The Federal High Court, Abuja, on Monday, ordered the resumption of trial in the N1.9 billion money laundering charge against former Governor of Niger, Babangida Aliyu.
Delivering judgment, Justice Inyang Ekwo, dismissed an administrative directive that okayed the trial of Aliyu, which started in 2017, to start de-novo (fresh).
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the ex-governor is facing an eight count money laundering charge alongside his former Chief of Staff and governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state, Umar Nasko, filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Ekwo held that former Chief Judge (CJ) of the Court, Justice Abdul Abdul-Kafarati, acted in breach of Section 98(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015, when he re-assigned the case-file to a new judge for a fresh trial, after EFCC had called 10 witnesses in the matter and tendered several exhibits in evidence.
The judge noted that EFCC only had four pending witnesses to conclude its case before the matter was handed to a new trial judge.
NAN reports that the defendants were accused of diverting ecological funds of the Federal Government released to Niger State in 2014, to the tune of about N1.940 billion.
Though they were initially arraigned in Abuja before Justice Nnamdi Dimgba in 2017, however, following an application by the defendants, the case was transferred to the Minna Division of the Federal High Court.
Following the transfer of the case to Niger State, it was assigned to Justice Yellim Bogoro by the then CJ and the defendants were arraigned afresh and released on bail on Nov. 16, 2017.
However, midway into their trial, the CJ, in June 2019, ordered Justice Bogoro to hands-off the case.
The CJ subsequently transferred the case to Justice Aliyu Bappa for the trial to begin afresh, citing a petition that was brought to him by the EFCC.
Dissatisfied with the CJ’s decision, the former governor filed a suit to challenge it, insisting that the aim was to unnecessarily prolong his trial.
In the suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/620/2020, which has the FHC CJ, the EFCC and the Attorney-General of the Federation as 1st to 3rd defendants respectively, Aliyu urged the court to reverse the decision.
Meanwhile, in his judgement on the matter, Justice Ekwo agreed with the former governor to the effect that the CJ acted beyond his administrative powers.
Justice Ekwo held that the suit called for the judicial review of the action of the CJ in transferring a judicial proceeding mid-stream, from one judge to another, after the prosecution had called 10 witnesses.
“I have reviewed the facts, evidence and circumstances.
“Ordinarily, certiorari would not lie where the chief judge of a court acts administratively in the routine transfer of cases pursuant to the rules of court.
“This case is not predicated on the administrative power of the chief judge under the rules of this court.
“This is a statutory matter whereby the provisions of the law, the power of the chief judge to transfer a case, is curtailed.
“Where power is curtailed by statute and It is exceeded, review of such act by certiorari becomes inevitable. It is my opinion that order certiorari must be made in this circumstance where evidence has clearly demonstrated that a quasi-judicial function of a chief judge has been exercised in excess of statutory authority, and I so hold.
“As it is, I find merit in the case of the plaintiff and I enter judgment as follows:
“Declaration is hereby made that having regard to the provisions of Section 98(1) and (2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, the Honourable Chief Judge of the Federal High Court lacks the legal power to transfer or re-assign a criminal case from a judge before whom witnesses have been taken, to another judge where the trial will commence de novo.
“A declaration is hereby made that having regards to the provision of Section 98(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, the purported transfer or re-assignment of the charge to Justice Bappa to commence de-novo, is ultra bored the powers of the Chief Judge and therefore null and void”, Justice Ekwo held.
He equally declared that the petition the EFCC submitted to the CJ through a letter dated Feb. 21, 2019, “failed to meet the requirement of Section 98(3) and 98(4) of the ACJA, 2015, as a basis for justifying the transfer of the criminal case with Charge No. FHC/ABJ/CR/71/2017, from Justice Yellim Bogoro to Aliyu Bappa J”.
He then made an order directing the CJ to recall the case-file from Justice Bappa and to remit the same to Justice Bogoro to continue and conclude the case.
As well as, “an order directing Justice Bogoro to complete the trial, having heard 10 prosecution witnesses”.
NAN recalls that Justice Bappa had, on May 23, 2019, issued a bench warrant for the arrest of the former governor and his co-defendant, after they failed to appear before him for trial.
The court further revoked the bail that was previously granted to them by Justice Bogoro.(NAN)