Nigeria continues to witness challenges to its judicial system in dealing with crime in general – in particular, corporate crime. It is now more than three years since the Central Bank of Nigeria moved to take over a number of banks. Several bank executives were subsequently brought before the courts, charged with a variety of offences. Of the seven prosecutions commenced, only one (following a plea arrangement) has been concluded. The remainder remain tied up in the judicial system.
Two of these pending cases have generated interest recently, demonstrating the problems encountered by judges, prosecutors and defence counsel alike.
On April 2 2012 a Federal High Court judge ordered the attorney general to disband the team of lawyers that he had instructed to conduct the prosecution of a former chief executive of Intercontinental Bank. The judge went further, stating that the lawyers were not only not to be granted audience in respect of charges against this particular defendant in his court, but also not to be granted audience by any other Federal High Court judge. He then dismissed the charges brought against the defendant, discharging him and advising the attorney general to "consider his options". Not satisfied with stopping there, he also referred the conduct of lead counsel to the prosecution to the Legal Practitioners' Disciplinary Committee.
These orders made headlines in the national press. The orders have been appealed and it would appear that the prospects of success on appeal are reasonable. Most lawyers agree that the judge did not have the power to order the attorney general to dismiss counsel; nor did he have the power to decide for other judges whether counsel should be granted audience. Questions were also asked about his power to dismiss charges on the merits, where the defendant had not even entered a plea to such charges.
This series of events has not endeared the process to the public, who merely wish to see powerful people brought to justice. It appears to have been provoked by the judge's frustration with alleged improper conduct on the part of the prosecution, which sought to appeal his refusal to recuse himself and have the case transferred to another Federal High Court judge.
The second case involved another former bank chief executive. On May 14 2012 the judge hearing charges against the former chief executive of Finbank expressed frustration at her inability to continue with a trial that had been scheduled several months previously. Neither the prosecution nor the defence was ready to proceed. The defence sought an adjournment on the basis that it was awaiting the president's approval on a proposed plea arrangement. The judge did not consider this to be a good reason to delay the trial, but when she called on the prosecution to open its case, the prosecutor informed the court that its first witness was unavailable on that day. The judge felt that she was left with no option other than to grant an adjournment – but she was dissatisfied with the situation.
Instances such as these are commonplace in Nigeria and a degree of frustration is felt at the apparent inability to resolve these issues. What is clear, however, is that until solutions are found, the public will continue to have little confidence in the judicial process.
For further information on this topic please contact Babajide Oladipo Ogundipe at Sofunde Osakwe Ogundipe & Belgore by telephone (+234 1 462 2502), fax (+234 1 462 2501 ) or email ([email protected] ).