Nigeria: Govt angry with UK over Udoamaka Okoronkwo

THE Federal Government has described as ridiculous and insulting, the Crown Court London imposition of stringent conditions for the extradition of Mrs. Udoamaka Okonkwo, standing trial in the case between the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Chief James Ibori,

the former governor of Delta State.

Recall that a UK Crown Court dealt a serious blow to a plan by the Umaru Yar’adua regime to persuade British authorities to hand over Ibori’s mistress, Udoamaka Okoronkwo (Onuigbo), to Nigeria in the stage-manage corruption trial of former Governor James Ibori at the Federal High Court Asaba.  

In efforts anchored by Yar’adua’s attorney general, Michael Aondoakaa, the Yar’adua regime told the British that Ms. Okoronkwo’s continued trial in England was stalling Ibori’s prosecution in Nigeria.In reality, the Yar’adua-Ibori-Aondoakaa plot is to frustrate the trial of Ibori’s mistress in the UK.

Okoronkwo is the second accused person in the case between the EFCC and the former Delta State governor, James Ibori. The British Crown Court Judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC refused to grant a fresh bail application filed by Ms. Okoronkwo’s new lawyers Byrne & Partners. The lawyers had argued that their client would like to “voluntarily return to Nigeria to clear her name.”

In rejecting the application, the judge ruled that it would be in the interest of justice for Okoronkwo to remain in the UK and face trial for money laundering The Southwark Crown Court judge also dismissed the pledge in an affidavit hurriedly composed by Steven Otitoju, new director of operations of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The affidavit stated that the EFCC would arrest and detain Okoronkwo throughout the duration of her trial in Asaba.

The UK judge was not persuaded by the EFCC’s promise. Reviewing the EFCC and Aondoakaa’s antecedents in the case, the judge indicated his reluctance to trust them. The trial is set to start in London in September 2009.

At the resumed hearing of the case at the Federal High Court, Asaba, Delta State yesterday, the lead counsel to the EFCC, Mr. Ibrahim Isiyaku (SAN), said that the position of the London Court, which was supposed to release Ms. Okoronkwo so as to enable her answer to the charges preferred against her was insulting to the Nigerian judiciary.

Counsel for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Mr. Ibrahim Ishyaku, informed the Federal High Court in Asaba, on Tuesday, that the London court initially requested an undertaking from the federal authorities that Mrs Okonkwo be arrested immediately she arrived in Nigeria and be kept in custody throughout her trial in the country. 

“To secure her presence, we made the undertaking but according to him, Crown Court, where Mrs. Okonkwo is presently standing trial, again, requested that the judge handling her case in Nigeria make the undertaking.He wondered how the judge could do so when the accused had never appeared in court.

Arguing further, Mr. Ishyaku sought to amend the charges proferred against the accused and to drop Mrs. Okonkwo in the matter as the only option to proceed in the case.This, he explained, would mean dropping some counts and amending others. But second leading defence counsel, Mr. Augustine Alegeh (SAN), said the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case preferred against Ibori and others.

Presiding Judge, Justice Marcel Awokulehin had on April 27, issued a bench warrant on Ms. Okoronkwo, the second accused person, to enable her appear before the court to answer to charges preferred against her by the Federal Government.

The commission’s lawyer told the court that the extradition process has become impossible following the request by the British Court that Justice Awokulehin should enter an undertaking on behalf of the fugitive.

Isiyaku remarked that the EFCC was considering dropping charges against the second accused person as well as to amend the 103-count charges preferred against the accused persons to enable the trial to commence properly.

Isiyaku was still introducing that aspect, saying that he could file the amended charges, when Ibori’s counsel, Mr. Austine Alegeh, stepped in and totally changed the face of the proceedings by informing the court that he was in the process of filing an application “for the court to quash all the charges contained in the further amendments filed by the prosecution.

“We believe that our application goes to the root of the matter and the issue of amending will have to wait because if the court does not have jurisdiction, then there will be nothing to amend. Our application can be taken in the absence of all the accused persons,” he said.

Alegeh argued that the charges are incompetent because they did not disclose a prima-facial case against the accused person, adding that there is no evidence to sustain the case.

He said the defendants were in the process of filing an application to quash all charges preferred against the accused. He told the court that the issue of amending the charges by the prosecutors, (EFCC) had to wait until their application was heard.

Apparently surprised by this development, Justice Awokuleyin, asked what the position in law is. Alege replied: “That is why we are applying for leave of the court.”

The Judge immediately granted the request, saying “if you are challenging my jurisdiction, then there is no point waiting for the charges to be amended.” He, therefore, adjourned the matter to August 6 to enable the counsel to file their written submissions and briefs.

The Ibori versus EFCC case was reassigned to the Federal High Court, Asaba as directed in a judgment by the Kaduna Court of Appeal. That landmark ruling stopped EFCC’s habit of choosing a judge to take a particular case to, and the Federal law enforcement agencies’ penchant for arraigning suspects outside the jurisdiction where an alleged crime was committed – just because the Federal High Court system is one.

Are these twists and turns in the Ibori trial in line with the reported People’s Democratic Party (PDP) agenda to make James Ibori President Yar’adua’s VP candidate in the 2011 selections. Ibori was recently Ibori chosen as a member of the ruling party’s “14-Elders Committee”.