Protests on Wednesday greeted the Federal Government’s withdrawal of the N446.3bn theft charge it instituted against Mohammed Abacha, son of a former Head of State, the late Gen. Sani Abacha.
Those who flayed the action which took place at the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Abuja, were prominent Lagos lawyers – Femi Falana, Jiti Ogunye, Fred Agbaje and Femi Aborisade – as well as the Chairman of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, Mr. Debo Adeniran; and his Civil Society Network Against Corruption counterpart, Mr. Lanre Suraj.
While some of the lawyers argued that the government action had serious negative implications on the country’s anti-graft campaign, Adeniran and Suraj said it had a political undertone.
The government had preferred nine counts of stealing against Mohammed in February 2014.
It had accused him of unlawfully receiving about N446.3bn allegedly stolen from its coffers between 1995 and 1998.
But on Wednesday, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Adoke, asked Justice Mamman Kolo of the FCT High Court to strike out the charges on the grounds of “fresh facts” that just emerged concerning the case.
He was silent on whether new charges would be filed against Mohammed or not.
Efforts to arraign Mohammed on two previous occasions were unsuccessful because of his repeated absence from court.
But he was present in court on Wednesday when a private prosecuting counsel, Daniel Enwelum, informed the court of Adoke’s instruction to discontinue the case.
Applying to court for the withdrawal of the case, Enwelum said, “I have been instructed by the AGF and Minister of Justice to withdraw the charges as presently filed before this court, because there are fresh facts and documents available to him.
“In this circumstance, he instructed me to file a notice of withdrawal without prejudice to future cause of action to be taken by his (AGF’s) office.
“In the light of that, I have filed a notice of withdrawal dated June 17, 2014. I humbly apply to withdraw the charges accordingly.”
Mohammed‘s lawyer, Abdullahi Haruna, did not oppose the application for withdrawal.
Justice Kolo subsequently made an order striking out the charges against the accused.
In the nine counts, the Federal Government accused Mohammed of “dishonestly receiving stolen property” and “voluntarily assisted in concealing money.”
The charge replaced a previous one of 121 counts, in which Mohammed was charged with Atiku Bagudu. The government excluded Bagudu from the fresh charge, leaving only Mohammed.
According to the charge, marked CR.21-24/2008, the stolen money allegedly received by Mohammed included $141,100,000 and $384,353,000 made up of cash and travellers’ cheques.
But Falana said the withdrawal of “such grave corruption charges has serious implications for prosecuting anti-graft cases.”
“On the basis of equality before the law, anyone being prosecuted for fraud or corruption can file applications to have their cases withdrawn and struck out by all criminal courts in Nigeria. By the way, has the loot of N400bn been refunded by Mr. Mohammed ?,” he asked.
On his part, Ogunye, said the withdrawal was an embarrassment to the Supreme Court, which had earlier ruled that Mohammed had a case to answer over the same charges.
He said, “The development is very sad for the rule of law, the administration of criminal justice system and the fight against corruption in Nigeria. With the withdrawal, which followed the recent verdict of the Supreme Court that Mohammed has a case to answer.
“The message that is being sent to the judiciary is that ‘we are at home with corruption, we are government of corruption and we promote corruption.’”
Ogunye added that the withdrawal was “a crude and rude slap on section 15(5) of the constitution which says that the state shall abolish all corrupt practices and abuse of power.”
He noted that Adoke had by his action offended the philosophy of equality before the law, as many Nigerians facing charges for petty theft “have no such opportunity of the charges against them being withdrawn.”
Also, Agbaje described the withdrawal as a political decision taken as part of President Goodluck Jonathan’s strategy to win Kano State at all costs in his re-election bid.
He said, “It is a political decision. It is all an attempt by the ruling party to win Kano State at all costs in the election.
“In fact, condemned armed robbers could even be granted political amnesty towards 2015 general election.”
Aborisade, who admitted that the AGF had power to withdraw such cases under 174(1)(c) of the 1999 Constitution, said, “I hold the opinion that the withdrawal of the charge is not in conformity with section 174(3) of the same constitution.”
Also, Adeniran, who described the action by Adoke as embarrassing, added that it was “another graphic example that the present administration takes sides with corrupt elements in the society.”
He added that the decision was a product of a bargain with Mohammed for the political future of Jonathan.
He said, “They would not have done that for nothing. It could have been done to promote a political agenda of the President Jonathan administration.
“President Jonathan should not use the future of Nigeria to bargain for his ego or political interest.”
He called on the anti-corruption agencies in the country to be bold enough to “dissociate themselves from the embarrassing intervention by the Attorney General of the Federation.”
Suraj,on his part, said the development was the most unpatriotic action of the government.
He said, “It is the most unpatriotic action undertaken by this government reputed for encouraging corruption and negotiating shady deals with local and international criminals who have defrauded the country.
“Stakeholders are therefore charged to explore available options to ensure the retrieval of the money.”