Justice Okon Abang of Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja on September 30, 2019, ruled that he has jurisdiction to entertain the case involving the former governor of Benue State, Gabriel Torwua Suswam, alongside his former Commissioner of Finance Okolobia Okpanachi.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC is prosecuting Suswam and Okpanachi on nine-count charges, bothering on money laundering and diversion of funds to the tune of N3.1 billion (Three Billion, One Hundred Million, Naira).
The EFCC had on November 2015, arraigned the defendants before Justice Ahmed Ramat Mohammed of the Federal High Court in Abuja, and had presented four witnesses before the court. The matter was to continue after the vacation, embarked by the judiciary last month in Justice Mohammed’s court, however, the counsels were informed of Justice Mohammed’s withdrawal from the case through hearing notice from Justice Abang’s court.
On September 24, 2019, the defendants were to take their plea in Justice Abang’s court, but could not as the defence opposed the transfer of the case.
On September 27, 2019, adjourned date, defense counsel to Suswam, C E Ogbozor, urged the court to decline jurisdiction and return the case file to the Honourable Acting Chief Judge of the Federal High Court.
Ogbozor told the court that she was not aware of the judge disqualifying himself from conducting the trial, adding that it amounted to breach of the right of fair hearing, should an order of transfer of charges made by Justice Muhammed without the notice of the defendants be granted.
She argued that the prosecution having called four witnesses, cannot be allowed to commence de’novo, while referring to Section 1, 98, 99 and 396(7) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, wherein if a case has been partly heard, cannot start de’novo, stating that the only exception was when a trial judge ceases to hold office by act of law or act of God.
However, the prosecution counsel, Oluwaleke Atolagbe, while opposing the argument, urged the court to refuse the application adding that the crucial question to be asked was whether a judge could be compelled to hear a case against his wish.
He told the court that Justice Mohammed on June 6, 2019, withdrew from the case and sent back the case to the Chief Judge, observing that both counsels had expressed absolute confidence in him adjudicating over the matter. He said the case file was returned to him after the Chief Judge acceded to the request.
Atolagbe argued that the trial judge needed not to have invited parties to address him on whether or not he should disqualify himself or return the case file back to the Chief Judge for re-assignment as the transfer was not based on the addresses of the counsels.
Justice Abang adjourned the matter to Monday, September 30, 2019, to give a ruling on the defence’s application. If sustained, the case would be returned to the Chief Judge for it to continue before Justice Mohammed and if rejected, the defendants should be ready to take their plea in his court.
Following the failure of the defence application, the defendants took their plea today, before Justice Abang.
Count One of reads: “That you Gabriel Torwua Suswam and Omodachi Okolobia while being Benue State governor and Commissioner of Finance of Benue State, respectively between 8th August and 30th October, 2014 in Abuja, within the jurisdiction of this honourable court took possession of the sum of 15,800,000 (Fifteen million, eight hundred thousand dollars ) from Abubaker Umar of Fanffash Resources (Worldwide Limited ) a bureau de change dealer which sum you knew to be the proceed of unlawful activity to wit; theft of the sum of N3,111,008,018.51 (Three Billion, One Hundred and Eleven Million, Eight Thousand and Eighteen Naira. Fifty One Kobo) which formed part of the sum of N9,411,708,009.51 (Nine Billion, Four Hundred and Eleven Million, Seven Hundred and Eight Thousand, Nine Naira, Fifty One Kobo) realised from the sale of shares owned by Benue State Government and Benue Investment and Property Company Limited and you thereby committed an offence contrary to section 15 (2) (d) of the Money Laundering (prohibition) act , 2011 as amended in 2012 and punishable under section 15 (3) of the same act.”
The defendants pleaded not guilty to all the nine charges.
Following their plea, the prosecution counsel, Atolagbe, prayed the court for a trial date, while the defence counsel, C E Ogbozor, asked the court to allow the defendants to continue to enjoy the bail condition set by Justice Mohammed on November 10, 2015, to which the prosecution concurred.