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Discordant tunes over withdrawal of charges against Saraki, Ekweremadu

By Joseph Onyekwere   |   11 October 2016   |   2:18 am
Senate President Bukola Saraki and Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu

Senate President Bukola Saraki and Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu

Nigerians lawyers have expressed divergent views about the withdrawal of the forgery and conspiracy suit filed against the senate president, Bukola Saraki, his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu and two others.

The accused persons were charged before a Federal High court, Abuja over alleged forgery of Senate Rules.

Federal government prosecutor, Aliyu Umar (SAN) said there is a similar case before a Federal Capital Territory (FCT) court involving the parties and therefore sought to withdraw the action.

According to him, it would amount to abuse of court process to have the two cases run simultaneously.

Umar, who said he had his witness with him to proceed for the trial, therefore applied to withdraw the charges.

Expectedly, counsels for the defendants did not oppose the application. As a result, Justice Halilu Yusuf struck out the charges, throwing the accused persons and their supporters into wild jubilation.

Then, the question is: if the charges were withdrawn because there is a similar matter before a sister court, why did the accused persons rejoice so heartily as though the matter was completely over? Even the deputy senate president later released a statement hailing the decision and described it as the triumph of democracy.

Read him: “Today, time has indeed vindicated the just and it is victory for democracy. This day, my trust in God, the court, and the overwhelming solidarity of good people of Nigeria is justified.”

He concluded by expressing forgiveness to those behind the trial. Are all these statements not an evidence of a concluded matter?

Now, lawyers shared there varied views over the development. A senior advocate of Nigeria, Ibrahim Bawa (SAN) said the withdrawal was within the confines of the law, going by what the prosecutor gave as the reason for that.

He said: “The action is within the confines of the law. The charges are that they were alleged to have committed some forgery. The explanation given by the prosecution to the federal government was that the matter is being handled by another judge. So there will be two matters running simultaneously on the same subject-matter, which is not proper in law.

“Legally, government has the power to prosecute offenders but there are processes to do that. An accused cannot be subjected to two courts at the same time over the same issue. That would amount to double jeopardy. Also, doing that would bring about the risk of having conflicting decisions on the same subject matter. It is the federal government that is handling the matter before the FCT and the federal high court. It should not be so.”

Also, Lanre Ogunlesi (SAN) said the action is commendable because it would be an abuse of court process to have the two charges run at the same time in two different courts.

“It would be an abuse of court process. From what was said before the court, there is similar case before another judge of the FCT. So, we must commend the prosecution for that. We have been clamouring that judges of concurrent jurisdictions should not be giving conflicting decisions. So that is the starting point and it is commendable.”

Also, Dr. Abiodun Layonu (SAN) believe however that there is more to the withdrawal than explained. According to him, it is not in the best interest of the system to embark on investigation, prosecution and withdrawal of charges.

He is of the view that people should be charged to court only after proper investigation is done and decision on the mode or court of prosecution determined properly. “People should be charged to court on account of proper investigation. The question is: why would you charge people as highly placed as the senate president and his deputy, only to realise that proper investigation was not carried out or that it is not proper before the the court? I think that the government needs to be very cautious in doing things like that,” he said.

Samuel Zibiri (SAN) said such withdrawal exposed the insincerity of the government. “If they are transparent in the fight against corruption, they would not have done that. In the first place, the charges were baseless. It was a political trial. The implication of that is that it is not all corruption cases that are genuinely brought to court. If you are saying you want to fight corruption and you are withdrawing some of the cases, it means that it is not all cases that were genuinely brought to court,” he declared.

For chief Felix Fagbohungbe (SAN), the genuineness of the prosecutors statement about the withdrawal is within the area of speculation. According to him, if the government cannot sustain the charges before the court, it could tactically withdraw the charges. “Of course, if they didn’t prepare for it, they would definitely have to withdraw it. Though legally speaking, it is at the discretion of the attorney general to file charges and withdraw them without any explanation. So he has done what is within his constitutional powers to do, which is to charge and to withdraw charges. Any other thoughts outside the reasons they gave is on the area of speculation and as lawyers, we can’t speculate,” he stated.

Similarly, former attorney general of Delta state, Dafe Akpedeye (SAN) said the office of the AGF is one that is constitutionally provided for, as well as his powers in the constitution. Particularly, section 174, he said, provides that not only does the AGF have the power to undertake and take over criminal proceedings; he can also discontinue proceedings already commenced.

“Now what is interesting is that the constitution did not mandate the AGF, in exercising his powers in respect of any proceedings to give any reason for so doing, before it can be valid. That being the case, it means that he can do so for any reason you can possibly fathom under the sun, including political reasons.

“However, the constitution also provides that the AGF in exercising the powers conferred on him must always act in the public interest. The question then is, what is considered to be in the public interest and who has the powers to decide when a reason is in accordance with public interest?

“Interestingly, these issues have arisen before now and the Apex court had the opportunity to make pronouncements on same. In the landmark judgment delivered in the case of The State v Ilori [1983] 1 SCNLR 94, a full court of the Supreme Court held that the discretionary powers of the Attorney-General of the Federation and the state Attorneys-General to start, continue and discontinue criminal prosecutions in their respective jurisdictions cannot be challenged in court,” he explained. Akpedeye said with that decision, the court buried the possibility to question the actions and decisions of the AGF in this regard.

According to him, while it seems to have been a decision that is tended towards a political basis than legal, I must note that all perspectives must be considered in reaching such a decision.

His words: “As a former chief law officer of my state, I can tell you first hand, that it cost the state some good resources to effectively prosecute a simple case of misdemeanour, let alone a felony. So it is possible the AGF has put all material facts into consideration and decided that, rather than score some cheap political score as it is perceived by some persons, it is perhaps better to concentrate the energy and resources to some other cases.

“In reaching the decision, the AGF needed to satisfy his conscience alone and no other, hence if he is at peace with himself to the effect that his decision accords with public interest, so be it. Why lose sleep if there is more than meets the eyes?

“Indeed, the Supreme Court in the case referred to above noted that the only sanction against an Attorney-general who misuses his powers is the reaction of his appointer, who has the powers to remove him,” he stated, adding that the reason behind depositing such unfettered powers on the Attorney-general was to give the holder of the office absolute and effective control of criminal prosecution in the country.

Whether the trial would continue in a different court as stated by the prosecutor or abandoned completely as widely speculated, depends on the Attorney General who initiated the charges in the first place.

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