By Iheanacho Nwosu, Abuja
On the heels of a move by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to transfer a case of alleged corruption against the former Governor of Abia State, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, from the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court to Lagos, Chief Solo Akuma, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), has described this as wrong, calling it ‘forum shopping.’
In an interview in Abuja, Akuma, who is counsel to Jones Udogu and Slok Nigeria Limited, said the fact that EFCC is ‘forum shopping’ means that it has an agenda to achieve.”
He said that agences only ‘forum shop’ when they want to achieve conviction at all cost.
He spoke of this and more.
The EFCC recently wrote a letter to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, seeking to transfer the case against Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu from Court 5 in Abuja to Lagos. What is your interpretation of this move?
This is very strange. It has never happened in the annals of administration of criminal justice in this country. What they are trying to do is what we call forum shopping; trying to find a venue where they can emasculate the judge, who is handling a matter. Now in this particular case, the last time we were in court was on September 27 and plea was taken that day. EFCC was represented by Rotimi Jacobs (SAN) and all the other counsels to the defendants were present in court and after the plea and granting of bail, the matter was adjourned to 6, 7 and 8th of December for accelerated hearing of the matter.
So, when we heard that EFCC had done a letter to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, we felt that something wrong was being done.
The counsels to the defendants were not copied this letter. They did not bring any motion on notice to transfer this case to any other division of the Federal High Court. So, that shows that they want to do what the Yoruba people call “jankara” practice, which is purely an illegal way of doing things.
If they have any reason for transfer, why wouldn’t they wait until we come to court on December 6, where all the parties will be present and now they will make the application and we will respond to it?
Would you say that they are uncomfortable with the judge handling the case now or what?
I won’t suspect that they are uncomfortable with the present judge if they want law to be administered. But I think that they want to go to a kangaroo judge. That is what they are looking for because there are people that they have now stationed to do their bidding and that is why we are not comfortable with the application.
This move, which you called forum shopping, is coming barely one week after the Nigerian judiciary experienced an unprecedented clampdown on some senior judges. Do you see any link between these actions?
This is what they intend to achieve. They want a situation where they go to any place and the judge will be so timid to do the right thing and whatever, either the EFCC or any of its officials would say, the judge will think that, that is the right thing. The judge will not be allowed to use his/her knowledge of the law and their discretion to handle cases.
Have you written to the judge to counter the letter sent to him by the EFCC?
Well, His Excellency (Kalu) has done a letter to that effect and we have also written to the EFCC and copied the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court. The judge handling this matter has nothing to do with this issue of transfer for now. The application the EFCC did was to the Chief Judge and they must come out to tell us why they want the matter to be transferred. This is a matter we started in 2007; we raised the issue of jurisdiction to the effect that Abuja was not the place where the alleged crime was committed, but they said they must do it in Abuja.
We fought it up to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court said we should come back. We came back and took plea, now they want to go to Lagos. Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu wasn’t the governor of Lagos State; he was the governor of Abia State. If you recall, there was a time the same EFCC took Ibori’s case to Kaduna; the Court of Appeal chased them back and said it was forum shopping. It ordered them to go to Asaba and do it. If at all there should be any order of transfer, it should be a transfer back to Umuahia; but we are not calling for transfer. We must do this case here in Abuja, because this is where the Supreme Court said we should do it.
From the letter the EFCC wrote, have you been able to find out any reason they adduced for taking this step?
Well, that letter has not been made available to us. We’ve not seen it and there is no reason they will adduce that will be tenable because the judge handling the matter now has not done anything that is not proper. We took plea and the judge gave three days for accelerated hearing. The Administration of Criminal Justice Act says that the case must be heard every day and the judge gave three days – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Why won’t they go and get their witnesses ready and come to court on that day? Why should they now be shopping for a forum; going from one court to another? It is not the way things are done. Things must be done properly and that is why we are saying we support the fight against corruption but it must be done within the ambit of the rule of law. The moment you want to take this thing outside the rule of law, it means you want to indulge in kangaroo practice.
We understand that this letter, seeking transfer of the case was written by the EFCC and not even the lawyers representing the Commission. Is that the right approach?
It is very wrong. You see, when you have a case in court and you have a counsel, anything you do in respect of that matter must be handled by the counsel. The counsel must also copy such a letter to the other counsels, representing the other parties in the matter. So, for the EFCC to try and sidetrack their lawyer and now do the letter themselves shows you the kind of trick they want to play and that is the more reason I will call on the Chief Judge to see the danger in what they are bringing before him. The proper thing for us to do is to go back to Court 5 in Abuja where this matter is pending and finish our matter there. The Supreme Court says this is where it should be done and we are ready to do this case in Abuja.
You mentioned that this case has been on since 2007. What do you think has been delaying it?
It is the procedure in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. Those courts are inundated with a whole lot of cases. There are 2005 cases that are still pending at the Supreme Court. There are 2010 cases that are still in the Court of Appeal. If you go to the Supreme Court now, you will see that there are, at least, 1,000 cases registered for this year. So, it has been that the litigation space has been opened and everybody is litigating and that is what democracy is all about. Do you want people to resort to self-help? It is the judiciary that tries to calm down a whole lot of things. So, when you file a case, you do it, exchange notes and you will be waiting for date. You go cap in hand begging for you to be given a day to do your case because of the workload. Don’t forget that throughout last year, the courts were busy with pre-election matter and cases arising from the elections. When you have such matters, the courts will step down any other case because of the timelines associated with election petitions both on the part of the litigants and on the part of the courts.
Would you say that the judiciary has been on trial in recent times?
Well, the government is just trying to cow the judiciary. If the judiciary is given all the necessary facilities to work, I think that they will deliver on their mandate.
What is your opinion on the recent arrest of some judges?
Personally, I have no problem with the arrest of anybody; my quarrel is on the modus operandi of the Department of State Security (DSS). That is not the way to do it. If the DSS is serious about fighting crime, they should know that there are laid down procedures of dealing with judges as there are equally laid down procedures of dealing with soldiers and policemen. When a soldier is involved in a crime, the Nigeria Army does not throw him to the police. What they do is to put him through Court Martial, discipline him there, and remove his uniform before handing him over to the police for prosecution. The same thing applies in the case of the police. If any policeman is involved in any infraction of the law or criminality, they will first of all conduct their Orderly Room trial before handing him over for prosecution. Some of us have represented policemen, who were involved in murder cases. They were not there as policemen.
With all due respects, what the DSS ought to have done, in the even there is a case against the judges is to present their evidence to the NJC. The NJC will take the necessary steps to get the person disciplined according to the rules and procedures before handing them back for prosecution. By that time, the person will no longer be answering a judge because he would have left that realm.
So, we cannot just go on as if there are no laws and make any progress. They must ensure that they follow the procedures laid down by law.
Back to the transfer of Kalu’s case from Abuja to Lagos. What is the next line of action?
Well, we are going to approach the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court and I know he is a seasoned judge, who knows the rules on how this thing can be handled. We will urge him to refrain from making any orders for transfer.
What if that step fails?
If that order of transfer is made against what we are saying, then we will apply to him to set it aside because it is purely forum shopping and we will not advise our client to be part of it.