The Federal High Court in Lagos has done justice to Mr. Paul Usoro, a Senior Advocate and the immediate past president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), by discharging and acquitting him on some ill-conceived and audaciously cobbled charges against him. Mr. Usoro was dragged to court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for an alleged fraud of N1.4 billion. In his ruling, Justice Rilwan Aikawa held that the counts against him were defective as they did not disclose offences known to both Lagos and Akwa Ibom States. He said that the penal code, under which he was charged, was not applicable to southern states to which Lagos and Akwa Ibom belonged. The two states were the location of the alleged offences, said the judge.
Here are the particulars of the case: Usoro was hired by the Akwa Ibom State governor, Mr. Udom Emmanuel, to handle his 2015 governorship election case at the Election Tribunal. Usoro, in turn, invited other Senior Advocates to join him. He was paid N1.4 billion, which was to be disbursed to all the lawyers involved in the case. On December 18, 2018, he was arraigned before Justice Muslim Hassan. In the charge sheet, it was mentioned that Emmanuel is “currently constitutionally immune from prosecution.” Others mentioned were the Commissioner for Finance, Mr. Nsikan Nkan, Accountant-General, Mr. Mfon Udomah, Attorney-General, Mr. Uwemedimo Nwoko (now a SAN), and Ms Margaret Ukpe. They were described as “being at large.”
Usoro was accused of fraudulently converting N1.4 billion property of Akwa Ibom State government to his own property even though he knew that that money was “part of proceeds from unlawful activity.” This case against Usoro was a blatant attempt to criminalise legal practice and to pretend that a labourer is not worthy of his hire. It smells dirty, as dirty as the Mike Ozekhome case smelt when I sniffed it. Mr. Mike Ozekhome, a Senior Advocate, was paid N75 million by Mr. Ayo Fayose, former Governor of Ekiti State, as professional fees for services rendered. The EFCC got an interim order for the freezing of Ozekhome’s account in Guaranty Trust Bank. Ozekhome got the court to defreeze the account but the EFCC decided to appeal the case. In a unanimous ruling, the Appeal Court dismissed the appeal.
A few issues need to be interrogated on the two cases. I don’t think that professional fees paid to legal practitioners can be described as “proceeds of unlawful activity,” even if the payer is under criminal investigation. There is no means by which a payee is supposed to possess the intimate knowledge of the payer’s source of revenue, except the currency notes possessed by alleged criminals are printed in different colours from the ones in the hands of non-criminals. That has not happened yet. And in any case, if someone is under criminal investigation, he is still considered innocent until a court of competent jurisdiction convicts him.
Secondly, is it part of the procedure in lawyer-client relationship for a lawyer to inquire from his client the account from which his fees will be paid? No. I am not a lawyer but I have hired several lawyers in the past and that sort of conversation never came up. Thirdly, what is the unvarnished meaning of “unlawful activity?”
When a state government presents its budget to the State House of Assembly and the Assembly puts its stamp of approval on that budget, the government is free to spend the money as approved. The only legitimate authority, in my layman’s view, that can query how that money was spent, is the original approving authority: the House of Assembly. I think all state Houses of Assembly should do what Lagos State has done by taking into its own hands the matter of accountability for government funds, instead of leaving a lacuna in its laws for a partisan organisation like the EFCC to jump into.
The responsibility for accountability of state government funds ought to belong only to the House of Assembly, the state high courts and the people who voted the governor into office. This is one of the issues that challenge the nature and complexion of our brand of federalism.
We think, wrongly, that everything must be centralised, thus, making the centre an ineffective octopus, unable to do things constitutionally assigned to it because of partisanship and portfolio overload. The impotence of the EFCC in this case is underlined by the statement of the prosecution that four of the accused persons “are at large” yet all four of them were and still are functionaries of the State Government except Mr. Nwoko. That was a knee-jerk approach to litigation because they knew that they had no viable case. Mr. Ibrahim Magu, the immediate past acting chairman of the EFCC, ran the outfit as an unveiled instrument of vindictiveness for the government of the day. He abashedly used the legal process and the mechanism of his office as a virulent instrument for oppressing opposing party politicians and professionals sympathetic to the opposition.
Dr. Reuben Abati and Ms Comfort Obi, two journalists who performed professional assignments for Dr. Goodluck Jonathan’s government, were forced to cough out monies that they were given for purchase of advert spaces in print and electronic media.
Their presentation of receipts issued for those payments did not impress the stone-faced Magu. He wanted nothing but a pound of flesh. And that was a man who was in the habit of leaking, without qualms, unverified stories about individuals under investigation to the media. When the hunter became the hunted as he went through his own wilderness at an investigation panel, he was quick to shout “media trial.” By reducing himself to an echo chamber of partisan politicians, he unwittingly became an eminent contributor to the rot and gangrene that has afflicted our polity.
After he was rejected twice at the Senate screening based on corruption allegations filed against him by the Department of State Security (DSS), a man of integrity would have opted to step down. He stayed put to do the dirty job for the politicians. So, where is he now? In the dump site of forgotten partisan political bootlickers. This political errand boy now has his wires crossed. I hope he has learnt the lesson that even if he derived either pleasure or profit from the pursuit of a partisan political path in the performance of his duties, his reward was not, at the end of the day, worth the sacrifice of propriety and best practices.
It was obvious that the APC politicians wanted Akwa Ibom State badly because the question was openly asked “why should the highest oil-producing state be in the hands of the opposition?” The unspoken answer was “we must take it by hook or crook,” and when Mr. Mike Igini, that election manager who has established his reputation as a man of undiluted integrity, chose to stand firm on the side of credible elections, which were confirmed all the way to the Supreme Court, there was a resort to Plan B. The case against Usoro and government officials was Plan B.
If the EFCC wanted to show utmost seriousness, it would have put many high-profile politicians on trial now. Sometime ago, the Minister of Information, Mr. Lai Mohammed, flashed a list of alleged treasury looters who were PDP members. In response, Mr. Reno Omokri of the PDP also flashed a long list of alleged treasury looters of the APC extraction. Many better society activists thought the job of the EFCC was cut out for it as a merger of the two lists would have given the organisation plenty raw material for its onerous responsibility. But it went to bed.
The alleged corrupt persons are still around, enjoying their loot, fishing for more loot in readiness for 2023. Some of them have obeyed Mr. Adams Oshiomhole, APC national chairman then, who said that all sinners from the other parties were free to walk the short distance from their party to the ruling party, APC, and all their sins would be forgiven. EFCC would not harass them neither would any other government-owned troublemaker touch their hair or even their nails. As this is a very attractive and potentially lucrative call, some of the sinners are trooping in there, making this a veritable season for carpet-crossing, the season of anomie.
Carpet-crossing is the silly habit of renegade politicians, but the annoying thing is the stupid excuse that they all give, namely, that they want to take their states to the Centre, as if the Centre has ever denied them their monthly handouts. Others say they want to contribute to unity and nation-building. That is bull-crap. You can contribute to unity and nation-building from wherever you are.
If by any chance the party that controls the government loses the 2023 elections, they will cross carpet again and give us the same silly reason for their political prostitution.
Which country can run its life like this and succeed? None. That is why our country is booby-trapped and we now find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, marooned, because principles, ethics and propriety have been put at a discount by those who run our affairs at various levels. A big pity!