compelled to call Awokulehin’s a “hazy judgment.” The agency argued, correctly in my view, that the verdict was “capable of deepening the menace of corruption in our country.” But is the EFCC in deadly earnest, or merely playing its part in a vast game of cover-up and deception? And can the Iboris of Nigeria get away, ultimately, with this game. My hunch tells me: No!