Appeal Court bars CCT Chairman from trial of ex-Customs controller

Danladi Umar

The Court of Appeal has said that even though the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Danladi Umar, was absolved by the Economic Crimes Commission (EFCC) in a bribery petition written against him by a former Controller, Apapa Area Command of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Rasheed Owolabi, the chairman cannot still participate in Owolabi’s trial in the false asset declaration charges against him.

The EFCC has since rescinded its decision and commenced the trial of Umar.

The appeal court on Friday said that the CCT Chairman would have a likelihood of bias against Owolabi because of the petition and the interrogation by the EFCC.

Delivering judgement in an appeal filed by Owolabi to challenge participation of the CCT boss in his trial, Justice Tinuade Akomolafe-Wilson said that the fundamental right of Owolabi to fair hearing can be breached should the CCT boss preside over his trial.

The court held that the issue of a fair trial is fundamental to the extent that it is enshrined in the nation’s constitution and as such cannot be waived aside.

The judge said that Owolabi in his petition to the EFCC and the investigation of the CCT boss may have humiliated the CCT boss to the extent that he would have a bias against the accuser who is standing trial before him.

To prevent the breach of the fundamental right to fair hearing, the judge said it is natural for Umar as a tribunal chairman not to preside over the trial of his accuser since it is against the law for a judge to preside in the trial of his accuser.

In the circumstances of the fact that the country has only one Code of Conduct Tribunal for now, the Appeal Court said that it is natural for the charges against Owolabi to be struck out pending the time, the tribunal would be reconstituted or after the expiration the chairman’s tenure. The court said that this is so because there is no time lag in the criminal trial even though the trial must be conducted within a reasonable time.

“I agree as contended by the appellant that in the circumstances of this case, any reasonable man seised with the facts and circumstances of this case will not hesitate to hold the view that it is impracticable for the appellant to get a fair trial in the Tribunal having the chairman adjudicating over this case in which the appellant is a defendant.

“In the peculiar circumstances of this case, the doctrine of necessity could warrant the suspension of the prosecution of the appellant until the term of the chairman has expired.

“On the whole having regard to the circumstances of this case, I am of the fervent view that the chairman excuses himself from hearing the charge against the appellant. In the meantime, the charge should be struck out pending when the tribunal is reconstituted with another chairman.

“I hereby set aside the decision of the Code of Conduct Tribunal delivered on the 20th of October 2016 and strike out the charge against the appellant pending when the tribunal is reconstituted with another chairman.”

Owolabi, who was also the Controller, Federal Operation Unit of (NCS) in Lagos, had in 2016 filed a motion praying for the CCT chairman to recuse from his trial because of the likelihood of bias against him following the petition on the alleged bribery he wrote against him (Umar).

However, the tribunal in its ruling delivered on October 20, 2016 refused to recuse the chairman from participating in Owolabi’s trial in the one count charge of false asset declaration brought by the federal government.