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In criminal justice administration the world over, prosecution witnesses are key to the success of any case. Since criminal cases are often prosecuted by the state, a witness could make or mar the case for the prosecution. This was exactly what played out last week in the ongoing trial of a former Minister of Aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, at the Federal High Court, Lagos, when the prosecutor, Mr. Festus Keyamo, perhaps not getting the cooperation of his witness, declared him hostile in the open court.
Everybody was seated in court to listen to the day’s proceedings on the lingering money laundering charges filed against the former minister by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Since it was the prosecution that was supposed to call another witness, most of the people in the courtroom had thought that he was going to make damning revelations against Fani-Kayode. But that was not to be, as the proceedings turned sour.
Trouble started when the witness, Mr. Ojo Agbor, was called to mount the witness box. Marching majestically, everybody had thought he was simply going to nail Fani-Kayode.
As soon as the first question was put to him by Keyamo, Agbor, who was a personal assistant to Fani-Kayode at the time, began by saying someone else, a property manager by the name of Mr. Kola, gave him the various amounts of money to pay into Fani-Kayode's account. The money, he said, were proceeds of rent, which accrued from Fani-Kayode's properties and which were collected by the property manager on his behalf. He said he was given various sums of money ranging from N600,000 to N3 million, by the said Mr. Kola.
In his statement to the EFCC in 2008, the witness had stated that Fani-Kayode gave him the money directly. But this time, he vehemently denied the statement he made in 2008. He said the statement was not voluntary and that he was forced and coerced into writing it. According to him, in 2008 when Farida Waziri was the Chairman of EFCC, the commission's officials locked him up for four days without letting him call anyone.
He added that he was slapped and subjected to psychological torture by the official of the anti-graft agency, who told him to lie in his statement otherwise he would not be allowed to go home and that he would also be charged along with Fani-Kayode.
During cross-examination by defence counsel, Mr. Ifedayo Adedipe (SAN), Agbor said he was "slapped" by a riot policeman who arrested him and that he was threatened, tortured and unlawfully locked up for four days without being able to contact his lawyers or any member of his family by EFCC officials.
Here him: “On November 26, 2008, I was lured out and some mopol (riot police officers) arrested me and took my car key. They bundled me into a car. I was asking them 'Where are you taking me to? One of them landed me a dirty slap and said I was a thief. They took me to EFCC's office, locked me in a room, and asked me to tell them what I know about Fani-Kayode.
"I told them that I know nothing and that it was one Mr. Kola, his property manager that gave me some money which I deposited into my boss' account. They then told me that I should write that it was Fani-Kayode who gave me the money to deposit. I told them that this was not true but they threatened to make me an accomplice and that they would not let me go home if I don't write that Fani-Kayode gave me the money.
“After four days of being deprived of my freedom, being locked up in a cell, being threatened and not being allowed to contact anyone from the outside world, my Lord, I had no option than to write what they wanted," Agbor said.
The witness said he had visited the EFCC on every invitation and that he never hid from them. He said EFCC sent him a letter on April 24, 2014, asking him to testify. He claimed he agreed to do so but that he would not lie under oath for whatever reason.
During re-examination, Agbor said the officers who arrested him were different from those who took his statement, and that he could not remember their names.
"When we met in court, Keyamo told me that I should not change what I wrote in my original statement and I told him that I was not going to lie to the court. The person who gave me the slap was not present when they took my statement," he said.
All that the bemused Keyamo could do at this juncture was to declare his own witness ''hostile.'' He said Agbor's testimony in court was totally different from what is in his statement to the EFCC. He added that he had evidence that the witness gave his testimony to EFCC voluntarily. He submitted that the witness had been coached.
“He has been coached. That is why he has been running away despite different invitations. We had to write his director to produce him this morning. I put it to you that when that statement was shown to you, you never told the court that it was made under duress," Keyamo said, to which the witness said, "I never said so."
Keyamo went on: "I want to put it to you that you are here today to tell deliberate lies," to which Agbor said "No."
After the judge gave Keyamo leave to declare Agbor a hostile witness, Keyamo accused the witness of deliberately lying to the court.
