…as court okays AGF’s request to takeover case-file
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, on Tuesday, gave the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, the nod to prosecute the governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, in Imo State, Senator Hope Uzodinma, over allegation that he failed to declare his assets.
The court, in a ruling that was delivered by Justice Okon Abang, granted Malami’s request to takeover the matter from the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for Recovery of Public Property, SPIPRP.
However, the decision did not go down well with the Chief Okoi Obono-Obla led presidential panel, which challenged the powers of the AGF to abort Uzodinma’s scheduled arraignment.
The panel had earlier applied for a bench warrant to be issued against Uzodinma, after he failed to appear before the court to enter his plea to a two-count charge it preferred against him.
The application was however rejected by trial Justice Abang who held that he was minded to give the APC’s flagbearer, another opportunity to voluntarily submit himself for arraignment.
At the resumed proceeding on Tuesday, immediately counsel to the panel, Mr. Celcius Ukpong announced his appearance for the prosecution, another lawyer, Mr. P.U. Akuta, stood up and told the court that he was sent by the AGF to take over the trial.
Dissatisfied with the development, counsel to the Chief Obono-Obla led panel, Ukpong, urged the court to ignore the AGF’s request and proceed with taking plea of the defendant who was already inside the dock.
Ukpong contended that the AGF could only takeover prosecution of the case after the defendant had entered his plea to the charge against him.
In his ruling, trial Justice Abang held that contrary to the position of the panel, under section 174 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, the AGF, being the chief law officer of the federation, had powers to take over the prosecution of any criminal case at any stage.
“His reason or intention cannot be questioned. It is a constitutional issue in which the court has no choice.
The court held that any other statute with a contrary provision is null and void since the constitution is supreme.
“The Special Investigation Panel shall submit to the authority of the AGF”, Justice Abang added.
Meantime, before the court adjourned the matter till June 3 for arraignment, Uzodinma’s counsel, Chief Olusola Oke, SAN, said his client had filed a preliminary objection to challenge both the competence of the charge and jurisdiction of the court to entertain same.
Chief Oke, SAN, who did not oppose request for the AGF to be granted a short time to fully takeover the case-file, however urged the court to determine his client’s preliminary objection first before delving into the substantive matter.
Uzodinma had in his objection, relied on a Court of Appeal judgment that held that the presidential panel lacked the powers to initiate a criminal charge on behalf of the federal government.
Besides, he contended that only the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, has the jurisdiction to entertain charges bordering on alleged none declaration of assets.
The embattled APC candidate had been engaged in a protracted battle with the Chief Obono-Obla led panel which said it was investigating him for allegedly engaging in economic sabotage owing to failure of his company to execute a contract of $12million the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA, awarded to him for the dredging of Calabar channel.
While the said investigation was ongoing, the panel, entered a two-count criminal charge of non-disclosure of assets against him before the court.
Specifically, the charge, read: “That you, Senator Hope Uzodinma (Male) on or about March 5, 2018, being a public officer with the National Assembly, Abuja, within the jurisdiction of this honourable court, committed an offence to wit: refused to declare your assets without reasonable excuse and upon notice to declare your assets before the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property, Abuja, contrary to and punishable under Section 3 (3) (1) (a) of the Recovery of Public Property (Special Provision) Act 2004.
“That you Senator Hope Uzodmma (Male) on or about March 5, 2018, being a public officer that the National Assembly Abuja, within the jurisdiction of this honourable court, committed an offence to wit: neglected to declare your assets without reasonable excuse and upon notice to declare your assets before the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property, Abuja, contrary to and punishable under Section 3 (3) (1) (a) of the Recovery of Public Property (Special Provision) Act 2004.”
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