HISTORY OF THE TRIAL, AND LESSONS FOR THE NATION
By the time the history of criminal trial in the country is written, the trial of Major Hamza Al-Mustapha and his co-defendants indicted for the June 4, 1996 murder of late Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, wife of late, Chief MKO Abiola, will occupy a significant space. Whatever the outcome of the judgment, it can only be anti-climax of an unusual trial that has lasted for 12 years.
It is one trial that has witnessed a lot of drama, emotions, sentiments and legal gymnastics (apology to the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAN).
In the beginning, Al-Mustapha, Lateef Shofolahan, Rabo Lawal and Mohammed Abacha, son of late head of state, General Sani Abacha in December 1999 were brought before the then Chief Magistrate Paul Gbogodo of Ikeja Magistrate Court, Lagos where they were charged with conspiracy and murder over the assassination of Kudirat Abiola.
The charge before the magistrate court was holden charge to give legal backing to their incarceration pending when they would be arraigned before a competent court of jurisdiction.
The pioneer chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Nuhu Ribadu, led the prosecution at the magistrate court on behalf of the police.
Early in the year 2000, the accused persons were formally arraigned before the then Chief Judge of Lagos State, retired Justice Christopher Segun.
No sooner had the trial commenced than the matter started experiencing hitches. The climax of the trial before Justice Segun was his decision to disqualify himself from the matter following an application brought by counsel to Abacha, Joseph Bodunrin Daudu (SAN) (now the president of Nigeria Bar Association).
The defence counsel had raised allegations of bias against the respected chief judge over his refusal to allow the accused persons to sit down in the dock.
The drama that led to the application asking Justice Segun to hands off the trial was initiated by late Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), the late Chief Clement Akpamgbo (SAN) who led the defence via oral application to the court to allow the accused persons sit in the dock during proceedings.
The trial judge obviously was taken aback at such application and instantly retorted: 'No! No! What kind of application is that? I cannot allow criminals to sit down in my court.'
Daudu who never uttered a word while the drama lasted made the most of it by using it as the basis of his application asking the trial judge to decline trial hands of the matter.
Justice Segun noted for his no-nonsense stance did not waste time in acceding to the request. He merely stood the matter down for a few minutes before he delivered his ruling. He promptly transferred the case to a female judge, Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun (now of the Court of Appeal).
The trial before Justice Kekere-Ekun commenced smoothly with all the accused persons pleading not guilty. The prosecution was led by the erudite Professor Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), the then Attorney-General of Lagos State supported by a respectable prosecutor, Fola Arthur-Worrey (now the Executive Secretary, Lagos State Security Trust Fund).
Akpamgbo, Daudu, Yakubu Mikyau, Bala Ibn Na'Allah and Kaloma Ali (former Minister of mineral resources) held the fort for the defence.
The proceedings before Justice Kekere-Ekun suffered a major setback when Daudu again brought an application asking the court to discharge Abacha from the trial. The application was predicated on the ground that the charge of accessory after the fact of murder preferred against Abacha cannot stand since the charge of the murder has not been proven.
After series of fireworks from counsel on both sides, Justice Kekere-Ekun overruled Daudu. Not done, Daudu tenaciously pursued the application to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court where he eventually got his request.
The apex court on July 11, 2002 gave the verdict in favour of Abacha thus discharging him from the trial.
It should be noted that while Daudu was pursuing Abacha's application at the appellate court, he brought an application before the trial court for stay of proceedings pending the determination of his application at the higher court.
Justice Kekere-Ekun eventually granted the application for stay of proceedings in the matter in spite of heated opposition from the prosecution.
As a direct consequence of the stay, the trial was kept in the cooler for a long time until the Supreme Court's decision that discharged Abacha from the trial having upheld Daudu's position.
The highly industrious Justice Kekere-Ekun hardly commenced the trial afresh with Abacha's name deleted from the charge when she was moved to the Court of Appeal from Lagos High Court. Her elevation created another setback for the trial as a new judge, Justice Mojisola Dada, was to commence the trial de novo (afresh).
Worthy of note is the attitude of parties to the trial. The defence team traversed all the latitude permissible under our legal system to slow down the trial. The attitude of the defence could be likened to that of an experienced boxer who prefers to wear his opponent down gradually before delivering the killer punch at the slightest opportunity.
Olalekan Ojo who inherited the case has proven to be a master in this art and to his credit, Rabo Lawal, one of the accused persons had been set free by Justice Dada on account of a formidable no case submission.
On the prosecution side, it should be noted the change of government in Lagos State in 2007 which made Osinbajo to quit as Attorney-General after a most productive and result oriented eight years left a yawning vacuum in the prosecution of the matter. It should be pointed out that the star witness for the prosecution, Barnabas Jabila popularly known as Sergeant Rogers who had earlier confessed to personally shooting the late Abiola in his statement before the Special Investigation Panel (SIP) during the investigation of the crime in 1999 later came to court to make a 360 degree u-turn and recanted in 2009. His co-prosecution witness, Muhammed Abdul (Abacha's driver) who had earlier corroborated Rogers' evidence by confessing that he actually drove Rogers on the mission to assassinate Abiola also recanted his earlier testimony before the SIP.
The change of testimonies of the two principal witnesses no doubt affected the entire trial.
Perhaps, the greatest lesson to be learnt from this unusual trial is that our law relating to criminal justice system needs serious reforms. The famous trial of OJ Simpson in the US over his alleged complicity in the murder of his wife was concluded within a year but the Americans viewed the length of the trial which was over nine months as sacrilegious and unacceptable. Collectively, they said never again would they allow their system to permit such 'lengthy' trial.
The recent trial and conviction of Dr Conrad Murray, physician to late musical icon, Michael Jackson was concluded within four months evidence of the seriousness and commitment of the American people towards speedy dispensation of justice.
In Nigeria, stakeholders in our justice system must take a holistic view at this case and go back to the draw board with a view to say no to this kind of legendary delay in our justice system. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.