by Halimah Yahya
The trial of the Director-General of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Ishaq Kawu, was on Monday stalled due to the absence of the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed.
Mr Kawu is standing trial for alleged abuse of office and laundering of N2.5 billion.
Mr Mohammed was scheduled to appear as a prosecution witness before the Federal High Court in Abuja.
He was meant to explain his role in the alleged misapplication of the N2.5 billion funds for the federal government’s Digital Switch-Over (DSO) programme.
The Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), in February, filed a 12-count charge before a judge, Folashade Ogunbanjo-Giwa, against Mr Kawu, Lucky Omoluwa, and Dipo Onifade, the Chairman and Chief Operating Officer of Pinnacle Communications Limited respectively, for allegedly misappropriating N2.5 billion.
Mr Mohammed had earlier told ICPC investigators that he was “deceived” into approving the project, according to the commission’s spokesperson, Rasheedat Okoduwa, implying the minister did not do due diligence before signing off on the project.
His defendant’s counsel, Akeem Mustapha, had also filed an application praying the court to allow the NBC boss to travel to Sharm El-Sheik in Egypt, venue of a conference scheduled for October 28 to November 22.
The ICPC said Mr Mohammed would only appear as a witness, effectively excluding him from the alleged crime.
During the court session on Monday, the lawyer representing the ICPC, E Otti, said the matter was for continuation of trial but pleaded with the court that two of the prosecution witnesses to be presented to the court were absent.
Mr Otti said the minister had informed them that he would not be in court and that the other witness, a Bureau de Change operator, Sabo Shuaibu, travelled to Dubai.
The prosecution then prayed the court for an adjournment.
The first defendant’s (Kawu Modibbo) counsel, Mr Mustapha, while responding urged the court to make it clear to the prosecution that they have just one more adjournment, which they would either have to produce their remaining witnesses or close their case.
The counsel to the second and third defendant, Jovi Oguojiafor, on his part drew the attention of the court to the fact that on the last adjourned date, “the prosecution had asked for adjournment, stating clearly that they would bring their witness today and close their case but we are here today and they are stating the same reason given the last time.
“They are taking us on a roller coaster ride and the plea for adjournment is another ploy to waste the precious time of the court,” he added.
The fourth defendant counsel, Ama Etuwewe, aligned himself to the submission of the second and third defendant.
Mr Etuwewe said the counsel representing the prosecution on October 2 specifically said they would bring their witnesses on Monday and close their case.
“We urge Your Lordship to foreclose them and allow the defence to open their defence,” Mr Etuwewe added.
Mr Etuwewe reminded the court of the fact that on May 9, the prosecution called one witness, May 27 two witnesses, June 3 no witness, July 4 no witness and October 2 no witness.
He added that in those days, the prosecution pleaded for an adjournment to produce his remaining two witnesses.
Trying to portray his argument, the prosecution counsel said “statutorily we have taken three adjournments with today’s own making it the fourth, it’s just that we are having challenges with the witnesses, they are not our staff,” he lamented.
Giving a short ruling, the judge, Folashade Ogunbanjo- Giwa said the court could not at the moment ascertain the records of adjournment taken by the prosecution counsel, and assured that she would check the court’s record.
Mrs Ogunbanjo-Giwa warned the prosecution counsel to desist from the way it is handling the matter, adding that the trial must be in accordance with the provisions of Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015.
“You cannot continue this way, the manner in which you are conducting this matter is not beneficial to the case.
“If you are interested in prosecuting this matter, please bring your witnesses to court on the next adjourned date.
“Now that the defendants are urging the court to foreclose the case of the complainant, you should see the handwriting on the wall.
“A word is enough for the wise. Please make your witnesses available in court on the next adjourned date. Sincerely, it cannot be in the interest of the prosecution if this case continues this way,” the judge warned.
Consequently, she adjourned the case to December 3, 4, and 5.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with more details regarding the minister’s claim he was deceived into signing the deal.