By Emma Okereh
After fifteen years of legal battle, an Abuja High Court, finally discharged and acquitted former Education Minister, Prof. Fabian Osuji of the alleged N55 million Bribery-For-Budget trial.
It was a highly contested case which lasted 15 long years. The case which started in April 2005, had all the trappings of political showmanship, prompting a then sitting President, Olusegun Obasanjo, to carry out an uncommon, pre- court trial national broadcast, just to display the seriousness of his regime’s anti-corruption war.
Atthe end, former Minister of Education, Fabian Osuji, a renowned Professor and some members of the Federal Parliament 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 in Abuja. .
It was along walk to freedom for the former Minister of Education and one time pro-chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Indeed, the legal battle started in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital. 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 the year 2019,discharged and acquittted by Justice S.E. Alade Toyinbo, 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 and other offences Commission, (ICPC) in 2005,on 15 count charges, accused of conspiracy to commit the offence of bribery. The others were Senator Adolphus Ndaneweh Wabara,Senator Ibrahim Abdulazeez ,Senator John Azuta Mbata , Senator EmmanuelOkpede, Senator Badamasi Maccido and Honourable Dr. Garba Shehu Matazu.
The legal battle, seeking to convict Osuji ,Wabara and others started from an Abuja High Court, passed through Court of Appeal also in Abuja,to the Supreme Court and back to where it started. Justice Bature gavethe killer punch in her landmark judgement, thus confining the matter to the dust bean of history, of failed prosecution cases.
Justice Bature said: “I align myself with the reasoning of my learned brother, C.E. Alade Toyinbo 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. Inthe application, Amadi made two prayers, the first being, for an order of the court quashing the charge against the defendant/applicant (Prof. Fabian Osuji),in line with the ruling of the Honourable Court delivered on 21st of January 2019 by Rtd Hon. Justice S.E. Alade Toyinbo. Amadi also further asked for further order or orders as the court may deem fit to make in the circumstances of the matter. The application was granted.
Signs were clear when the matter started on 11th day ofApril 2005 that ICPC may not be able to succeed in their prosecution.First, the prosecution displayed bias when some alleged participants in thedeal were excluded from the list of accused persons presented for prosecution. Dr. ChrisAdighije, a senator and one of the names cited by President Olusegun Obasanjo inthe alleged scam was not brought to court. Also, Prof. Peter Okebukola, thethen Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), whoallegedly raised N20 million for the alleged bribe was not also arraigned incourt.
Three other developments also created bottlenecksfor the prosecution team. One was the ruling of the Court of Appeal which, inthe judgment by Justice Mary Peter-Odili, had held that the criminal chargeswere frivolous, baseless and lacking in merit. The Appeal Court also declaredthat the charge disclosed no prima facie, and so could not be sustained by theICPC. Soon after, in February 2013, the Supreme Court in ajudgement read by Justice Rhodes-Vivour remitted the case back to the trialcourt, the starting point of prosecution, to be heard expeditiously. Alsothree of the accused persons–Senator Badamasi Maccido, Senator Emmanuel Okpedeand one other died during the trial and their names were struck off the chargesheet at a time.
This is in addition to one other issue which cameto public light: the ICPC which initiated the prosecution processin 2005 from where it moved through the Court of Appeal in Abuja, to theSupreme Court later failed as the processes progressed, to provide neededwitnesses, and indeed set in motion, processes to discontinueprosecution.
Onthe strength of the inability of ICPC to proceed with the matter, Wabara andSenators Ibrahim Abdulazeez and John Azuta Mbata , on 21st ofJanuary 2019, approached Hon. Justice S.E. Alade Toyinbo who was thenhandling the matter, to strike it out and return a ‘discharged andacquitted’ verdict. Their request was granted by the then trial judge but thename of Professor Osuji who was outside the country then, was not specificallymentioned as beneficiary of the judgment, even as judicial pundits posited thatit was implied .
Onaccount of the seeming ambiguity in interpretation of the wider implication ofthe judgement of Justice Toyinbo as it affects osuji and others who were notspecifically mentioned, Amadi, Counsel to Osuji filed an application before thecourt on September 5, 2019.
Theapplication was grated. In her ruling, Justice Bature said: “I alignmyself with the reasoning of my learned brother C.E. Alade Toyinbo J (now retired)as evidenced in exhibit C attached to this application, that withdrawal of acharge under section 355 is tantamount to an acquittal. I so hold.
‘’Therefore,the Applicant herein, Professor Fabian Osuji (listed as the 5thDefendant in this case with No: FCT/HC/CR/31/2005 is hereby acquitted anddischarged under section 355 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act2015. No order as to cost.’’
Thereasons for striking out of the ICPC was derived from the earlier judgement infavour of Wabara and others. The others were Senators Ibrahim Abdulazeez andJohn 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.”