A judge whom civil society groups say has “brought so much shame to Nigeria” is to decide whether Aliyu Akwe-Doma, former Governor of Nassarawa state corruptly enriched himself to the tune of 15bn naira.
Marcel Awokulehin, presiding judge of a Federal High Court in Nassarawa state on Monday listened to arguments on whether or not charges filed against the former by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) should be quashed.
In defending his client, counsel to the former Governor, Charles Edosonwan, stated that “this is a criminal proceeding that ought not to proceed.” The basis for this submission by Mr. Edosonwan was a previous ruling by Mr. Awokulehin.
The Ibori freedom
Three years ago, Mr. Awokulehin, while presiding over a case instituted by the EFCC against James Ibori, a former Governor of Delta state, quashed the 170-count corruption charges filed against the governor. Mr. Awokulehin ruled that Mr. Ibori had no case to answer.
Mr. Ibori, governor of Delta state from 1999 to 2007, had been indicted by the EFCC of stealing and appropriating state funds to himself and also putting such funds in foreign accounts. In order to prevent his exposure, the former governor allegedly offered a cash bribe of $15million to Nuhu Ribadu, the then Chairman of the EFCC, for his case to be dropped. The commission however continued its investigations which led to the filing of charges against Mr. Ibori.
Despite being freed by Justice Awokulehin, Mr. Ibori, in February, pleaded guilty to stealing state funds and laundering them to the UK. He has been sentenced to 13 years in prison by a court in the UK.
It is this previous ruling by Mr. Awokulehin that Mr. Edosonwan is relying on as a precedent for his client to be freed, a move which was opposed by the EFCC.
He has no moral right to continue
Civil society groups and lawyers have condemned the judiciary and Mr. Awokulehin for the latter’s continuation in presiding over corruption cases.
“For them (the judiciary) to have allowed him (Mr. Awokulehin) to preside over corruption cases shows that the judiciary is not serious about fighting corruption,” said Debo Adeniran, the coordinator of the Coalition against Corrupt leaders (CACOL), a civil society group.
Mr. Adeniran who lamented that “Justice Awokulehin has brought so much shame” to Nigeria by the Ibori ruling lamented the continuous presence of the judge on the bench.
“When it became clear to everybody that Marcel Awokulehin was a corrupt judge, we expected the NJC to query Awokulehin, de-robe him if possible, and to sanction him accordingly,” Mr. Adeniran, whose group had petitioned the NJC, said.
Mr. Adeniran’s view was similar to that of another civil society organisation, the Human and Environmental Development agenda (HEDA) who condemned the continuous presence of Mr. Awokulehin in the Nigerian judiciary.
“Justice Marcel Awokulehin should not only be suspended from presiding over corruption related cases but in all judicial matters,” said Suraju Olanrewaju, who heads HEDA.
“The country suffered unprecedented international ignominy as a result of his ludicrous and highly compromised judgement in Iborigate case,” Ms. Olarenwaju said.
Excuse the Judge
Lagos based lawyer Jiti Ogunye, believes the EFCC should have demanded that Mr. Awokulehin excuse himself from the case.
“Should the judge, given his precedence, given his pedigree, be allowed to be taking EFCC cases again,” Mr. Ogunye queried.
“Even if Governor Doma is freed on his merit, what will the ordinary Nigerian think? It is in the interest of the judge, the EFCC, or the Nigerian Government that the judge continues with the case,” the lawyer stated.
Mr. Ogunye’s view was shared by the HEDA leader.
“I think the current leadership of EFCC is obligated to demand integrity and dignity from Judges presiding over its cases. Lawyers prosecuting this matter are in a position to have requested the trial Judge transfer the matter to another Judge or petition the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court,” Mr. Suraju said.
While Mr. Awokulehin has adjourned the suit to June 11, there seems to be an agreement among civil society groups that justice might not be served in the case.
“Justice and fair trial are under threat in matters involving a Judge with questionable antecedence,” Mr. Suraju said.