Alex Enumah writes that with the exception of urgent, time-bound suits, judges would have to joggles cases as they give expeditious hearing in ongoing trials
The impact of the ravaging Coronavirus pandemic became pronounced on the judiciary on Monday, April 6, 2020 when the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Muhammad, extended the suspension of all court activities in the country indefinitely.
The indefinite suspension was to align with the Federal Government’s lockdown order on the Federal Capital Territory, Lagos and Ogun States in order to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the government’s lockdown order which was for a period of two weeks starting from 11pm of March 29, 2020, the CJN had already taken proactive steps to shut court activities for a period of two weeks starting from March 24, 2020.
Justice Muhammad however directed that the courts should attend to urgent and time bound cases so as not to rob litigants of justice.
The directive for indefinite suspension which was addressed to all Heads of Court read, “Your Lordship will recall that in tandem with COVID-19 Regulations 2020 and as a preventive measure on the spread of the virus in the country, I had by Circular No. NJC/CIR/HOC/11/631 dated 23rd March, 2020 directed all Heads of Courts to suspend court sittings for an initial period of two weeks from 24th March, 2020.
“In View of the fact that the initial period of two weeks suspension of courts sittings will expire on 7th April, 2020, I hereby extend the suspension of court sittings till further notice, given the lockdown measure put in place by federal and some state governments to curb the spread of COVID-19.
It should also be noted that before the suspension order the CJN had directed Heads of Court to put in place measures that would prevent the spread of the virus in their courts by limiting the number of lawyers, litigants as well as other persons in court during proceedings amongst other measures.
However, it is believed that courts are expected to maintain the preventive measures when the suspension is lifted. Judges no doubt would face the challenge of large cases in their dockets when they resume due to the stockpile of cases occasioned by the lockdown.
Apart from scheduled cases which were not taken as at their adjourned dates, no doubt fresh cases would be assigned to judges thereby increasing their workload.
The judges ordinarily would pick up from where they stopped and give expedited hearing to ongoing cases except in the event of urgent and time bound cases which would be given priority.
In the Federal High Court (FHC) in Abuja, for example, there are over 10 corruption cases involving political office holders and human rights abuses cases ongoing before various judges of the FHC, Abuja which were at various stages of hearing before the lockdown.
Among them is that of the former Head of Service of the Federation, Mrs Winifred Oyo-Ita, who is standing trial over allegations bordering on fraud, abuse of office, money laundering amongst others to the tune of over N400m.
Other ongoing trials are that of former National Security Adviser (NSA), Sambo Dasuki; former pension boss, Mr Abdulrasheed Maina; former Adamawa Governor, Rtd Air-Vice Marshall Murtala Nyako, former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Bello Adoke; former Kaduna state National Assembly member, Senator Shehu Sani.
Other cases at the FHC, Abuja include that of the publisher of SaharaReporter, Mr Omoyele Sowore standing trial on allegation bordering on treason and that of former Emir of Kano, Mallam Mohammadu Sanusi challenging his banishment.
In the case of Sowore who is being tried alongside one Olawale Bakare for allegedly calling for a revolution against the government of President Muhhamadu Buhari, the trial judge had in march adjourned to April 1 and 2 for continuation of the testimony of the prosecution’s first witness, Mr Rasheed Olawale, an operative of the Department of State Service (DSS).
Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu had adjourned the hearing to enable the prosecution furnish the defence with a detail statement of the witness as well as other witnesses to be called in the case.
Apart from continuation of evidence, the judge had also reserved her ruling in an application seeking for protection of witnesses in the case.
However, when the court eventually resumes, it is expected that the court will have to schedule a new date for the hearing of the cases as well as other matters that could not take place because of the lockdown.
Also to be rescheduled is the case of former Emir of Kano which was earlier scheduled for March 26 for hearing. Sanusi had dragged the Inspector General of Police, Director General of the State Security Service, Attorney General of the Federation and Attorney General of Kano State before the court over his detention and confinement to Awe town in Nasarawa State.
Justice Chikere Anwuli had fixed March 26 for hearing of Sanus’s originating motion after ruling that his detention was illegal, unlawful and consequently set it aside.
Similarly, the court would have to reschedule the case of former Adamawa Governor slated for March 25.
Nyako alongside his son, Abdul-Aziz; two companies, Sebore Farms and Extension Ltd and Pagado Fortunes Ltd are standing triala on a 37-count charge of criminal conspiracy, stealing, abuse of office and money laundering to the tune of N29 billion.
At the last sitting, the defendants had asked trial judge, Justice Okon Abang of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court to strike out the alleged N29 billion money laundering charge filed against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on the grounds that they have no case to answer in the charge.
