Justice Muslim Hassan of the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court on Friday declined further hearing of the case involving former minister of aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode, Nenadi Usman, and Danjuma Yusuf over a N4.7 billion fraud levelled against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission EFCC.
Mr. Hassan ordered that the case file be returned to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Ibrahim Auta, for re-assignment to another judge. He directed Mr. Fani-Kayode and his co-defendants to await further directive from Mr. Auta.
The EFCC had on June 28, 2016 arraigned Mr. Fani-Kayode; former minister of state for finance, Nenadi Usman; former national chairman of Association of Local Government of Nigeria, ALGON, Yusuf Danjuma, and a company, Jointrust Dimentions Nigeria Ltd. on a 17-count charge of fraud and money laundering.
The accused had pleaded not guilty.
Mr. Fani-Kayode had accused the judge of bias in the handling of the matter, stating that he wanted the judge to not only withdraw himself from the case but to transfer the matter to the Abuja division of the court.
Mr. Fani-Kayode through his counsel, Norrison Quakers, also said he was afraid of not getting justice if Mr. Hassan presided over the case on the grounds that Mr. Hassan once worked as a legal officer in the employment of the EFCC.
Mr. Fani-Kayode recalled that Mr. Hassan, then a senior counsel with the EFCC, was the officer who drafted, filed and signed a charge marked FHC/L/523c/2008, leading to his trial for alleged N100 million money laundering before Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia of the same federal court.
He said though the EFCC vigorously prosecuted the case, he was discharged and acquitted by Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia on July 1, 2015 after seven years of trial, a development, Mr. Hassan was not happy about, according to Mr. Fani-Kayode.
Following Mr. Fani-Kayode’s claims, the EFCC had filed a counter-affidavit, wherein it described the accused’s application as a ploy to frustrate his trial and urged the judge to dismiss it.
The EFCC prosecutor, Rotimi Oyedepo, had argued that no reasonable person who watched the proceedings during Mr. Fani-Kayode’s trial would say Justice Hassan was biased against him.
In his ruling on Thursday, Justice Hassan upheld Mr. Oyedepo’s submission that he (the judge) was not biased.
The judge, however, said he considered it safe to withdraw himself from the case.
“It is not in dispute that I signed Exhibit FFK1 as far back as 2008 over nine years ago, as the then Head of Legal, Lagos office of the EFCC, prior to my elevation as a judge of the Federal High Court,” Mr. Hassan said.
“But it must be emphasised that as at then, I never participated in the trial of the second defendant (Fani-Kayode) and at all material times during the pendency of that case.
“I never appeared for the prosecution as the entire proceedings were conducted by Mr. Festus Keyamo and his chambers before Honourable Justice Rita Ngozi Ofili-Ajumogobia, which led to the discharge and acquittal of the second defendant as erroneously argued by learned senior counsel as the record of the proceedings will bear me out.”
The judge further noted that his conduct throughout the duration of the trial would leave no one in doubt that, so far, justice had not been done to the defendants in the case.
“But that notwithstanding, this court will exercise caution and restraint as it would be safer and more in the interest of justice to refuse taking further proceedings in this matter,” he continued.
“I refer this case to the Chief Judge of this honourable court for re-assignment to another judge.
“Having declined jurisdiction based on the fear or apprehension of the second defendant that he will not get fair trial and since the defendants are on joint trial, any other pronouncement made by this honourable court in respect of venue and severance of the charge and other issues raised in the applications of the first and third defendants will be an exercise in futility and an academic exercise.”