Fromer governor of Lagos state and leader of Nigeria’s Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Bola Ahmed Tinubu, on Tuesday mounted a legal obstacle against his trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal [CCT] for allegedly operating 16 foreign bank accounts between 1999 and 2007 when he was governor of Lagos State.
At the dramatic hearing, not only did the former Governor vigorously refuse to take his place in the dock, he filed a preliminary objection challenging the competence of the charge and the jurisdiction of the Tribunal on the grounds that it lacks the territorial jurisdiction to venture into the charge.
His counsel, Wole Olanikpekun, urged the court to decline its jurisdiction to proceed with the matter and to quash all the three-count charges against Tinubu.
When the matter was called, the former governor, who had scores of supporters on hand, refused to step into the dock.
The situation indicated a new strategy for Tinubu. When he was arraigned two months ago, on September 21, 2011, he willingly entered the dock and stayed there for about three hours. Pictures of the ACN chieftain looking forlorn in the dock thereafter made the rounds and stunned many observers, as it must have done Tinubu and his lawyers when they later saw them.
Yesterday, his refusal to enter the dock, which is necessary before a plea can be entered, marked a clear departure from that experience.
Citing legal authorities, Mr. Olanikpekun objected to the invitation of the tribunal’s chairman, Justice Umar Yakubu for Mr. Tinubu to step into the dock, arguing that until his client was arraigned before the court, he could not be put in the dock.
He told Justice Yakubu, “My lord, with due respect, I will be objecting to the request by the accused to enter the dock. Was it right for the court to command an accused person to go into the dock when he has not been arraigned? Besides, he is challenging the competence of the charge. The objection is on the legality or validity of the charge.”
Responding, the prosecutor, Alex Aigbe Izinyon, submitted that the accused person should be deemed as being absent from court as his being in the courtroom did not translate into his presence in court unless he took his place in the dock and his plea taken. But he conceded to Mr. Olanikpekun that the accused does not need be in court before his application challenging the jurisdiction of the court could be argued.
Still, said Mr. Izinyon, “When he has not taken his plea, but is in court, he must be in the dock to show his presence in court.
Mr. Olanikpekun argued that the charges are nebulous and empty, and do not disclose any prima facie case against Mr. Tinubu. He also argued that the Bureau breached the condition precedent principle when it refused to invite his client to its office to hear from him, as it had done with other former governors, before preferring charges against him.
“What the Bureau has done is like putting something on nothing. Neither the Bureau nor the Chairman has invited the accused person in relation to the three-count charge as stipulated in section 3 of the Code of Conduct Act,” he said, adding that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Mr. Olanikpekun described the charges against Mr. Tinubu as “speculative” and amounted to hearsay under Sections 115, 116 and 117 of the Evidence Act in view of the fact that the prosecution did not disclose the name of the informant.
The defence counsel said the CCB Tribunal was an abuse of court processes as a similar case with the same subject matter initiated against the accused person was still subsisting at the Court of Appeal, and dismissed the contention of the prosecution that the case has been withdrawn. He said a withdrawal of the charges has to be by means of a formal pronouncement of the court and not a mere letter of withdrawal as the one paraded by the prosecution.
Finally, Mr. Olanipekun challenged the territorial competence of the court in Abuja as the appropriate venue is Lagos where the alleged offence was committed.
“In a criminal trial, the law is that the court must seat at the place where the alleged offence was committed,” he said. “There is no law that says the tribunal must seat in Abuja over the matter.”
Dr. Izinyon urged the tribunal to throw out the objections of the defence and proceed with the trial of the accused person, insisting that a prima facie case has been established against Mr. Tinubu and that the court is competent to hear it.
Drawing the attention of the court to Section 17 of the Code of Conduct Act, he stressed that a nominee, trustee or any agent of a public officer may be deemed to have committed an offence adding that at this stage, it is premature to say that the charges are defective.”
With reference to the defence’s argument concerning an abuse of court process, Mr. Izinyon said the earlier charges against Mr. Tinubu were withdrawn by the Attorney General of the Federation using his powers under Section 174 of the amended 1999 constitution, and urged the court to reject the argument.
On the issue of non-fulfillment of conditional precedent, Mr. Izinyon said the Bureau had the discretion as to whether or not to invite people to make statements before it.
Finally, on the subject of jurisdiction, Izinyon argued that the Tribunal was a clothed with federal jurisdiction and can therefore conduct its sittings in any part of the country.
The Tribunal reserved until November 30, 2011 its decision as to whether or not it has territorial jurisdiction to try Mr. Tinubu. On that day, it would also announce its verdict on Tinubu’s application to quash the three-count charge preferred against him by the Federal Government.