The scheduled arraignment of a sitting judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa, for alleged unlawful enrichment to the tune of $260,000 and N8,650,000, failed on Tuesday as the accused judge was absent in court.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission had filed 14 counts against the judge before the Lagos State High Court in Igbosere.
In the charges, the anti-graft agency alleged that the judge unlawfully enriched himself as a public official by allegedly receiving a total of $260,000 and N8.65m through his bank account between 2013 and 2015.
The EFCC claimed that the judge could not explain the source of the funds, adding that he acted contrary to Section 82(a) of the Criminal Law of Lagos State, No. 11, 2011.
The judge was also accused of giving false information to operatives of the EFCC, which, the prosecution said, amounted to an offence under Section 39(2) of the EFCC (Establishment) Act, 2014.
Justice Nganjiwa had been scheduled to appear before Justice A.A. Akintoye on Tuesday to answer to the charges.
But when the case was called on Tuesday he was nowhere to be found.
His lawyer, Chief Robert Clarke (SAN), however, explained to Justice Akintoye that the failure of his client to appear in court for his arraignment was due to his inability to get a flight from Bayelsa State, where he is based, to Lagos.
“With the greatest respect, I have to apologise for the absence of the defendant. He’s a sitting judge of the Federal High Court in Bayelsa. He phoned me yesterday that he could not get a flight from Bayelsa and asked me to profusely apologise to Your Lordship and to assure Your Lordship that on the next adjourned date he will appear. Today’s absence is not a deliberate act of the defendant,” Clarke said.
The SAN also complained about the failure of the EFCC to attach the title ‘Justice’ to his client’s name on the charge sheet, saying he had already filed a notice or preliminary objection to challenge the charge and to urge the court to dismiss it.
However, counsel for the EFCC, Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo, expressed the disappointment of the prosecution over Justice Nganjiwa’s absence, alleging that it was willful and an attempt to frustrate the expeditious trial of the case.
Oyedepo said, “We are extremely disappointed by the willful refusal of the defendant to appear before Your Lordship.
“On the 9th of June, the defendant was served with the charge, which he acknowledged. He was also duly informed of the proceedings before My Lord today. It is an act of disrespect for the defendant not to appear before this court.”
On the failure to attach the title ‘Justice’ to Nganjiwa’s name on the charge sheet, Oyedepo said, “The issue as to the status of the defendant is not an issue before My Lord.
“As a matter of fact, all animals are equal. The status of the defendant has nothing to do with his appearance before Your Lordship. His decision not to appear before Your Lordship is deliberate and is an attempt to frustrate the expeditious trial of this case.”
However, Clarke urged the judge to disregard Oyedepo’s claim that his Justice Nganjiwa deliberately stayed away from the court on Tuesday, saying the prosecution had nothing to prove his claim.
Responding, Justice Akintoye said she would give the accused judge the benefit of the doubt.
Clarke, while arguing his client’s preliminary objection to the charges, contended that Justice Akintoye lacked the jurisdiction to entertain the case because, according to him, only the National Judicial Council had the power to deal with the kind of allegations brought against Justice Nganjiwa, who is a serving judge by virtue of Section 158 of the constitution.
But in opposition, Oyedepo argued that Justice Nganjiwa had no immunity from prosecution from criminal trial, stressing that the power of the NJC was only administrative.
“We must be bold enough to concede that the NJC has administrative power in the appointment and administrative discipline of a judicial officer. But Section 158 of the Constitution did not clothe the applicant with immunity from criminal trial.
“While the act complained about can amount to misconduct that can weigh on the mind of the NJC in recommending the removal of the applicant from office, that same misconduct that has constituted an offence in Lagos State is still liable to be determined by this court,” Oyedepo argued.
Justice Akintoye adjourned till June 23 for ruling, with a note that Justice Nganjiwa must appear before her on that day.