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Obla’s Trial: When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted

It appears the last may not have been heard of the legal standoff between Godwin Obla (SAN), one of Nigeria’s foremost ex-prosecutors, and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)- the same organisation Obla enthusiastically represented for several years, resulting in the recovery of several assets worth billions of Naira and various landmark decisions in favour of the EFCC.

Despite these feats, the former EFCC prosecutor is currently standing trial alongside Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia before the Federal High Court, Lagos Division in Charge No: FHC/139C/19.

But, Obla has urged the Court to quash the charge filed against him by the EFCC for being an abuse of court process, or in the alternative, to permit his separate trial on Counts 1, 2 and 3 of the Charge which, according to him, are the only counts of the 18-count Charge which affect him.

Obla’s application is premised on the fact that an appeal is currently pending at the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division on the outcome of a previous trial at the Lagos State High Court in respect of the same subject matter as the charge now before the Federal High Court.

In a Motion on Notice filed by his lawyer, Chief Ifedayo Adedipe SAN, he urged the Court to quash the charge or in the alternative split the charge by permitting his separate trial on Counts 1, 2 and 3 of the Charge.

This application is premised on the fact that, by a notice of appeal dated and filed on 16th April 2019, Obla SAN had appealed the decision of the Lagos State High Court. This notice of appeal, according to Adedipe, was served on the EFCC on the same day but the EFCC on 17th April 2019 still proceeded to file the current charge before the Federal High Court.

Adedipe submitted that continuing with Obla’s trial during the pendency of his appeal will be an abuse of court process because “counts 1,2 and 3 of the charge before the court are in respect of the exact same subject matter of counts 1,2,3 and 4 of the amended information filed at the Lagos State High Court in charge no: ID/3671c/16 and form the substance of the subject matter of the 2nd defendant/applicant’s pending appeal in appeal no: CA/LAG/CR/517/2019.”

Adedipe argued that the filing and continuation of Obla’s trial in the charge before the Federal High Court by the EFCC on the same subject matter as his pending appeal is calculated to overreach him in the prosecution of his appeal and to render the outcome of that appeal worthless.

It would be recalled that the EFCC had previously dragged Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia and Godwin Obla before Justice Hakeem Oshodi of the Lagos State High Court, Ikeja, on a 31-Count Amended Information dated 21st February 2018. The prosecution had initially arraigned the Defendants on a 30-count Information dated November 17, 2016.

During the trial, EFCC called 14 witnesses and eventually closed its case on 14th September 2018. Obla immediately responded to the closure of the prosecution’s case by filing a no case submission on the same date (14th September 2018), seeking an order of acquittal on the ground that the prosecution had not made out a sufficient case to warrant a defence.

Also, Justice Ajumogobia in her defense, challenged the jurisdiction of the court on the ground that, being a judicial officer and by virtue of the judgment of the Court of Appeal in the case of NGANJIWA V FRN (delivered on 11th December 2017), the charge against her could not have been filed until after disciplinary action by the National Judicial Council. Not a few persons were surprised when the EFCC’s Counsel, Rotimi Oyedepo, in his response to Justice Ajumogobia’s objection, conceded to the absence of jurisdiction and in fact urged the court to strike out the charge and discharge the defendants.

Thus, after more than two years of trial, Justice H. Oshodi on 16th April 2019 delivered a ruling striking out the charge before the Lagos High Court and 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 Amended Information.

The Court also had some harsh words in its ruling for the prosecution counsel and the EFCC for what the Court described as their “unfortunate” conduct in the trial.

Apparently, miffed at the conduct of EFCC, Justice Oshodi stated ‘’one would have thought that the Prosecution would have urged the Court to strike out the case as a consequence of the decision of the Court of Appeal. But no! the Prosecution still persisted, like a bull running amok, amended the Information and called 2 (two) further witnesses. It ought to be pointed out for record purpose that a counsel is a minister in the temple of justice and as an officer of the Court, a counsel has a duty to assist the Court rather than mislead it’’.

The scathing remarks made by the Justice Oshodi in his ruling marked an extraordinary denouement to a trial which appeared to have generated an unusual media frenzy.

Obla’s travails may not be unconnected with his suit against the EFCC before the Justice V.B. Ashi of the High Court of the FCT in SUIT NO: CV/3220/2017 where he is asking for outstanding professional fees owed to him by the EFCC over the period of 5 years to the tune of over N 685,389,928.10 (Six Hundred and Eighty-Five Million, Three Hundred and Eighty-Nine Thousand, Nine Hundred and Twenty-Eight Naira and 10 Kobo).

This suit, according to sources, has seriously rattled the EFCC which has reportedly been unable to present any convincing rebuttal of the claim and the considerable evidence presented by Obla in its support.

Obla, for the five years he was prosecuting for the EFCC, consistently moved from one courtroom to the other prosecuting corruption-related cases for the EFCC and obtaining the forfeiture of cash and assets running into several billions of Naira. However, as soon as a new leadership was appointed to head the anti-graft commission, the table turned, and he became the hunted.

First, he was severally invited over his perceived role in the Halliburton case- for which he was appointed by the former Attorney General Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke, as part of the legal team which negotiate the plea bargain agreements with the companies involved in the scandal, which culminated in the recovery of the sum of $200million for the Federal Government of Nigeria.

When it looked like the EFCC would not succeed in establishing a case of wrongdoing against him in that case, the now-defunct charge before the Lagos State High Court was filed.

Again, less than 24 hours after the charge filed at the Lagos State High Court was struck out for lack of jurisdiction and after Obla appealed to the Court of Appeal, the EFCC proceeded to file the current charge before the Federal High Court on the same offences alleged in the previous charge.

One question which has emerged on the front burner of discourse in the aftermath of the EFCC’s treatment of Obla SAN is; what is the fate of other prosecutors for the Commission? This question undoubtedly flows from the supposition that a prosecutor who sees to the diligent, professional and unrelenting prosecution of economic and financial crimes against several politically-exposed persons at great personal expense, may eventually find himself on the receiving end of the EFCC’s use of power.

If the allegations made by Godwin Obla SAN in his suit against the EFCC at the FCT High Court are anything to go by, the EFCC has not only refused to pay his professional fees and settle his expenses for the over 40 cases he had successfully handled for the Commission.

While the outcome of the legal battle between Obla SAN and EFCC remains to be seen, it can only be hoped that the unfolding scenario will not damage the erstwhile fruitful relationship between prosecutors and the EFCC; and will not irredeemably affect the effectiveness of the anti-corruption campaign of the current administration.

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