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19 May 2014
On February 13 2014 a former speaker of Nigeria's House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, was acquitted of charges of improperly awarding contracts and embezzling funds while in office. This acquittal – his second in two years – followed the submissions of his counsel, made immediately after the prosecution closed its case, that the prosecution had failed to establish the basis for the charges and that the defendant need not be called upon to enter any defence.
When criminal cases end in this fashion, it is usually because the case was either poorly investigated, poorly presented to the court, or both. The most significant thing about Bankole's most recent acquittal is that the prosecution got the chance to present any evidence against him at all. The pattern in the vast majority of such cases that actually find their way into court is that the defence file motions making technical challenges to the charges, which take an extremely long time to be heard. The case closes if these challenges succeed. If they are unsuccessful, appeals are pursued, which usually take several years to make their way through the appellate system; and during their pendency, the trials are usually suspended. It is not uncommon for such cases to simply wither away even if, at the end of the appeal process (which can take as long as a decade), the challenges fail.
Bankole was an unusual defendant in the sense that he had the confidence to allow the prosecution to present the evidence against him. He was clearly convinced that the charges preferred against him were baseless, or that they would not be presented properly.
On February 18 2014 a judge of the Lagos State High Court set aside a previous order of another Lagos State High Court judge, which had registered the judgment of the English High Court directing former bank chief executive– Erastus Akingbola – to pay the bank £654 million that the court found was owed by Akingbola as a result of improprieties committed while in charge of the bank. The English judgment was delivered in September 2012 and registration of the judgment was the first step towards its enforcement in Nigeria.
The basis for the decision to set aside the order registering the English judgment was that the Lagos State High Court did not have jurisdiction over the subject matter of the English judgment. This decision was widely reported in a manner that suggested that the courts in Nigeria were unsupportive of the bank's efforts to enforce the judgment in Nigeria. However, Akingbola's relief was short-lived, as the Federal High Court registered the judgment on April 8. It remains to be seen whether Akingbola will take advantage of Nigeria's liberal appeal provisions to avoid the judgment being enforced.
On March 5 2014 the US Department of Justice announced that it had frozen more than $458 million of corruption proceeds hidden in banks around the world by Nigeria's late military head of state, Sani Abacha, and "conspirators". A civil forfeiture complaint was unsealed that day in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking the recovery of more than $500 million.
The frozen funds included $313 million in two accounts in Jersey in the Channel Islands and $145 million in two accounts in France. In addition, four investment portfolios and three bank accounts in the United Kingdom were frozen. Efforts to end these orders by 11 defendants failed on April 8, when the English High Court dismissed the defendants' objections to the continuation of the orders.
On February 24 2014 the federal government amended charges, originally filed in 2008, against Abacha's second son, Mohammed, accusing him of "dishonestly receiving stolen property" and assisting in concealing it. The property is alleged to total approximately £141 million and $384 million, and the offences are alleged to have been committed between 1995 and 1998 – during the period General Abacha was head of state. The prosecution is being undertaken on behalf of the federal government by a lawyer in private practice (as was the Bankole prosecution) pursuant to instructions issued on February 18. On April 8 and 29, when the case came before a federal high court in Abuja, Abacha was absent. On April 8, the reported reason for his absence was that he was not aware of the amended charges, despite the fact that counsel represented him that day. On April 29 the court was informed that he was unwell and unable to attend. The case is due to come before the court again in June.
Observers will be keen to see how Abacha's defence to these amended charges will be conducted. Will the usual, perfectly legitimate, tactics of motions and appeals be adopted, or will the defence be conducted in the same manner as Bankole's?
For further information on this topic please contact Babajide Oladipo Ogundipe at Sofunde Osakwe Ogundipe & Belgore by telephone (+234 1 462 2502), fax (+234 1 462 2501) or email (email@example.com). The Sofunde Osakwe Ogundipe & Belgore website can be accessed at www.sooblaw.com.
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