Killing of policemen in Taraba: Fears, assurances as Malami takes over trial, drops military suspects
Until August 6, 2019, it would have been difficult to imagine that Nigerian soldiers could aim at a moving vehicle, kill three police officers and two civilians guarding a kidnap kingpin, without a scratch on the handcuffed suspect, Bala Hamisu Wadume.
Fortuitously, five other police officers in the vehicle were injured. Only the suspect survived the attack without a shrapnel touch. Assuming such Hollywood kind of precision was a fluke, what followed was even more bizarre. The suspect was freed from the handcuff against all logical reasoning and allowed to escape before he was re-arrested two weeks after by the police. In his confession, he reportedly implicated soldiers in the deadly escape.
Wadume was arrested August 6, by a team of anti-crime police officers in Ibi, Taraba state as a result of his alleged involvement in numerous heinous activities in the state. He was being taken to Jalingo, the state capital, when soldiers manning a checkpoint along the road opened fire on the police team, killing three officers and two civilians. Following public outcry, an expansive investigation was launched to unravel the culprits behind the violence, amidst allegations that soldiers of 93 Battalion, Takum, Taraba and top local police officers connived in the fatal operation to prevent Wadume’s arrest.
Wadume had in his statement identified his accomplices, including 10 soldiers and two policemen. They are Captain Tijjani Balarabe; Staff Sgt. David Isaiah; Sgt. Ibrahim Mohammed; Corporal Bartholomew Obanye; Private Mohammed Nura; Lance Corporal Okorozie Gideon and Corporal Markus Michael. Others are L/Corporal Nvenaweimoeimi Akpagra; Staff Sgt. Abdullahi Adamu and Private Ebele Emmanuel. The two police suspects are ASP Aondona Iorbee and Ahmad Suleiman, also known as Dan Ball. The three deceased policemen are Inspector Mark Ediale, 36, Sgt. Dahiru Musa, 40 and Owolabi Babajide 24, while the two civilians are Farouk Bashir, 30, and Usman Danazumi, 44.
Following the conclusion of the investigation and the bid to commence the trial, the attorney general of the federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN) allegedly took over the process from Taraba State government and dropped the names of the indicted soldiers. Although section 174 (1) of the 1999 Constitution empowers the AGF to institute, take over or discontinue any criminal matter in any court in Nigeria, subsection 3 of that section says he must do so with regard to the public interest, the interest of justice and the need to prevent abuse of legal process.
When contacted by The Guardian through his Special Assistant on Media and Public Relations, Dr. Umar Jibrilu Gwandu, Malami insisted that no names were dropped in the Wadume case. According to him, what his office did was too severe the charges in view of the unavailability of the soldiers who in their own case needed to be released by the military authorities. Malami said the soldiers are likely undergoing military processes, which is delaying their release.
“The interest of justice requires and legitimately allowed for segmenting the case in the interest of speedy trial. It is in the interest of justice to accord speedy trial to the accused persons that are readily available to stand trial as against delaying at the expense of other co-accused persons who in the peculiarity of this case are not available for immediate arraignment.
“It is a common practice that absence of a co-accused will not constitute an impediment to the progress of a case. Those available are entitled to a fair trial and have their case determined within a reasonable time as a matter of Constitutional rights. More so, looking at the fact that the accused persons, who are available, are not responsible for the unavailability of their co-accused persons,” the AGF stated. Malami assured that his office has taken steps to procure the availability of the co-accused and shall have them arraigned immediately the military authorities surrender them.
But the attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Taraba State, Mr. Sam Adda told The Guardian that politics triggered the interest of the federal government is handling the prosecution. “These are political matters. It is legally laced with politics. At a point, soldiers were supposed to be included in the list of people that are supposed to be arraigned before the court, but it is not so now. It took the intervention of a lot of powerful and influential people to ensure that military authorities produced the captain in question in the first place for investigation,” he lamented, emphasizing that the whole process has been politicised.
Reacting to the development, vocal lawyer, Chief Goddy Uwazuruike said: “Attorney General of the Federation office carries a heavy-duty. It is the only one with a specific qualification and accordingly, a specific moral burden. That burden and moral duty are to the nation. That is why he is also the Minister of Justice. In specifying the professional qualification, age is surreptitiously imparted. He must have been a lawyer for 10 years. In a simple language, he must be made of solid stuff.
