Justice Ahmed Ramat Mohammed of the Federal High Court in Abuja on Monday disqualified himself from presiding over the trial of former Benue State Governor Gabriel Suswam.
Mr. Suswam and Okolobia Okpanachi, the former finance commissioner of Benue State, are being tried on a nine-count charge bordering on conspiracy, abuse of office, and the looting of N3.1b in public funds.
Mr. Mohammed announced that he would step down from the case after it was revealed by a SaharaReporters investigation that he received bribe money from Mr. Suswam in exchange for granting the former governor a favorable ruling.
The report, published exclusively by SaharaReporters last month, revealed that Mr. Suswam offered to pay Mr. Mohammed 10,000 Euros and N2 million in cash disguised as a gift to pay for his relative’s medical bills. This illicit financial agreement was plotted by Mr. Suswam in November 2015, shortly before his first public appearance at the Federal Court.
Shortly after SaharaReporters’ report on Mr. Suswam, he released a public statement denying that he had ever spoke to SaharaReporters and that this platform fabricated an interview with him. However, SaharaReporters released an audio recording of Mr. Suswam speaking to our correspondent by phone.
In the recording exclusively released by SaharaReporters Mr. Suswam can be heard protecting Justice Mohammed nine separate times, requesting that he not be mentioned in our report. Mr. Suswam’s earlier statements also claimed he never made such remarks to our correspondent.
Both the defense and prosecution urged Justice Mohammed to not recuse himself from the trial in court today.
Rotimi Jacobs, counsel for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), said he was confident that the court would carry on with the case, taking into account the testimonies of all of the witnesses who testified thus far.
Mr. Suswam’s attorney, Joseph Daudu, expressed similar sentiments, saying that the court should not be “deterred by the publication.” He argued that his client should not be “smeared by invisible press” and the court should not have to start the trial over again.
F.R. Onija, Mr. Okpanachi’s counsel, added, “My view is that the publication is the handiwork of mischief-makers bent on truncating the trial,” saying that it should not influence the decision of the court.
Despite appeals from the three counsels, the justice announced that he would disqualify himself from the case. He argued that his ability to judge the case fairly and impartially had been compromised by the publication.
“The allegation is now in the public domain…whatever the court will do eventually may be capable of interpretation otherwise,” Mr. Mohammed said.
“It is better for the case to be transferred to the Chief Judge for reassignment to another judge.”