N500M FRAUD: JUDGE LAMBASTS EFCC OVER SHODDY HANDLING OF LAGOS SPEAKER, IKUFORIJI’S TRIAL

Justice Okechukwu Okeke of the Federal High Court, Lagos, Wednesday, adjourned indefinitely the trial of Adeyemi Ikuforiji, Speaker of the Lagos State House of Assembly.

The trial judge blamed the adjournment on the prosecution’s “deliberate act” to delay the trial.

“This matter has suffered series of adjournments all at the instance of prosecution. It is a deliberate attempt by prosecution to disrupt hearing in the case and blackmail this court,” said the judge.

“I hereby adjourn this case sine die (indefinitely). Whenever the prosecution is ready to diligently handle their case, hearing notices will be issued, he added.

‘LAX’ PROSECUTION

The judge’s fury at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, underscored the levity with which the prosecution had handled the trial since inception.

Mr. Ikuforiji and his personal assistant, Oyebode Atoyebi, had been standing trial since March 1, 2012, accused of laundering about N500 million.

But the matter suffered several – and sometimes frivolous – adjournments forcing the trial judge, who retires in May, to fix about 10 consecutive trial days.

In protest, Godwin Obla, the EFCC’s lawyer withdrew from the case, saying that the court did not put into consideration his commitment in other court matters.

“It is important that I draw His Lordship’s attention to the fact that, regrettably, the new dates didn’t take into consideration the dates that I was previously committed in other legal proceedings before various courts and tribunals,” Mr. Obla had stated in his withdrawal letter addressed to the court.

“The new dates clearly conflict with those long-scheduled obligations,” he added.

Though the EFCC had insisted that Mr. Ikuforiji’s prosecution is “top priority,” the trial’s series of adjournments led to critics accusing the anti graft commission of collusion with the speaker’s party, the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN.

There were also unsubstantiated allegations of the party’s intense pressure and financial inducement on the trial judge to make him “throw the matter out of court.”

Last November, the court failed to sit on two scheduled dates after the prosecution failed to appear on both occasions.

On November 6, Mr. Obla was absent on the grounds of “ill health.”

Two weeks later, on the next adjourned date, the EFCC counsel was absent again, this time claiming that the court registrar misinformed him on the actual trial date.

In December, the trial was adjourned halfway through after the court said that the key to the exhibits’ safe had been misplaced. While leading a key witness in evidence, Mr. Obla had requested for some of the exhibits he had earlier tendered before the court.

‘Begging for trial’

In February, Adeniyi Adebayo, the prosecution’s first witness, told the court how N36 million state funds were transferred into the Lagos Speaker’s private bank account between July 2010 and August 2011.

Mr. Adebayo, an EFCC investigator, also detailed, among other financial mismanagement, how the Speaker approved N22 million for members of the state’s House of Assembly and staff of the legislature for the 2011 Ramadan celebration.

Last month, after another absence of the prosecution, Tayo Oyetibo, the Speaker’s counsel, asked the judge to dismiss the charge for lack of diligent prosecution.

“This is a case where the accused person is begging to be prosecuted and the prosecution is running away,” Mr. Oyetibo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, had said

But the judge refused, preferring to adjourn for “the overriding public interest.”

Two weeks ago, after the EFCC’s lead counsel announced his withdrawal from the trial, Alli Yusuf, Head of the commission’s Legal Department, told the court that he had taken over from Mr. Obla and would need time to study the case.

However, on Wednesday, David Ibenu, a lawyer, announced his appearance as new counsel to the EFCC.

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