“It is therefore outrageous for him to misuse his office in the mutilation of the defendants’ list without any explanation. It means that he holds the public in contempt. The facts of the Wadume case are in the public domain. The expectations of the public are today damaged by the removal of the military men from the list.” Uwazuruike stressed that lack of explanation on the activities of the AGF has given room for the suspicion, adding that the delay in even charging the suspects to court has now been replaced by the suspicious action of the AGF.
Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) noted that the powers of the AGF to the institute, take over, continue, or discontinue criminal proceedings is granted to him by section 174 of the 1999 Constitution, but that such powers are to be exercised in the public interest and for the good of the people. “It becomes curious therefore when the Attorney General suddenly takes over the trial of soldiers that allegedly killed some Policemen in Taraba state. The state Attorney General has not indicated his inability or and challenges to continue with the trial of the soldiers. The general feeling here is that there could be an attempt to prosecute the charge in a wishy-washy manner, or even enter a nolle prosequi and discontinue the entire trial as time goes on. I plead that state actors be allowed the democratic latitude to carry out their constitutional duties in a federal set up such as we operate without undue interference from the centre,” he declared.
Kano based advocate, Mr. Abubakar Sani said the discretion of the AGF cannot be questioned unless the Constitution is amended. He said: “Unfortunately, without amending the Constitution, it is futile to question the Attorney-General’s exclusive prerogative and sole discretion to take over, initiate or discontinue any criminal proceedings in any court in Nigeria. The Supreme Court has affirmed and recognized this truism in State vs. Ilori.
Senior legal officer, Human Rights Law Services (HURILAWS), Mr. Collins Okeke, said it is difficult to determine the interest of the AGF in the matter. “I want to assume it is in public interest and interest of justice as provided by the 1999 Constitution. The trial involves two important security agencies, the Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Police. The AGF taking over the trial may be because the federal government considers the trial serious,” he reasoned, adding that it may also be an attempt to reassure both security agencies that the federal government will do the right thing. “If it is mismanaged by the AGF it would have huge consequences for National Security.”
For Warri, Delta state-based Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Albert Akpomudje, while it is within the powers of the AGF to take over the prosecution of any criminal matter within the federal jurisdiction, the sudden interest raises a lot of suspicions, as it has never been his usual practice. “For me, the AGF can only prosecute but the final decision rests with the judge. Taking over the case may become immaterial if there is an upright judge to handle the matter, which to me is most important,” he said.
According to him, a bad case without evidence to support it will collapse no matter how brilliant or influential the prosecuting counsel such as the AGF is. In the same vein, he said, if there is strong evidence to prosecute the accused persons, they would be convicted as long as the judge is competent, brilliant, courageous, bold and a person with high integrity who cannot be influenced.
Also, Access to Justice said it is concerned about the takeover, by the AGF of the prosecution of Wadume, Capt. Balarabe and 18 others allegedly indicted in the acts of homicide and kidnapping. The AGF, it admitted has powers under the Constitution to take over and even terminate criminal proceedings undertaken against anyone, in the public interest.
“So, the legal authority of a takeover of the case from the police is not, ex facie, questionable. However, there is no justification given by the AGF for the takeover, and there is no indication whether the police, of their volition, invited the takeover by the AGF.
Therefore, the nature of the public interest sought to be protected by the AGF’s takeover action is not obvious at this time.
“However, precedence does trigger concerns about the motive of the takeover. The AGF’s office has been known to take over cases for ostensibly politically-motivated reasons, only to subsequently direct the cases towards politically arbitrated outcomes. Politically-motivated takeovers of cases will nearly always be at odds or be in conflict with the public interest, given that the goals of both classes of interests are often countervailing. Many sections of Nigerian society will feel apprehension over this action by the AGF, particularly given, as has been said, the very troubling records of the AGF’s office in this regard, and especially too, the antecedents of this case, the efforts to cover-up the roles played by military forces in the alleged crimes, alongside efforts to change the course of justice and ultimately help some people evade accountability for the killing of policemen who put their lives on the line to fight a horrible crime ravaging our country for such a long time now,” Mr. Joseph Otteh, Director of Access to Justice stated.
The AGF, he maintained, must truly uphold the integrity and independence of that office, for it would be “a treacherous betrayal of the trust placed on the AGF’s office by the Nigerian Constitution, where the Attorney General to use a takeover as a way to subvert justice in any case.” Otteh expressed the hope that that would not be the plan.