A Federal High Court in Lagos yesterday adjourned till December 18, for the arraignment of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN) for an alleged N1.4 billion fraud.
Justice Muslim Hassan fixed the date following the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)’s inability to serve Usoro with the charge sheet for the alleged 10-count money laundering offence.
The judge, last week, fixed yesterday for Usoro’s arraignment, following which the NBA President arrived in court with 13 Senior Advocates of Nigeria and scores of other young lawyers.
But, at the beginning of proceedings, prosecution counsel, Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo, told the judge that the defendant was called repeatedly last week to “come and pick his charge” and when he eventually picked his phone, he pleaded that he had a function but would come to the EFCC’s office last Friday for it.
According to Oyedepo, Usoro didn’t show up at the EFCC’s office as promised on Friday.
He said: “Since the handing of the charge is fundamental to the proper commencement of this proceedings and same having not being effected on the defendant, I shall be asking the court for a short adjournment that is convenient for the court to enable us serve the defendant and commence proceedings.”
Piqued by the prosecution’s submission, the defendant’s lead counsel, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, told the court that he could “not fathom any section of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 authorising or insisting on a defendant to come to the EFCC’s office and pick his charge”.
He said: “My lord, may I correct a notion that the defendant didn’t honour a promise to be at their office on Friday.
“The defendant is the NBA President, meaning that he is as busy as an ant with engagements here and there.
“He has been going to the EFCC’s office since June and he has been there up to 10 times.
“It is a common knowledge that the charge had been publicised that he will be arraigned today (yesterday).”
Olanipekun then prayed the judge to direct the EFCC to serve Usoro in court.
But Oyedepo resisted the move.
He told the judge that he was not in a position to effect service in court, especially as the charge sheet was with the Investigative Police Officer (IPO), who was absent.
The prosecutor stated that by virtue of sections 122, 123 and 271 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) Act, it is the duty of the prosecution to bring a defendant before the court unfettered for the purpose of arraignment.
He contended that the step taking by the prosecution was proper procedure.
Oyedepo added: “We knew the defendant was busy; that was why he was invited politely.
“I don’t have a service copy here to oblige defendant because I have transmitted the charge to the office of the Director of Operation.
“All I have is my own copy and I didn’t receive any correspondence that I should bring a copy to court.”
Olanipekun, however, disagreed with the prosecution, saying it was not the procedure for the defendant to go to the EFCC’s office for him to be served.
He urged the court to direct the court registrar to serve the defendant before the next adjourned date.
In a bench ruling, Justice Hassan ordered that the charge be served on the defendant before the next adjourned date.
He granted the EFCC’s prayer and adjourned till December 18, for Usoro’s arraignment.
Outside the courtroom, EFCC operatives moved on Usoro. But, following Oyedepo’s intervention, the NBA President was invited to accompany the EFCC to their Lagos office.
He was allowed to ride in his car with some lawyers.
The group then moved to the EFCC office where Mr. Usoro is expected to be served with the charge sheet.
Last Wednesday, the EFCC filed a 10-count charge of fraudulent conversion of N1.4 billion against the NBA President.
In the first count, the EFCC alleged that Usoro, Akwa Ibom State Governor Emmanuel Udom, who presently enjoys constitutional immunity against criminal prosecution, conspired with the Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Finance Nsikan Nkan, Accountant-General Mfon Udomah, Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice Uwemedimo Nwoko and Margaret Ukpe, all of whom were said to be at large, conspired in 2015 to convert N1.4 billion property of the Akwa Ibom State Government, which they ought to have known forms part of the proceeds of crime.
The EFCC said the offences were contrary to Section 18 (a) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2011.