The Court of Appeal in Abuja, on Wednesday, ordered Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja, to withdraw from the trial of a former governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suswam.
The appellate court in a unanimous judgement on Wednesday ordered that the case file be returned to Justice Ahmed Mohammed, who had presided over the case from the beginning.
Mr Suswam and the then Commissioner for Finance in his administration, Okolobia Okpanachi, are being prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on N3.1 billion money laundering charges.
They were accused by the anti-graft agency of diverting the money which was said to be part of the proceeds of the sale of some shares of Benue in a company.
Mr Suswam, who is currently the senator representing Benue North-east Senatorial District in the National Assembly, and Mr Okpanachi were arraigned in 2015 before Mr Mohammed on a nine-count charge.
But Mr Mohammed had recused himself twice from the case before a former Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Adamu Kafarati, reassigned it to Mr Abang of the same court.
He had withdrawn from the case due to allegations from a publication, that he was receiving bribe in order to give Mr Suswam a ‘soft landing’.
Not satisfied with Mr Mohammed’s action, Mr Suswam’s lawyer, Chinelo Ogbozor, challenged the reassigning of the case to Mr Abang at the appeal court.
She argued that she was not aware of Mr Mohammed disqualifying himself from conducting the trial as no prior notice was issued.
Appeal court ruling
Delivering the lead judgement of the appellate court on Wednesday, Justice Emmanuel Agim commended Mr Abang for conducting the trial but held that Mr Mohammed was wrong to have withdrawn from handling the case.
Mr Agim explained that the court’s decision to return the case to Mr Mohammed was to correct the “error” made by the former chief judge of the court, Mr Kafarati.
The court held that although the chief judge has the powers under section 19 of the Federal High Court Rules, to assign cases to any judge of the court, “such discretion must be exercised properly and not recklessly so as to meet the justice of the case.
“Unfortunately, the chief judge did not exercise his discretion correctly. The re-assignment of the case to Justice Abang amounted to a transfer in a matter that was part heard.
“Four witnesses had already testified and an accused person is entitled to a trial within a reasonable period of time.”
“The action of the chief judge is an administrative one and therefore, proceedings by justice Abang cannot amount to a nullity.
“The federal high court is one court and the Jjudges are the same. It is within the administrative powers of the chief judge to re-assign cases and any judge has the jurisdiction to hear to cases assigned to them by the Chief Judge of the court.
“Our decision is merely to correct the error by the chief judge. justice Abang was right to assume jurisdiction since he has the statutory duty to obey the chief judge.
“Justice Abang has no powers to challenge or question the chief judge. He has a duty to take a case assigned to him and deal with it. He did what the law allowed him.
“In fact, if the ruling of Justice Abang did not touch on the reasons given by justice Mohammed to rescue himself, this appeal would have no life.
“Abang has shown commendable diligence in the trial. But since Justice Abang went to determine the propriety of Justice Mohammed’s recusal from the case, the appeal has live issues,” the court ruled.