The federal high court sitting in Benin frees Lucky Igbinedion, former Edo State governor, but rules that his brother and former personal assistant must stand trial
For the embattled former governor of Edo State, Tuesday last week was not just another day in court over the 66-count charges of corruption and money laundering brought against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. A federal high court sitting in Benin City had on March 22, 2011, reserved ruling till May 31 to determine if Lucky Igbinedion would face trial in a fresh suit filed against him by the anti-graft agency. Charged along with Igbinedion were Michael, his younger brother, Patrick Eboigbodin, his erstwhile personal assistant, and four companies namely Gava Corporation Limited; Romrig Nigeria Limited; PML Security Limited and PML Nigeria Limited, allegedly used to siphon the state’s funds during his eight-year governorship.
The ruling delivered by Adamu Hobon, the presiding judge, did not disappoint his legal team who had during the last hearing of the case, expressed optimism that victory would come their way. However, it was one victory that left a sour taste in the mouth of the former governor, family and associates. While the court discharged Igbinedion, it ruled that others have a case to answer and ordered Michael and Eboigbodin to be remanded in prison pending the hearing of their bail applications fixed for June 8 and 13, 2011 forcing tears down the chubby face of the younger Igbinedion. The court had denied them bail on oral application by their counsel, Ricky Tarfa, SAN, in spite of his explanation that one of them had severe back pain, which required adequate treatment and could not be provided in prison. Trying frantically to sway the judge to grant the oral bail, Tarfa said, “We can produce their passports. They can be at the police command. This is a bailable offence.” But Rotimi Jacobs, counsel to EFCC, opposed the request stating that the only place to keep an accused is prison. According to him, “It is not the law to beg the police to take them. While insisting that an application for bail should be written to enable them have a direction upon which to argue, Jacobs adduced an additional reason why the court should not grant the bail. “We can demonstrate that the accused has jumped bail and escaped jurisdiction. We need all these to canvass our points.”
On Thursday February 8, 2011, the EFCC had filed a fresh suit against Igbinedion at the federal high court in Benin. The former governor cleverly evaded detention by sneaking out of the court prompting the presiding judge to threaten to issue a bench warrant for his arrest if on the next adjourned date of March 22, 2011, he failed to appear in court. Counsel to Igbinedion had filed an application before the court on February 4, seeking to quash the fresh suit on the ground that it would amount to double jeopardy for him to be tried twice for the same offences.
Igbinedion had on December 18, 2008, been tried and convicted by the Federal High Court at Enugu presided over by Justice Abdu Kafarati. Femi Babafemi, EFCC spokesman, had told the magazine the day fresh charges were brought against Igbinedion, that the commission was concerned about “ensuring that the charges over which he had earlier been convicted are not brought back in a fresh one. And two, our interest is in filing charges that we have substantial evidence and witness to sustain in court.” Babafemi insisted, “The present charges have never been investigated”.
But Richard Oma Ahonaruoghu, counsel to Igbinedion countered this claim, recalling how the former governor had to come home from overseas, to stand trial, during which a plea bargain was entered into with the EFCC. Said the counsel “government went into a plea bargain with him; he was convicted and sentenced. Government is not happy. If you had asked a man to plead to a lesser charge and the man in good conscience, believing that government will take his word as his bond, agreed to plead to a lesser charge, you cannot wake up tomorrow and bring any other charge relating to his governance of Edo State.”
The EFCC however contended, “the fact that you are convicted for a particular offence A does not mean that you cannot go back for offence B, C, and D, so long as they are different offences.” Jacobs denied any agreement with the former governor, stressing, “There is nothing like that; and why is it that they didn’t bring the agreement? If we have that kind of agreement, we will incorporate it into writing and say this is the agreement we have. So, there is no such agreement. Let them be able to pinpoint and say I was convicted for this offence.” In his submission before the court March 22, he said Igbinedion was only convicted under count one of the amended charge of December 17, 2008, which was failure to declare his assets – N3.5 million in Guaranty Trust Bank, GTBank. “So, the ingredients to prove that charge were the assets declaration form he filled, his account with GTBank and that he was careless in not declaring it. The present charges before the court from count one to 66 are money laundering. So, he has to show that he has been convicted of the offence of money-laundering.”
However, the court in its judgment last Tuesday, took the sail off the anti-graft agency’s ship, ruling that the defence counsel had been able to show evidence that Igbinedion was tried and convicted of similar offence by the federal high court in Enugu in 2008. Hobon said it was morally and legally wrong for the prosecution to deny knowledge of the agreement between the EFCC and the former governor to opt for plea-bargaining while all the charges against him were dropped as stated in the amended charges. The trial judge observed that the prosecution couldn’t now turn against its earlier agreement to try Igbinedion again.
Striking out the application for lack of competence and merit, in respect of the former governor, Hobon held that “however regrettably, none of the second to seventh accused have shown or adduced evidence to show that they were earlier tried and convicted before. The doctrine of double jeopardy and abuse of court process is not available to them. In fact, some of them escaped from jurisdiction while the trial was on. Their application has failed and is hereby dismissed for lack of merit, frivolities and wanting in evidence.” Consequently, the name of the former governor was struck out from the list of the seven persons standing trial for money laundering while the other accused persons were ordered to take their pleas.
For the EFCC however, that is not the end of the matter as far as the prosecution of Igbinedion is concerned. Babafemi told the magazine in a telephone interview that the EFCC was filing an appeal “straight away” on the grounds that “the charges filed before the federal high court are not the same for which he was convicted before.” While agreeing with the verdict on the six other defendants, Babafemi insisted “he has to stand trial with these people.” According to him, “it is not disputed that we are charging them for a different case. These people were not charged with him the last time he was convicted; that means this is not the same case as the one for which he was convicted.” He said the commission was still pursuing the appeal in respect of the earlier conviction, adding, “We are only interested in seeing that the course of justice is served.”