It was a highly contested case that lasted nearly 15 long years. The case, which started in April 2005, had all the trappings of political showmanship, prompting a sitting president, Olusegun Obasanjo, to carry out an uncommon, pre-court trial, a national broadcast, just to display the seriousness of his regime’s anti-corruption war.
At the end, former Minister of Education, Fabian Osuji, a renowned Professor and some members of the National Assembly, who suffered same fate as Osuji, were declared “acquitted and discharged” on October 23, 2019 by Justice Samirah Umar Bature, Judge of High Court 4 of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
It was indeed a long walk to freedom for Prof Osuji, also a one time pro-chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The legal battle started in Abuja, first at a High Court, later at the Court of Appeal and then at the Supreme Court, from where the case returned to the starting point – all in Abuja.
Adolphus Wabara, former Senate President and others were earlier in 2019, discharged and acquitted by Justice S.E. Aladetoyinbo, now retired, who was handling the matter before Justice Bature took over. Osuji and seven others were arraigned in court by the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) in 2005, on a 15-count charge of conspiracy to commit the offence of bribery. The others were Senator Adolphus Ndaneweh Wabara, Senator Ibrahim Abdulazeez, Senator John Azuta Mbata, Senator Emmanuel Okpede, Senator Badamasi Maccido and Hon Garba Shehu Matazu.
With the ruling, Justice Bature despatched the matter to the dustbin of history.
Said the judge: “I align myself with the reasoning of my learned brother C.E. Aladetoyinbo J (now retired) as evidenced in exhibit C attached to this application, that withdrawal of a charge under Section 355 is tantamount to an acquittal. I so hold.
“Therefore, the applicant herein, Professor Fabian Osuji (listed as the 5th Defendant in this case with No: FCT/HC/CR/31/2005) is hereby acquitted and discharged under Section 355 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015. No order as to cost.’’
The final legal process leading to victory for Osuji started when Callistus Amadi, Counsel to Osuji filed an application before the court on September 5, 2019. In the application, Amadi made two prayers. The first was for an order of the court quashing the charge against the defendant/applicant (Prof. Fabian Osuji), in line with the ruling of the court delivered on January 21, 2019 by Rtd Hon. Justice S.E. Aladetoyinbo. Amadi also further asked for further order or orders, as the court might deem fit to make in the circumstances of the matter. The application was granted.
Signs were clear when the matter started on April 11 2005 that ICPC might not be able to succeed in their job. First, the prosecution displayed bias when some alleged participants in the deal were excluded in the list of accused persons presented for prosecution. Dr. Chris Adighije, a senator and one of the names cited by President Olusegun Obasanjo in the alleged scam, was not brought to court. Prof. Peter Okebukola, the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), who allegedly raised N20 million for the alleged bribe, was not also arraigned in court.
Three other developments also created bottlenecks for the prosecution team. One was the ruling of the Court of Appeal, which, in the judgment by Justice Mary Peter-Odili, had held that the criminal charges were frivolous, baseless and lacking in merit. The Appeal Court also declared that the charge disclosed no prima facie, and so could not be sustained by the ICPC. Soon after, in February 2013, the Supreme Court in a judgement read by Justice Rhodes-Vivour remitted the case back to the trial court, the starting point of prosecution, to be heard expeditiously. Also, three of the accused persons–Senator Badamasi Maccido, Senator Emmanuel Okpede and one other–died during the trial and their names were struck off the charge sheet at a time.
This is in addition to one other issue which came to public light: the ICPC which initiated the prosecution process in 2005 from where it moved through the Court of Appeal in Abuja, to the Supreme Court later failed, as the processes progressed, to provide needed witnesses, and indeed set in motion the processes to discontinue prosecution.
On the strength of the inability of ICPC to proceed with the matter, Wabara and Senators Ibrahim Abdulazeez and John Azuta Mbata, on January 21, 2019, approached Hon. Justice S.E. Aladetoyinbo who was then handling the matter, to strike it out and return a ‘discharged and acquitted’ verdict. Their request was granted by the then trial judge, but the name of Professor Osuji who was outside the country then, was not specifically mentioned as a beneficiary of the judgment, even as judicial pundits posited that it was implied.
On account of the seeming ambiguity in interpretation of the wider implication of the judgement of Justice Aladetoyinbo as it affects Osuji and others who were not specifically mentioned, Amadi, counsel to Osuji filed an application before the court on September 5, 2019.
The application was granted.
The reasons for striking out the case was derived from the earlier judgement in favour of Wabara and others. The others were Senators Ibrahim Abdulazeez and John Azuta Mbata.
S.E Aladetoyinbo, the Presiding Judge while delivering judgement on the matter involving Wabara and others, said the prosecution could not raise witnesses to prosecute the case. He, therefore, discharged the defendants under Section 355 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015.
The Act states as follows: “Where a complainant at any time before a final order is made in a case satisfies the court that there are sufficient grounds for permitting him to withdraw his complaint, the court may permit him to withdraw the complaint and shall thereupon acquit the defendant.”
The judge said: “Since the prosecutor claimed that the witnesses are no more available and this matter had been pending since 2005, the court will grant the request of defence counsel. The three defendants are hereby discharged and acquitted under Section 355 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015.”