Earlier, the first prosecution witness, Olasupo Agbaje, another former personal assistant to Fani-Kayode, testified that Fani-Kayode gave him N1million and another N1.1million to deposit into the former minister's bank account. This contradicted his original statement to the EFCC in 2008 which did not state that Fani-Kayode gave him money to pay into his account.
Fani-Kayode's lawyer, Mr. Ifedayo Adedipe (SAN), pointed this out to him and Agbaje admitted that he had not written that Fani-Kayode gave him the money directly in his original statement to the EFCC which was made in 2008. He also said he often collected cash from the office in order to pay for official flight tickets, hotel bills and other protocol matters.
When asked if he could remember the specific amounts of cash that he collected for these duties he claimed he could not.
Fani-Kayode, a former Senior Special Assistant to former President Olusegun Obasanjo on Public Affairs, and former Minister of Culture and former Minister of Aviation, was re-arraigned before Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia for the fourth time over money laundering charges.
His re-arraignment was sequel to an amended 40-count charge filed by the prosecution on January 24, bordering on alleged offence for which he pleaded not guilty.
The accused was first arraigned sometime in December 2008 before Justice Ramat Mohammed on a 47-count charge which he pleaded not guilty to and was granted bail in the sum of N200 million with two sureties in like sum.
He was again re-arraigned before Justice Binta Murtala-Nyako, following the transfer of Justice Mohammed out of the Lagos Division. Later, he was re-arraigned before Justice Ajumogobia on February 11, 2013 after the transfer of Justice Murtala-Nyako.
Ajumogobia is now the third judge to be relieved of the case in the last six years, and the charge now bears 40 counts, after the EFCC dropped seven counts out of the original 47 counts.
In the charge, the accused was alleged to have transacted with funds exceeding N500,000 without going through a financial institution. He was also accused to have accepted cash payments to the tune of about N100 million, while he held sway as Minister of Aviation and Minister of Culture and Tourism respectively.
The offence is said to contravene the provisions of Sections 15(1) (a) (b) (c) (d) and 15 (2) (a) (b) of the Money Laundering (prohibition) Act, 2004. But the case against the accused started crumbling like a pack of cards when a third prosecution witness, Mr. Bashir Abdullahi, at a Federal High Court in Lagos, said there was no missing funds during his tenure as aviation minister.
During his evidence in-chief, Abdullahi who was an investigating police officer with the EFCC told the court that the case file of the accused was assigned to him in 2008, for investigation. He said a letter was written to the First Inland Bank to produce the bank statement of the accused, and same was deposited with the EFCC.
The witness told the court that during investigations, the accused was invited to the EFCC, where he made various statements in writing, as to the Aviation Intervention Fund (AIF) received during his tenure.
Led in cross-examination by the accused counsel, Adedipe, the witness told the court that investigations however revealed that no part of the funds was missing during the tenure of the accused.
"Our investigations revealed that a total of N19.5 billion was released as Aviation Intervention Fund, out of which a total of N8.5 billion was released during the tenure of Prof. Femi Aborishade, the predecessor of the accused.
“During the tenure of the accused, the sum of N11 billion was released and out of this sum, the accused disbursed a total of N3.8 billion, leaving a remainder of N7.2 billion in the ministry's account. Our investigations revealed that no part of the Aviation fund was missing during the tenure of the accused, and there was also no finding that the accused made any disbursement without due process," the witness said.
The witness also affirmed that the accused after his assumption of office had set up a committee to probe the disbursement of the AIF made by his predecessor. He said following the findings of the committee, a report was then sent to the National Security Adviser on the disbursements.
With the revelation of witnesses, especially when it became evident that the prosecution was going to lose the case, the sheet was amended to reflect that accused transacted with funds exceeding the threshold stipulated by the Money Laundering Act, without going through a financial institution.
Perhaps, this made the former minister to cry out recently when he accused the federal government of using his ongoing trial as a smear campaign to destroy his reputation. According to him, through its incessant and relentless persecution, the government has sought not to only make life uncomfortable for him but smear his good name and strip him of his dignity as well as diminish his status.
He pointed out that he has been arraigned no less than four times with the same 47 count charges before three different judges in the last five years. The former minister also said each time these charges are represented, he has had to be re-arraigned and take a fresh plea. The charges that were filed at that time are exactly the same charges that have been filed ever since.