Wale Babalakin, the billionaire Chairman of Bi-Courtney Limited, walked out of the Ikeja High Court in Lagos, Monday, a free man after years of prosecution for an alleged N4.7 billion fraud by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
Delivering his ruling, Justice Lateef Lawal-Akapo said the EFCC had failed to disclose enough information to sustain the allegations against Mr. Babalakin, and his co-defendants.
“The amended information filed May 7, 2013, is incurably bad and defective,” the judge held.
Mr. Babalakin, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria; Alex Okoh, a banker; and their companies Bi-Courtney Limited, Renix Nigeria Limited, and Stabilini Visioni Limited had been charged on a 27-count charge of fraud, conspiracy, and retention of proceeds of criminal conduct.
The EFCC accused Mr. Babalakin of helping James Ibori, a former governor of Delta State who is now serving a jail term in the UK, to launder N4.7 billion state funds.
The defendants were first arraigned in January 2013, after which began a series of court room dramas that culminated in their discharge.
Long walk to freedom
Efforts to arraign the defendants were stalled on November 29, 2012, and December 12, 2012, after Mr. Babalakin’s counsel told the judge that his client was on admission at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH.
Three days before his initially scheduled arraignment on November 29, the lawyer visited the Lagos office of the EFCC to seek an administrative bail, with a promise that he would appear in court on the fixed date.
When the day arrived, Mr. Babalakin was nowhere near the Ikeja High Court, as his lawyer, Ebun Sofunde, told the judge that his client had suddenly fallen ill.
“I have been further informed that sometimes last night, because his condition deteriorated, he was taken to LUTH where he is presently on admission,” said Mr. Sofunde.
However, while his lawyer was apologizing to the judge over his client’s absence, another set of lawyers were at the Federal High Court in Ikoyi secretly seeking succour for Mr. Babalakin before Justice Mohammed Idris.
The development led to an “embarrassed” Mr. Sofunde, who said he was unaware of the suit at the federal court, announcing his withdrawal from Mr. Babalakin’s legal team inside the court room.
Mr. Babalakin had three reliefs before the federal court – an order to permit him to file an application that would bar the EFCC and other government agencies from prosecuting him; an order restraining the EFCC from further prosecuting him at the Lagos High Court, and an order that would bar the EFCC, the police and other security agencies from “arresting, harassing, or detaining” him.
The judge struck out two of the three reliefs, only granting the billionaire lawyer the relief to file an application before him.
Two weeks later, Mr. Idris dismissed Mr. Babalakin’s application seeking to evade prosecution.
His lawyers promptly filed the same suit before another judge, Ibrahim Buba, urging him to enforce his client’s fundamental rights.
On December 21, Mr. Buba delivered a tersely worded ruling directing the “learned SAN” to take his “cat and mouse” application to the state high court.
“I do not find any merit in the fundamental rights application of the applicant,” the judge ruled.
“The applicant cannot approach this court to enforce fundamental human rights, since the court has a concurrent jurisdiction with the Lagos State High Court on matters touching on fundamental rights.”
The same month, the Civil Society Network Against Corruption, CSNAC, petitioned the National Judicial Council urging it to sanction Mr. Babalakin for his attempts to “ridicule the judiciary”.
On January 17, 2013, the defendants were finally arraigned before Justice Adeniyi Onigbanjo on a 27 count charge.
Then, their lawyers, which included at least three senior advocates, went to work, inundating the judge with a series of applications – an application to quash the charges because the EFCC did not obtain a “valid fiat” from the Attorney-General of the Federation, an application to adjourn the matter indefinitely, and an application to travel abroad for medical check-up (filed twice in three months).
And there was a pending application at the Court of Appeal questioning the jurisdiction of the Lagos High Court, among others.
At a point, Mr. Babalakin’s lawyer told the court his client could not enter the court room because he was using clutches and would need a wheelchair to be moved into the court room.
Mr. Onigbanjo was forced to adjourn proceedings on several occasions saying that he needed more time to finish writing the rulings on the plethora of applications pending before him.
By the end of 2013, the matter was transferred from Mr. Onigbanjo to Mr. Lawal-Akapo, and Mr. Mr. Babalakin’s lawyers began filling an application urging the court to grant their client the leave to stay away from the dock pending the determination of the charges against him.
The new judge agreed and “excused” the defendants from the dock.
When the judge announced his freedom on Monday, Mr. Babalakin maintained a poker face from where he was seated at the gallery.
The defence team had argued that as a state governor, Mr. Ibori was not a public official to warrant the defendants being charged under Section 98(a) of the Criminal Code Laws of Lagos State 2003.
They also noted that the charge sheet was signed only by an EFCC official, one A.M Yusuf, with no representation from the Attorney-General of the Federation’s office.
The defence further argued that Mr. Yusuf failed to indicate his position in the charge sheet.
In his ruling, Mr. Lawal-Akapo noted that though the EFCC had the powers to prosecute the defendants with or without a fiat, the charge did not disclose enough particulars to warrant a conviction.
The judge also held that as a state governor, Mr. Ibori was not a public official as canvassed by the prosecution, adding that Mr. Yusuf’s failure to disclose his position was detrimental to the charge.
The judge said that while the EFCC relied on Section 158 of the Administration of Criminal Justice in Lagos State to charge the defendants, Section 35(a) of the Constitution was superior to it.
“Consequentially, the accused persons are hereby discharged,” the judge ruled.