Last Wednesday, when prominent Nigerian lawyer, Rickey Tarfa, was arraigned before a Lagos High Court on charges of bribing a judge, at least 90 fellow lawyers who, like him, are Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN), turned up to defend him. It took the presiding judge close to one hour to record the long list of lawyers who had volunteered as Mr. Tarfa’s defense team. On the side of the prosecution stood a young lawyer, Rotimi Oyedepo. In a previous appearance in a fundamental rights case filed by Mr. Tarfa before Justice Idris, Mr. Oyedepo had sarcastically quipped, “We hope 34 senior advocates will one day appear pro bono to join the EFCC to prosecute an ex-governor charged with stealing billions of naira.”
Last Wednesday, Mr. Tarfa entered a plea of not guilty to a 2-count charge of obstruction of justice and corruption of a judge. His lawyers, led by Adeniyi Akintola, argued for his bail, which was opposed by the EFCC counsel. In his ruling to grant bail to Mr. Tarfa, Justice Opesanwo stated that the number of lawyers mobilized for his defense seemed designed to intimidate the court. At the end of the proceedings, Mr. Tarfa beamed with smiles as he thanked his colleagues. He also urged them to turn up en masse at the Federal High Court on Friday.
But yesterday’s court session saw a twist to the case. The apparent gang up of SANs and the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) against the EFCC seemed to have angered many lawyers. On Thursday, a well-known human rights advocate and lawyer, Femi Falana, himself a SAN, led scores of lawyers who trooped to the EFCC office in Ikoyi, Lagos to distance themselves from the “celebration of criminality by some senior lawyers.” The group of concerned lawyers expressed solidarity with the EFCC in its task to rid the Nigerian society, including the legal profession, of corrupt elements.
EFCC chairman, Ibrahim Magu, thanked the lawyers for coming out to be counted at a time that the powerful forces of corruption were fighting back in the country.
In response to Mr. Tarfa’s N2.5 billion suit against the EFCC, the anti-corruption agency filed a detailed affidavit at the Federal High Court. The affidavit alleged that Mr. Tarfa had always bribed judges. The EFCC disclosed that Mr. Tarfa had in January 2014 transferred a bribe of N225, 000 to Justice Yunusa. In addition, the agency alleged that Mr. Tarfa had in 2006 collected $500,000 from one of his clients ostensibly to “the court and EFCC officials.” In addition, Mr. Tarfa and four other SANs allegedly “donated” N7 million to launch a book written in honor of Justice Ibrahim Auta, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court.
The EFCC’s affidavit also unveiled the call logs between Justice Yunusa and Mr. Tarfa. The document showed that the two men exchanged regular phone conversations and text messages while the cases filed by Mr. Tarfa against the EFCC were pending before the judge. It also revealed that even junior lawyers in Mr. Tarfa's law office often sent text messages to the chief registrar of the court to assign their cases to Justice Yunusa. According to the EFCC, Mr. Tarfa won all such cases heard by Justice Yunusa on the basis of bribery and corruption.
The affidavit caused ripples in legal circles. Many lawyers began to taunt the large team of SANs who had appeared for Mr. Tarfa. Many of those pro-Tarfa lawyers were so embarrassed that only four of the 90 SANs showed up in court yesterday. And as soon as one of the four SANs found out about the EFCC’s affidavit, he quietly left the court.
Some of the SANs told SaharaReporters that they were ill-informed when they appeared for Mr. Tarfa, whom they had seen as a victim of EFCC intimidation. “We were not aware that the EFCC had such watertight evidence of possible acts of corruption against Tarfa,” one of them stated. Several of the pro-Tarfa lawyers said they were in court to protest the manner of his arrest in the court premises.
A move by the NBA’s national executive committee to pass a resolution in support of Mr. Tarfa failed. The group met in Jos, the capital of Plateau State, from Wednesday to Thursday. At the meeting, NBA President, Austin Alegbe, and many other SANs had condemned the EFCC. But SaharaReporters learned that a former Attorney-General of Lagos State, Hairat Balogun, warned her colleagues against defending members of the NBA who have exposed the legal profession to ridicule. Some of the junior lawyers at the meeting also reportedly expressed concern that many of the SANs had been mentioned as participants in the criminal habit of bribing judges.
Mr. Tarfa admitted that he gave the sum of N225, 000 to Justice Yunusa, but claimed that the money was not a bribe but a “gift” to help out with a funeral of the judge’s in-law. But the EFCC’s lawyer, W. K. Shittu, described Mr. Tarfa’s claim as an afterthought. He wondered whether Mr. Tarfa was not aware of Order 3 of the code of conduct for judicial officers that bars judges from asking for or accepting any gift or reward in the course of performing their official duties. He added that the EFCC has evidence of large sums of money that Mr. Tarfa gave to a few other judges and that the agency’s investigation was ongoing.
Justice Idris, who had refused to stop the EFCC from arraigning Mr. Tarfa last week, is scheduled to deliver his judgment on February 29, 2016.