By Achilleus-Chud Uchegbu
One thought that Nigeria had gotten past the stage where the Federal Government pronounces accused persons guilty even before they are found guilty by a court, or even charged before any court. We had the first of this sort in 2004 when President Olusegun Obasanjo, in his zealousness, rushed before the national television and before the world, played the complainant, the judge and the jury in his sole-trial of Adolphus Wabara, then President of the Senate, for an offence which he, Obasanjo, described as bribe-for-budget.
If we recall, Obasanjo had addressed the nation in an emergency call announcing that he had caught ‘thieves’. In his zeal to become the anti-corruption champion, Obasanjo named Minister of Education, Prof. Fabian Osuji; Vice Chancellor of the Federal University of Technology Owerri, Prof. Jude Njoku; Chairman of House of Reps Committee on Education, Gabriel Suswam and Senate president, Wabara as having been caught, red handed, in a bribery scandal.
Pronto, he pronounced all of them guilty of crime and immediately relieved those he could of their executive positions. But he could not immediately terminate Wabara’s office because he lacked the powers to do so. However, Wabara later resigned his office to clear his name from the allegation as the anti-crime agency had moved in to prosecute him. After an extended legal challenge, all charges against Wabara were in 2010 dropped. He was subsequently cleared of all allegations. In the final verdict at the Court of Appeal, the court reprimanded Obasanjo and held that he over-reached himself by constituting himself into the complainant, the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge and the jury. Having ‘found’ Wabara ‘guilty’, the court wondered what else the federal government came to do in court. Simply put, the court upheld the maxim that double jeopardy is not allowed in law. Wabara was not to suffer double jeopardy.
Even if the Federal Government had a case against Wabara and others, it bungled it by its zealousness which sought to impose a fait accompli on the courts. I am not sure any judge worth his name will accept that a fait accompli be imposed on him. But that is exactly what Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture sought to do, on behalf of the federal government, when he brazenly pronounced some Nigerians ‘looters’ and listed their names as persons who are guilty of a crime called looting.
In doing so, Lai Mohammed replayed the Obasanjo tape.
It is on record that thus far, no one of those accused by the federal government of involvement in acts it was constituted ‘looting’ of public funds, has been found guilty of the crime as alleged. No one of them is serving any prison term as an effect of a conclusive trial which found him or her guilty “beyond reasonable doubt”. Therefore rushing to list their names as ‘looters’, is prejudicial and also imposes a fait accompli on the trial courts. This also opens the way to scuttle their trials.
Many reasonable Nigerians would want to see the trial of such persons reach logical conclusions. Even the accused persons would like to have their day in court free from any encumbrances. It is also trite to infer that the trial judges would not like to be pressured in the handling of the cases because whatever they arrive at must have been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. In doing so, the accused will want a trial that is not subjected to the whims of the executive. So doing, they will be satisfied that whatever judgment that is passed on them was without external pressures. In other words, they would like to have fair trial which is the offshoot of fair hearing which is now being progressively being breached by the federal government. In legal maxims, fair hearing indicates that every party to a trial is accorded the due process rights required by applicable law. According to the legal dictionary, “fair hearing must provide a reasonable opportunity for an individual to be present at the designated time and place, during which time he or she may offer evidence, cross-examine opposition witnesses, and offer a defense.” Implicit in this definition is that the court is not partial, or biased, against the accused. Bias or partiality can arise from inducement, threat or cajolement and can also void a trial process.
Under the Buhari federal government, Nigerians witnessed a deliberate effort to cajole and intimidate the judiciary with a ‘sting operation’ against some judges accused of corrupt acts. Though the process of arrest, detention and prosecution of the said judges has been declared illegal by the courts, it goes without saying that the action itself shocked the judiciary and cajoled judges to dance to the tune being played by the Buhari administration. That fear factor, which the administration successively imposed on the judiciary, meant that judges risked being tarred with the corrupt-tag in the event they adjudicated on cases before them based on facts presented by the prosecution and not exactly in accordance with the intendment of the executive. It is with this mindset that Lai Mohammed’s listing of ‘looters’ comes as a thoughtful effort to cajole the judiciary against those standing trial over alleged corrupt acts.
In doing this, Lai Mohammed imposes a fait accompli on the courts. He inadvertently tells the judges that nothing other than conviction will be appreciated by the executive. This way, the executive would have justified its claim that those it listed, principally, those who had not defected to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), are indeed the corrupt ones. By declaring those listed as ‘looters’, Lai Mohammed and the Federal Government tells trial judges to beware of what may befall them if any of the listed persons escaped ‘justice’. But, in essence, the list only provides a leeway for the accused persons to escape justice on grounds of lack of fair hearing. Therefore, Nigerians should not be surprised, or blame the judiciary, if events turn and judges withdraw from ongoing trials, or the accused persons find reprieve through an application of discontinuation of trial on grounds that Lai Mohammed and the Federal Government had long found them guilty. Like the case of Wabara and co, what then would the federal government be seeking from the courts if it had already adjudged the accused persons guilty?
Looking back, Federal Government’s anti-corruption fight and prosecution of same have been a disaster principally because of the zealousness to strike a chord. Government corrupts the system and brazenly abuses institutionalized procedures. This is something the law frowns on; and that’s why more corruption cases will fail. As Justice Chukwudifu Oputa JSC once said, justice is threefold –justice for the society, justice for the victim and justice for the accused. All this may be lost because of the administration’s tactlessness.