8 August 2012

Nigeria: Lessons From London Courts


The recent verdict by a London High Court against the former Managing Director of the defunct Intercontinental Bank Plc, Erastus Akingbola, has once again brought to the fore the problems associated with the Nigerian legal system.

The verdict, the second this year in the major trials of high profile Nigerians in London courts, also shows how justice is dispensed quickly and diligently in record time, no matter the personality involved. The first was the conviction of the former Governor of Delta State, James Ibori, who was hitherto discharged and acquitted on similar charges of money laundry by a Nigerian court.

Last week's court ruling followed a legal action instituted by Access Bank Plc against Akingbola and five companies, allegedly owned by him, for alleged misappropriation of the banks' funds. Access Bank Plc acquired Intercontinental Bank Plc following the latter's collapse in 2009. Mr Akingbola was therefore ordered by the High Court of Justice, Queens Bench Division in London, to refund N164 billion to Access Bank Plc. The sum was the proceeds of unlawful share purchase scheme and fund misappropriation, which he converted to personal use during his tenure as the chief executive officer of the defunct bank. The court held that he devised, and presided over the implementation of, a strategy to buy Intercontinental Bank's shares but lied that he did not know that the bank was buying its own shares. He had borrowed N9.3 billion to purchase a large quantity of the bank's shares for himself, the court declared. Furthermore, Akingbola was found guilty of misappropriating N16 billion that he paid to a business concern owned by his family, Tropics Companies, to repay debts owned by companies that were personally guaranteed by him. He was also found to have misappropriated another £8.5 million, which was paid to his English solicitors to complete the purchase of luxury properties in London in his name.

Clearly, Akingbola's conduct depicted how the banking sector in Nigeria is being abused with impunity and a clear diversion of public funds to personal use. But for the swift intervention of the Central Bank of Nigeria which sacked five chief executives of banks in August 2009 over alleged breach of corporate governance practices, the Nigerian banking sector would have been thrown into a far worse crisis. Akingbola's conviction was a clear vindication of the apex bank's decision which was hitherto criticised, mostly by those behind the crimes. No doubt, the UK judicial system deserves commendation for at least exposing the heinous activities of a cabal that has been fleecing this nation. It is, however, a sad commentary on the state of the Nigerian judiciary which has over the years failed to significantly convict high profile personalities brought before it on charges of financial crimes and other related offences. This is mostly attributed to several factors, chief among which are corruption in the legal system, poor legal procedures, executive interference and bureaucratic bottlenecks.

It is therefore expected that the landmark judgement in the United Kingdom would at least help accelerate the ongoing criminal trials of Mr Akingbola at both the Lagos High Court and the Federal High Court. The current snail pace approach to the cases does not portend any seriousness on the part of both the prosecuting body--the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)--and the courts. As Akingbola's counsel hinted of a possible appeal against the London verdict, it would not surprise many Nigerians if the appellate court in the UK delivers its judgement before the Nigerian courts conclude the ongoing N47 billion criminal trials against Akingbola.

Our judiciary seems to be oblivious of the maxim "Justice delayed is justice denied". This is one area that the new Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mariam Alooma Mukhtar, has to act upon quickly. The existing Nigeria legal process should be a source of worry to all stakeholders in the system as it derails the dispensation of justice and sends a bad signal to the international community.

The National Assembly too could play a significant role in facilitating reform in the judiciary for the good of the country. Until our legal system changes for good, the current fight against corruption would remain a mirage.

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