Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court, Lagos, Friday cleared Adeyemi Ikuforiji, the Speaker of the Lagos State House of Assembly, of charges of money laundering.
Mr. Buba said the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, who instituted the charges against the Lagos Speaker, misconstrued the Money Laundering Act and ought to have withdrawn the case.
“This proceeding should have been treated as an aborted trial and the charges should have been withdrawn,” the judge added.
The EFCC had accused Mr. Ikuforiji and Oyebode Atoyebi, his aide, of laundering about N600 million. The Commission alleged that the Lagos Speaker and his aide carried out the transactions without passing through a financial institution.
But in his ruling, the judge described the trial as “anachronistic” and should not have been allowed to continue.
Loud cheers from Mr. Ikuforiji’s supporters erupted inside the court room as the judge ended his ruling. And for the first time since one hour 30 minutes – the duration of the judge’s ruling – he stood before the judge, Mr. Ikuforiji’s face of mask relaxed into a smile.
The trial of the Speaker and his aide began in 2011 when the EFCC arraigned them before Justice James Tsoho of the Federal High Court, Lagos, on a 54-count charge of money laundering.
The case was later transferred to Justice Okechukwu Okeke, and then to Mr. Buba (after Mr. Okeke’s retirement in 2013).
After their arraignment in June last year, the judge granted the defendants bail in the sum of N1 billion each with two surety each in the sum of N500 million.
The EFCC, amending their charges to a 39-count, called only two witnesses – an investigator with the EFCC and Adewale Olatunji, former Clerk of the Lagos State House of Assembly – out of the seven it had intended for the trial before closing its case.
In response, the defence lawyers filed a nocase submission before the court urging it to discharge and acquit the defendants.
Mr. Buba’s ruling had been billed to be delivered two months ago but the judge had said he was unable to finish it due to heavy workload and fatigue.
On Friday, the tense atmosphere in the capacity filled court room was only punctured periodically by the raindrops lashing on glass windows.
Mr. Buba began by informing the lawyers that he had forgotten his reading glasses at home, and then proceeded to borrow one from a lawyer seated before him.
In his ruling, the judge agreed with almost all the submissions of the defence lawyer, noting that “it is only when all the ingredients of an offence had been laid out in evidence by the prosecution and that the evidence had not been discredited as a result of cross examination…that a prima facie case can be made out.
“Two witnesses testified for the prosecution,” Mr. Buba said.
“PW1 (first prosecution witness) admitted while being cross examined that all the monies in the ledger or cash register that was admitted was from the bank account of the House of Assembly, Wema Bank, Equatorial Trust Bank and Skye Bank.
“Yet each of the counts in the charge read a certain value amounting to dash dash dash without going through a financial institution.”
The judge said that the prosecution ought to had known that they were not investigating Mr. Ikuforiji as an individual, but his office as an institution.
“Therefore the prosecution cannot say that, in Count 1 for example, the amount of N338 million mentioned there was utilized by the applicant,” said Mr. Buba.
“In exhibit P1, the sum of N200 million was mentioned and represented as if it was meant for the personal consumption of the applicant. The amount there is N200 million and the beneficiaries are 40 in number. Each of them collected N500,000 and none of them is above the threshold of N5 million.”
According to Mr. Adeniyi, the prosecution’s first witness, the EFCC were not interested in the source or purpose of the money, but how it was released.
The judge described the entire prosecution as “a job taken too far.”
“Prosecution was not concerned whether there was a requisition for the money or whether the money was approved by the governor or budgeted; nor charged the applicants for collecting money without budgetary provision or the approval of the governor of Lagos State,” Mr. Buba said.
“With respect to the prosecution, the submission does not only fly against logic, it is also against the philosophy and spirit of our laws and elementary preliminary law and jurisprudence.
“This court will not, for instance, hold that the accused has a case to answer, that they conspired in 2011 to commit an offence in 2004. That will not only be anachronistic
“I think with respect, the submission that there was no evidence before the court from any bank or financial institution in Nigeria which shows any iota of payment to the accused person is fatally flawed. There is no duty on the accused to prove their innocence, it is the duty of the prosecution to bring that evidence.”
Mr. Buba also said that the Money Laundering Act was meant to apply to persons and corporate entities and not government.
He cited the instance of the millions of dollars that were flown to Brazil during the last World Cup to pay the allowances of the country’s football team.
“Nigeria is a federation practising federalism, each tier of government operates within the law… One arm should not in the name of criminal investigation muscle the other arm without any iota of truth but to merely to take over it and run it down,” he said
“The court agrees that this is indeed the first case in the annals of history of this country where an allegation is levelled against the Speaker of a House of Assembly by a ghost petitioner. The petitioner was left, the Speaker was arraigned and charged for functions of his office that were duly approved in law, sanctioned by law, and done for purpose for which it is meant and established,” the judge added.