Money Laundering: Justice Ajumogobia Challenges Court’s Jurisdiction, As Obla Seeks Separate Trial

The trial of a former judge of Federal Hihh Court, former Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia today, asked a Federal High Court, Lagos, to discharge her of charges of money laundering brought against her by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

In the same view, Justice Ajumogobia’s co-defendant, Mr Godwin Obla, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) also urged the court to separate his trial on allegation from the former judge.
Both Ajumogobia and Obla are being tried before Justice Rilwan Aikawa lex-court for alleged money laundering by the EFCC.
At resumed hearing of the charge against the defendants today, Ajumogobia’s lawyer, Robert Clarke (SAN) drew the court’s attention to his client’s pending preliminary objection, which challenges the jurisdiction of the Court to entertain the charge, on the ground that his client still remains a Judge of the Federal High Court.

Clarke in his application emphasised that no official gazette has been released by the office of the president which shows that the President has accepted the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC) to remove Ajumogobia from office as a judge.

Clarke also drew the court’s attention to the fact that the letter relied on by the prosecution to prove  that the President had approved the removal of Ajumogobia bore the inscription ‘Restricted’ which, he argued, presupposes that the document is not a public document that can be relied on by third parties or which can be tendered in court. He relied on the case of Governor of Ekiti State vs Ojo (2006) 17 All FWLR (Pr 331) pg. 126 as well as the provisions of Section 103 of the Evidence Act.

Clarke submitted in conclusion that the fact that there is no official gazette showing the fact of the removal of his client as a Judge of the Federal High Court, the court before which the current charge has been filed is bound by the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of Nganjiwa V FRN- where it was held that no court has the jurisdiction to entertain a criminal matter against a serving judicial officer in relation to an allegation of misconduct occurring in the course of judicial functions, until such an officer has been disciplined and removed from office.

Consequently, Clarke urged the court to decline to exercise jurisdiction over  Justice Ajumogobia in respect of the Charge filed by the EFCC.

On the part of the second defendant, Obla  who was represented by Ifedayo Adedipe, (SAN) and Ferdinand Orbih (SAN) the attention of the court was drawn to an application seeking the quashing of counts one, two and three of the charge or, in the alternative, an order allowing the separate trial on the said Counts of the charge.

Adedipe, toldd the court that after almost three years of trial at the Lagos State High Court during which the prosecution called 14 witnesses and after which Obla filed a no case submission, the Lagos State High Court, agreeing with Rotimi Oyedepo for the prosecution that it lacked jurisdiction over Justice Ajumogobia, struck out the charge without ruling on Obla’s  no case submission.

Adedipe further argued that immediately that ruling was delivered by the Lagos High Court, Obla filed an appeal at the Court of Appeal, Lagos division, seeking an order discharging and acquitting him. In his view, the action of the prosecuting counsel in filing yet another charge before the Federal High Court on the same set of facts and evidence in the charge before the Lagos High Court (which is now the subject of Obla’s Appeal amounts to a gross abuse of court process and a clear case of persecution against Obla, both of which ought to be resisted by the federal High Court.

Adedipe further submitted that Obla’s application for the severance of the charge was to ensure the expeditious disposal of the trial, as opposed to the situation allegedly orchestrated by the prosecution at the Lagos High Court which saw the trial span a period of almost 3 years, at great expense and inconvenience to the second defendant and his counsel.

It would be recalled that Obla had made a similar application for the separation of his trial to the Lagos High Court during his trial before that Court, in which he argued that not being a judicial officer, he was not bound by the challenge to the court’s jurisdiction raised by Hon Justice Ajumogobia and so should be allowed to stand trial separately and quickly.

However,  the prosecution, led by Rotimi Oyedepo, vehemently opposed the application and instead urged the Lagos High Court to strike out the charge against both Ajumogobia and Obla and to discharge them. This, according to Adedipe, is one of the grounds on which Obla’s appeal rests and also forms the basis of the application to the Federal High Court, in view of the need to avoid a repeat of the unnecessary delays witnessed during the preceding trial.
In his response, Rotimi Oyedepo for the prosecution contended that the EFCC has the liberty to file charges against Obla or anyone for that matter on the same set of facts before separate courts and that such an action would not amount to an abuse of court process.

Oyedepo also argued that even if it could be assumed that the Court of Appeal discharges Obla on the allegations brought at the Lagos High Court, that would not affect the validity of the charge before the federal high court because “the charges are different”.

This difference, according to him, stems from the fact that the charge at the Lagos Court was brought under Lagos law, while the fresh charge filed at the federal high court was brought pursuant to the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act. He relied on the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of FRN v Ogunbodede in submitting that separate charges could be filed against the same person on the same set of facts before separate courts- one charge for the predicate offence and another for the money laundering allegation.

Oyedepo then submitted that the application for separate trial filed by Obla was speculative and prejudicial to the EFCC which, according to him, would be required to call witnesses in more than one trial if the severance of the charge is permitted. In his view, this could also cause more delays for the trial.

He then appeared to suggest that, but for the applications filed by the defendants, the trial would have commenced – this implying that the defendants were attempting to delay the trial.

Adedipe, in his response on points of law to the prosecutor’s arguments denounced Oyedepo’s argument to the effect that separate charges could be filed on the same facts against the same defendant before different courts and described it as “dangerous” and as an act of forum shopping.

According to him, if the EFCC is allowed the liberty of filing separate charges on the same facts against the same person, the court will be going against the injunction of the Supreme Court that no person should be the subject of persecution by agencies of the state, as was held by Uwais JSC (as he then was) in the case of EDET V STATE (1988) LPELR-1008 (SC) Pp. 18-19. He stressed that the court ought to frown at such an action and should not hesitate to deprecate it where it occurs.

In Adedipe’s view also, it is the EFCC that stalled the expeditious trial of Obla SAN, and not the other way round. According to him, Obla has always made himself available to stand trial and even applied to be tried separately on the four counts of the 31-count charge filed at the Lagos high court which affected him, to allow for the trial of Mrs Ajumogobia on the remaining 27 counts of that Charge. The EFCC it was which resisted that application, as is the case even before the Federal high court where the EFCC is opposing Obla’s application for his separate trial on Counts 1,2 and 3 of the 18-count charge which affect him alone.

After hearing the parties, Justice Aikawa adjourned  ruling on both Ajumogobia and Obla’s application to Friday June 28, 2019.

Adedipe subsequently moved an application to allow for the variation of Obla’s bail conditions. This application, having not been objected to by the prosecution, was granted by the Judge.

About Paul Sanusi, Lagos

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