Lawyers, by their profession, are said to be major instruments needed to enhance smooth administration of justice, but as President Muhammadu Buhari appeals to them for support, MUDIAGA AFFE and GBENRO ADEOYE examines how they pose a threat to the anti-corruption war
Corruption in Nigeria has often been described as being widespread as no sector of the country’s economy can be said to be free of the scourge. It is a blot on Nigeria’s image and said to have hampered development of the country.
As a result, President Muhammadu Buhari, who made the fight against the menace one of the cardinal programmes of his administration, has initiated various measures to tackle the graft, going by a recent report that the President was planning to set up special courts in the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory to aid the anti-corruption war.
As regards anti-graft agencies, they are not in short supply in the country. Agencies like the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, and the Code of Conduct Bureau have been charged with the responsibility of fighting corruption. But justice in cases involving corrupt practices has largely evaded people in the high echelons of politics and business in Nigeria. And lawyers are seen as the best allies to some of corrupt individuals, helping them to evade justice.
For instance, it is believed that lawyers deliberately stall the trials of some moneybags, including politicians, facing charges of corruption and abuse of office by using series of frivolous motions including stay of proceedings, adjournments, interim, interlocutory and perpetual injunctions.
This is because laws are complex and could sometimes be open to several interpretations, which some lawyers skillfully capitalise on to thwart or delay justice. Experts say lawyers often help their clients obtain court immunity and injunctions retraining the police and other security agencies from investigating or prosecuting them, thereby frustrating the wheel of justice.
An example is the trial of former Plateau State Governor, Joshua Dariye, for corruption charges, a case that has stalled in court since 2007.
In September 2004, British authorities in London arrested Dariye for alleged money laundering and seized about £90,000 in cash from him. Dariye allegedly skipped bail, fled to Nigeria and resumed his office as governor, which granted him immunity from prosecution.
When the governor’s term ended in 2007, the EFCC charged him with 14 counts of money laundering. But after eight years, Dariye’s trial has yet to start following different kinds of motions filed by his counsel.
First, Dariye’s lawyers filed a motion in November 2007, asking that all the charges against him be dismissed. Justice Adebukola Banjoko denied the motion, but his lawyers appealed the ruling. So, Banjoko halted the proceedings pending when Dariye’s appeal would be heard.
The appellant had contended that the Federal Capital Territory High Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the suit since the alleged offences involved funds belonging the Plateau State Government.
He thus argued that he ought to have been tried in Jos and urged the court to quash the entire 23 counts preferred against the former governor.
Dariye’s appeal failed on every issue but by the time the ruling was handed down in June 2010, it had been three years since he first appeared in court.
In December 2010 when Banjoko announced that Dariye’s trial would commence in January 2011, his counsel stood up to announce that another appeal had been filed with the Supreme Court. The court halted the proceedings again until the appeal would be heard. But the Supreme Court in February 2015 dismissed Dariye’s interlocutory appeal which had stalled his trial since 2007.
Justice Sylvester Ngwuta who delivered the lead judgement described the scenario played out in the entire case as a “sad commentary” on Nigeria’s fight against corruption.
In a unanimous judgement by the five-man panel, the court ordered the accused to return to the Federal Capital Territory High Court in Gudu, Abuja, to face his trial.
The Supreme Court described as unmeritorious, Dariye’s appeal against the earlier decision of the Court of Appeal, Abuja, on his preliminary objection challenging the competence of the charges instituted against him and the jurisdiction of the FCT High Court to entertain the suit.
Justice Chima Nweze, while concurring with the judgement, also frowned on the attitude of politically exposed persons to deploy tactics to delay corruption cases instituted against them, as exemplified in Dariye’s case.
He held, “I have noticed a most worrying trend in most recent time, particularly among the politically exposed citizens of this great country, imagining that they are above the laws of the land, have perfected some awkward and baseless tactics of delaying their trial when they run into conflict with the law.
“The appellant in this appeal falls into this category. In 2007, about eight years ago, leave was granted to the respondent to prefer charges against him. He was duly arraigned before the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory.
“On November 13, the date set aside for the prosecution to marshal its witnesses, he implored the trial court to quash the charges against him on the grounds that the trial court lacked the jurisdiction to hear and determine the charges.
“When the application was dismissed, he proceeded to the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, which held and dismissed his appeal. Instead of returning to the trial court to face his trial, he appealed against the lower court’s judgment. I agree that this appeal is unmeritorious.”
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission had, on July 13, 2007, arraigned the former governor on 23 counts of money laundering and other corruption charges allegedly involving “billions of naira” belonging to the Plateau State Government.
The agency had also accused the former governor of among others, diversion of about N1.2bn of the state’s ecological funds into a private account.
When a suspected oil subsidy thief, Mr. Seun Ogunbambo, was arrested by the EFCC in 2012, it was discovered that he had earlier jumped bail after being arraigned for suspected identity fraud, bank fraud and other related offences. Ogunbambo had allegedly collected a loan facility worth over N430m from a bank between February and September 2009.
