Rochas Okorocha, a former governor of Imo, was cleared of the N2.9 billion fraud allegations brought against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission by the Federal High Court in Abuja on Monday (EFCC).
The accusations for violating section 105 (3) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), 2015, which grants the Attorney-General of the Federation the authority to recall a case, were dismissed by Inyang Ekwo in a judgement.
The ruling was on a preliminary application filed by Mr Okorocha. EFCC had yet to begin calling witnesses as of the time the judge ended the case on Monday.
Mr Ekwo said the directive of the AGF and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, in a letter dated 12 September 2022, to the EFCC to forward the case file with its comments on the issues for consideration and review, was binding on the commission.
“All that the law required of the respondent (EFCC) was for the respondent when directed by the HAGF (Honourable Attorney General of the Federation), pursuant to any enactment, is to comply and not act as if it is not under the law or is exempted thereby.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the office of the HAGF is founded on the provisions of the constitution and is thereby preserved.
“The controversies and drama surrounding this trial proceeding is needless and it is time to stop it,” he said.
The judge further held that from the moment the AGF gave the directive to the EFCC, the commission ceased to have the legal authority to prosecute or continue the prosecution of the case.
“In other words, the intervention of the HAGF in any criminal proceedings ends the authority of the prosecuting agency in the matter unless otherwise directed by the HAGF.
“In the end, I find that non-compliance by the respondent with the directive of the HAGF as stated in Exhibit Okorocha 7 is fatal to this proceeding and has rendered it a nullity.
“The respondent is not empowered by any law to continue with this proceeding after the HAGF issued the directive in Exhibit Okorocha 7.
“With Exhibit Okorocha 7, it is only the HAGF that can decide whether or not to charge the defendants upon the case file being remitted to his office as directed,” he added.
Besides, Mr Ekwo agreed with the defendants that the earlier judgement of a court of coordinate jurisdiction sitting in Port Harcourt in suit number: FHC/PH/FHR/165, between Mr Okorocha and EFCC, restraining the agency from further proceeding on the alleged offence had not been set aside.
‘Violation of subsisting court order’
According to him, the order is binding until it is set aside.
“The fact that a person refuses to comply with the law does not change the law, neither does the law change to accommodate the act of non-compliance by any person.
“What happens when a person elects not to comply with the law is that the law turns its back on the person.
“When that happens, every action or decision taken by such person in the process of non-compliance becomes illegal and the court will set aside such act of non-compliance ex debito justitiae.
“This is so because there is no machination that can be used to salvage an illegal act,” he said.
The judge, who said Mr Okorocha’s and 5th defendant’s (Consolid Projects Consulting Ltd.)’s objections succeeded on merit, struck out the charge.
“I, therefore, make an order striking out the charge which found this proceeding. The consequence is that the defendants are discharged,” Ekwo declared.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the EFCC had said it received an intelligence report about criminal diversion, abuse of office and money laundering against Mr Okorocha while running the affairs of Imo State government between 2011 and 2019.
The commission said that the intelligence was investigated and confirmed to be true.
The anti-corruption agency then filed a 17-count charge marked: FHC/ABJ/CR/28/22 against Okorocha and others.
Mr Okorocha, who is the 1st defendant, was arraigned alongside Anyim Nyerere Chinenye, Naphtali International Limited, Perfect Finish Multi Projects Limited, Consolid Projects Consulting Limited, Pramif International Limited, and Legend World Concepts Limited as 2nd to 7th defendants respectively.
He was alleged to have laundered funds to the tune of N2.9 billion while serving as governor of Imo.
But Mr Ekwo, on 31 May 2022, granted bail to Mr Okorocha in the sum of N500 million with one surety in like sum.
The judge also granted Mr Okorocha’s co-defendant, Chinenye, bail in the terms of the administrative bail earlier granted to him by the EFCC.
Challenging trial validity
But Mr Okorocha, who currently represents Imo West Senatorial District, had filed a preliminary objection, alongside the 5th defendant, praying for an order quashing the charges preferred against him.
The senator described the suit as being “unlawful, baseless, oppressive and a gross abuse of the process of the court.”
He said the investigation “on which the said charge was predicated, was the subject matter of suit number: FCH/PH/FHR/165/2021 wherein this Hon. Court, Coram Pam, J. had, in the final judgment at the suit of the applicant. declared unlawful and made an order prohibiting the EFCC from further proceeding.”
But the EFCC, in its counter affidavit dated and filed on 18 Nov 2021 said it had seen and read through Mr Okorocha’s motion dated 28 Oct that “the depositions therein are grossly misleading and untrue particularly paragraphs 3 and 4.”
The anti-corruption agency urged the court to dismiss the application for lacking in merit.