The Court of Appeal in Lagos on Friday upturned the conviction of four companies with bank accounts holding $15.5 million that was linked to Patience Jonathan, wife of former President Goodluck Jonathan.

A panel of three justices of the court, in a judgment delivered via Zoom, unanimously ruled that the conviction of the four companies by the Federal High Court in Abuja in November 2016 violated the constitutional principle of fair hearing.

PREMIUM TIMES got details of the judgment from lawyers from the two sides of the case on Friday.

Conviction

Babs Kuewunmi, the trial judge at the Federal High Court in Lagos, had on November 2, 2016, convicted the four companies of money laundering involving $15.5 million kept in their Skye Bank accounts.

The judge gave the decision after some individuals speaking for the firms pleaded guilty to the offences on their behalf when the charges were read in court.

The convicted firms are, Pluto Property and Investment Company Limited; Seagate Property Development & Investment Co. Limited; Trans Ocean Property and Investment Company Limited, and Avalon Global Property Development Company Limited.

They were on, September 15, 2016, arraigned on 15 counts of money laundering alongside a former Special Adviser on Domestic Affairs to ex-President Jonathan, Waripamo-Owei Dudafa, a lawyer, Amajuoyi Briggs, and a banker, Adedamola Bolodeoku.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) which alleged that the funds were stolen from the State House, had earlier seized the funds from the companies.

While the acclaimed representatives of the firms pleaded guilty to the charges on behalf of the firms, Mr Dudafa, and the two others pleaded not guilty.

The trial judge then went ahead to convict the firms.

“The companies are found guilty in count 2,3,4,5,6,7,8, and 9. In order not to prejudice the case of first, second and third defendants, sentencing them is hereby reserved pending the end of the trial of the first, second and third defendants,” the judge had ruled.

The trial has yet to be concluded at the trial court as of Friday, PREMIUM TIMES was told by lawyers involved in the case.



Appeal

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mike Ozekhome, later approached the court with an application urging the court to set aside the conviction.

But the judge rejected the application prompting Mr Ozekhome to go on appeal against the decision.

Mr Ozekhome along with another lawyer, Ige Asemudara, filed four separate appeals on behalf of the firms contending that the conviction of the companies was a nullity considering the circumstances of their guilty plea.

They submitted that the lower court ought to have set aside its decision convicting the firms.

Judgment

Delivering judgment on the appeals on Friday, the Court of Appeal agreed with the appellants and set aside the conviction of the four companies especially in view of the fact that the validity of the plea of guilt which was challenged by the appellants had yet to be determined before the trial court pronounced them guilty.

In the lead judgment delivered by C. N. Uwa, the appeal court held that the convictions of the four companies breached the principle of fair hearing provided for in the constitution.

Other members of the panel, Tunde Awotoye and James Abundaga, agreed with the lead judgment.

Mr Asemudara, Ejieke Onuoha and Azubuike Akpe represented the appellants at Friday’s proceedings, while Rotimi Oyedepo and A. O. Mohammed appeared for the respondent, the EFCC.

Background

In 2017, the four companies, represented by Mike Ozekhome, filed an application asking the Federal High Court in Lagos to reverse the guilty plea earlier entered on behalf of the companies in November 2016.

He also sought an order of the court nullifying the previous proceedings because those who represented the company were not authorised to do so.

Mr Ozekhome said his clients were not given a fair trial before their conviction because they had no legal representation of their choice and that he was only briefed to represent the companies after its directors pleaded guilty despite not being authorised by the board to do so.

He accused the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission of using impostors to plead guilty on behalf of the companies.

Moving his motion seeking to set aside the companies’ conviction, Mr Ozekhome said they were convicted “in gross violation” of the 1999 Constitution, which he said occasioned a miscarriage of justice.

He urged the court to declare the previous proceedings null and void and start the trial afresh.

The application, he said, was on the ground that the court failed to pass a sentence on the convicted companies, as the judge reserved sentence until the end of the other defendants’ trial.

Mr Ozekhome also said the companies were denied the right to cross-examine the purported directors who purportedly pleaded guilty.

“They’re just busybodies and interlopers who were pressured to come and plead guilty. They had no mandate to do so,” he said.

But Rotimi Oyedepo, the counsel for the EFCC, urged the court to dismiss the application, describing it as an abuse of court process.

Mr Oyedepo said the application amounted to asking the judge to revisit its ruling and to assume the position of an appellate court.

He denied that the directors who pleaded guilty were not authorised to do so, saying there was evidence that they were indeed the companies’ directors from the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) and from the companies’ bank accounts.

The court in its ruling delivered on July 2018 dismissed the application by the four companies

PREMIUM TIMES had reported how Babs Kuewumi, the judge, said a lower court could not reverse itself, adding that it could only do so in exceptional cases where there is “a serious procedural irregularity” or where the court lacks jurisdiction.

“The main issue to be addressed in this application is whether this court can revisit its earlier decision whereby the applicants were convicted,” the judge said.

“Once a court gives an order or judgment, it has no legal competence to reverse itself or set aside its previous order. Considering the circumstances of this case, I have not been shown any valid reason to make me revisit my decision. This court is already functus officio.

“I’m in agreement with the prosecution that this application is incompetent. It is hereby refused and accordingly dismissed.”

The firms had filed separate appeals against the ruling.

The appeals were granted by the Court of Appeal on Friday.

Lawyers said the Friday’s judgment implies that the ruling will begin afresh at the trial court.

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