After being denied bail in the matter by a Lagos High Court, Ogunbambo had approached another court to secure the bail.
Once after failing to appear in court, his lawyer, Raphael Oluyede, had told the court that he was absent because he had been attacked by some gunmen, who had wanted to abduct him.
But some months later, in a separate case involving Ogunbambo, Oluyede said he did not know the whereabouts of his client, telling the court that the last time he saw Ogunbambo, he had sustained an injury which affected his spinal cord.
Oluyede said since then, he had been unable to reach him because of his injury and the nature of his treatment. He however asked the court to grant him leave to discontinue his representation of Ogunbambo.
At the time, the EFCC claimed it had information that Ogunbambo, who was also charged with N979.6m subsidy fraud, had jumped bail and fled the country to Canada.
EFCC counsel, Emmanuel Oluyede, had described Ogunbambo’s actions as “an abuse of court process” capable of making “criminal law look like a toothless bulldog.”
According to reports, Oginbambo has not been sighted in the country since then.
Meanwhile, according to the Human Rights Watch in a 2011 paper titled ‘Corruption on Trial? The Record of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’, lawyers’ tactics at delaying trials pose a major threat to the country’s fight against corruption.
The report also noted that cases of corruption against many former governors have been pending for years, as far back as 2007.
Buhari seems to agree with the assertion of HRW, considering his address at the 55th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in Abuja recently.
There, the President urged lawyers not to sacrifice the integrity of Nigeria’s legal system for money.
At the gathering, Buhari said, “First, we need to make our courts functional and effective again. This means that we must have lawyers who take the ethics of the profession very seriously; lawyers who will not frustrate the course of justice, even though they defend their clients with all legitimate means and resources.
“Nigeria needs ethical lawyers who always keep the end of justice in mind and will never sacrifice the integrity of the legal system to cover the misdeeds of their clients, no matter how lucrative the brief may be.”
However, in his reaction, the Executive Chairman of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, Debo Adeniran, urged Buhari to do more than appeal to the lawyers’ moral conscience.
Adeniran described criminal justice in Nigeria as being lax, noting that courts are not being properly supervised by the National Judicial Council.
He said, “Beyond that, Buhari should empower the NJC to observe all court proceedings and ensure that anybody who deliberately delays adjudication or wastes the time of the court should face the music.
“Sources of income of lawyers should be investigated because they are the conduits through which some of the looters and corrupt elements launder money. They write receipts for the consultancy they didn’t do at exorbitant rates. That is why you see some of them hands in gloves with corrupt elements.”
Also, Adeniran urged the government to put a cap on the amount of money a lawyer can receive as legal fee per case, saying “it should not be limitless.”
He said, “If a few of them lose their practicing licences, they will sit tight. If the lawyer knows that there is a third eye looking at proceedings, they will also want to take heed and ensure they don’t engage in any fraudulent practice to circumvent the course of justice. All these frivolous applications and the challenging of jurisdiction should stop.”
Also, a lawyer and social commentator, Mr. Jiti Ogunye, said that corrupt lawyers and judges only function in an environment permissive of corruption.
“Now that we have a President that says that he wants to fight corruption, once that tone is set, it is likely that lawyers and any other person will take a cue and will be ashamed of what they were doing before to frustrate the prosecution of criminal cases.”
He called for the reformation of Nigeria’s criminal procedure law, however, adding that the recent promulgation of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act would go a long way to curb the problem.
Ogunye said the Act should be domesticated in all states of the country to encourage an effective justice system.
He said, “More than that, all the interlocutory applications that were allowed by the extant criminal procedure laws have now been abolished by the new act. Now, we have a situation where lawyers object everything.
“But with the Act, you will be allowed to raise your objection, argue it, but you cannot appeal it.”
The lawyer also noted that Buhari’s appeal to the legal professionals should not be misunderstood to mean that lawyers should not defend persons charged with criminal cases.
He said, “The president was saying that there is a distinction between defending a criminal suspect and fabricating defence for him and doing unethical things in order to outsmart the justice system, confuse the issue and subvert the course of justice.”
He however called for the punishment of lawyers found to be delaying the course of justice, saying Buhari’s appeal alone would not deter them.
“It’s embarrassing that a former military man is the one telling lawyers to fight corruption because we should be the ones championing the cause as lawyers,” he said.
Meanwhile, with less than 50 days to the end of its mandatory 180 days to give judgment on cases before it, the National and state Houses of Assembly Election Petition Tribunal in Cross River State has warned lawyers that it will no longer tolerate delays.
The tribunal, presided over by Justice Christopher Awubra, had during the commencement of sitting on May 12 warned lawyers to desist from making frivolous applications and requests for unnecessary adjournments.
Source: The PUNCH.