Nyako, in a no-case submission motion filed by his team of lawyers led by Kanu Agabi SAN, on behalf of first, second, sixth and seventh defendants, contended that, “no case has been made out by the prosecution warranting an answer from them.”
They argued that from the testimonies of the 21 witnesses called by the prosecution, there was not a single shred of evidence that suggested even remotely that a case had been made out against them.
But the EFCC arguing through its lawyer, Oluwaleke Atolagbe, told Justice Abang that the commission intended to comprehensively respond to the first, second, sixth and seventh defendant’s no-case submission.
Mr Atolagbe told the court to give him seven days within which to file his responses.
His request was granted by Justice Abang, who held that defendants are at liberty to file and serve their reply on point of law within seven days.
The judge subsequently adjourned till March 25 for parties to adopt their written addresses for and in opposition to the defendants’ no-case submission.
Another case which has to be rescheduled when the court resume is that of the former Chairman of the defunct Pension Reform Task Team, Abdulrasheed Maina, seeking a further variation of his bail.
The EFCC had, on October 25, 2019 charged Maina, his son, Faisal and a firm, Common Input Property and Investment Ltd allegedly linked to him to court over corruption allegation.
Although Maina pleaded not guilty to the 12-count charge bordering on money laundering and was admitted to bail, he has however not been able to meet the bail conditions.
Justice Okon Abang had last year admitted Maina to bail in the sum of N1 billion and two sureties in like sum who must be serving senators with no criminal record or pending charge. In addition the sureties must show evidence of three years tax payment and own landed property in the Asokoro or Maitama area of Abuja.
Although the judge had in an application dated January 28 this year varied the bail yet Maina has been unable to meet the new condition and had to apply for another variation.
His lawyer at the last adjournment had told the judge, “The defendant (Maina) has come back humbly to say that he is thankful of the earlier granted bail, as well as the variation, but that the conditions cannot be met.
“No Senator has agreed to stand as surety to be coming here and be signing on a daily basis,” he said.
But justice Abang after taking Maina’s trial for the day adjourned ruling on the application to further vary the bail conditions until April 9, while adjourning the trial continuation till March 18.
However, the case of former HoS barring any changes may go on as schedule.
Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court had in March adjourned till May 27, 28 for commencement of trial shortly after admitting Mrs Oyo-Ita to bail in the sum of N100m with two sureties in like sum in an alleged corruption charge.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had earlier in the day arraigned the former Head of Service, one Garuba Umar and Ubong Effiok alongside six companies on an 18 count criminal charge bordering on fraud and money laundering to the tune of over N400 million.
The alleged offences were said to have been committed when Oyo-Ita was a Deputy Director at the Federal Ministry of Power.
The companies sued as defendants are; Frontline Ace Global Services Limited, Asanaya Projects Limited, Slopes International Limited, Gooddeal Investment Limited, U&U Global Services Limited and Prince Mega Logistics Limited.
They, however, pleaded not guilty to the charges, upon which their lawyers moved an oral application for their bail.
While Paul Erokoro SAN argued the bail of Oyo-Ita, the first defendant in the charge, Mr Anthony Ananakwu and Okechukwu Ajunwa argued that of Umar (4th defendant) and Effiok (7th defendant) respectively.
While counsel to the EFCC, Mr Mohammed Abubakar, did not oppose the bail applications because of the prevailing pandemic, he however urged the court to attach conditions that will compel the defendants to attend trial.
Justice Taiwo in his ruling admitted the defendants to bail on grounds that the offences they were charged with are bail able.
As part of the conditions, one of the two sureties, the judge held must be a grade level 17 officer in the federal government’s employment and any of its agencies and must have a landed property worth the bail bond.
The second surety he held must show evidence of gainful employment and capability of paying the N100 million in the event that the defendant jumped bail.
The judge further ordered that Oyo-Ita deposits her international passport with the registrar of the court and reports to the prosecuting counsel at the EFCC’s Office within the next seven days, effective from March 24, when she is expected to perfect her bail.
Although Justice Taiwo admitted Umar and Effiok to bail in the sum of N50m and two sureties each in like sum, he however attached the same conditions granted Mrs Oyo-Ita to their bail.
Meanwhile, Justice Taiwo ordered that the defendants be released to their respective lawyers pending the perfection of their bail.
The decision, he noted was in view of the Coronavirus pandemic in the country, adding that lives should not be put to unnecessary danger.
it is believed that courts are expected to maintain the preventive measures when the suspension is lifted. Judges no doubt would face the challenge of large cases in their dockets when they resume due to the stockpile of cases occasioned by the lockdown. Apart from scheduled cases which were not taken as at their adjourned dates, no doubt fresh cases would be assigned to judges thereby increasing their workload. The judges ordinarily would pick up from where they stopped and give expedited hearing to ongoing cases except in the event of urgent and time bound cases which would be given priority.