The trial of Farouk Lawan had a chequered history, the judge, Angela Otaluka, said in her judgement sentencing the former federal lawmaker to seven years in prison on Tuesday.
Ms Otaluka, a judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Apo, Abuja, who jailed Mr Lawan for bribery and corruption, said the trial, from inception, had issues which ended up elongating it for eight years.
Mr Lawan was jailed for corruptly demanding $3million and eventually taking $500,000 bribe while serving as the chairman of the House of Representative’s ad-hoc committee investigating the fraud around fuel subsidy in 2012.
The ex-lawmaker demanded and took the bribe from a Nigerian billionaire oil mogul, Femi Otedola, to remove the businessman’s Zenon Oil and Gas Ltd from the list of firms indicted for fraud in the fuel subsidy regime in 2012, the judge ruled.
In her judgment, Ms Otaluka relied heavily on the testimony of Mr Otedola, who described giving the $500,000 to Mr Lawan in a sting operation planned with the State Security Service (SSS) to obtain evidence of extortion against the lawmaker.
A video clip showing Mr Lawan receiving a big swollen envelope, which the prosecution said contained the $500,000, from Mr Otedola, was tendered as an exhibit and played in the open court during the trial that spanned over eight years.
In her concluding remark, while delivering judgment in the case on Tuesday, Ms Otaluka said Mr Lawan’s trial suffered “needless adjournments” as it went back and forth among other four judges before the final judgement day.
“Before coming to the conclusion of this judgement, I must observe that this case has had a chequered history from its inception in 2013; as it sojourned from one court to another before landing at my doorstep in 2015.
“It was fraught with several needless adjournments, but then the curtains are now being closed in this trial court,” Ms Otaluka who was the fourth judge to handle the matter, said.
Her comment speaks to the pattern of delay most high-profile corruption cases in Nigeria usually suffer. This is due to a number of loopholes in the country’s criminal justice system.
In Mr Lawan’s case, his long journey through the courts began in 2013, when he was arraigned before Mudashiru Oniyangi, then a judge of the FCT High Court.
Months after the bribery scandal broke out in 2012, the Attorney-General of the Federation’s office arraigned the Kano-born politician alongside the former Secretary of the House committee on fuel subsidy fraud, Boniface Emenalo, before Mr Oniyangi on February 1, 2013.
The AGF office arraigned the defendants on seven counts of seven of bribery and corruption, offences that were said to violate section 17 (1) of the Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission Act, 2000 and punishable under section 17 (1) of the same Act.
Both Mr Lawan and Mr Boniface, a National Assembly staff member, pleaded not guilty to the charges.
But the trial had barely made any progress when the trial judge, Mr Oniyangi, was elevated to the Court of Appeal bench, prompting the need to re-assign the case to another judge of the FCT High Court.
In 2014, Mr Lawan’s trial was reassigned to Adebukola Banjoko. Mr Lawan and his co-defendant pleaded not guilty again when they were rearraigned before Ms Banjoko,
Not long into the trial, Mr Lawan lodged a petition against the new judge, Ms Banjoko.
He accused Ms Banjoko of bias, asking the then Chief Judge of the FCT High Court, Ishaq Bello, to transfer the suit to another judge.
On being informed of the petition, Ms Banjoko announced her voluntary withdrawal from the case in open court on November 18, 2014.
Third and fourth judges
The case was then reassigned to Ms Otaluka sometimes in 2015.
But before the prosecution started calling witnesses, it amended the charges, pruning down the number of counts from seven to three, and turning Mr Lawan’s co-accused, Mr Emenalo, into a prosecution witness.
Mr Lawan, who faced trial till the end as the sole defendant, maintained his innocence as he was rearraigned before Ms Otaluka.
Between 2015 and 2017, the prosecution led by Adegboyega Awomolo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, called four out of its five proposed witnesses.
As Mr Awomolo was getting to the point of calling the fifth and last prosecution witness, Mr Lawan, again, sent a petition of bias against Ms Otaluka in 2017.
Following the petition, the Chief Judge of the court, Mr Bello, abruptly withdrew the case from Ms Otaluka and reassigned it to Yusuf Halilu in June 2017.
Dissatisfied with the transfer, however, the prosecution filed a motion before Mr Halilu attacking the legality of the reassignment of the case to him.
But in a ruling delivered on October 17, 2017, Mr Halilu dismissed the prosecution’s application affirming the legality of the reassignment of the case to him by the Chief Judge.
The prosecution immediately went on appeal against the ruling, arguing that withdrawing the case from Ms Otaluka after four out of the five proposed prosecution witnesses had testified, violated section 98(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2011.
But before the appeal could be heard by the Court of Appeal in Abuja, the Chief Judge rescinded his decision by returning the case to Ms Otaluka.
The matter then continued before Ms Otaluka in January 2018 till she delivered judgement on Tuesday.
After being through the trial process for over eight years, Mr Lawan was, on Tuesday, ordered by the judge to serve the next seven years of his life in prison.
The convict’s countenance could not be gauged by our correspondent as Mr Lawan wore a black face mask, perhaps indicative of the sad days that lay ahead for him at Kuje Correctional Service.
He was surrounded by prison officials as he made his way out of the courtroom after the guilty verdict was handed down against him.
The convict was led to the waiting van of the prison services. As he made his way into the steaming Hilux van, he adjusted his multi-layered flowing gown.
This reporter saw how officials of the Nigerian Correctional Service from Kuje in Abuja, drove him away from the court in their Hilux van at about 4: 30 pm on Tuesday.
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