Prosecuting counsel, Mr. Charles Adeogun-Phillips, in a surprise move on Thursday, withdrew from the trial of a Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, who is being prosecuted by the Federal Government for money laundering charges involving over N500m.
Adeogun-Phillips, a private legal practitioner and a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, announced his decision to withdraw from the suit when the case came up for continuation of trial before Justice John Tsoho of the Federal High Court in Abuja on Thursday.
Sources close to the prosecution team confided in our correspondent that the withdrawal of Adeogun-Phillips from Ngwuta’s trial was “a mixture of protest and factors of the recent cold relationship between him and the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation”.
The protest by the lawyer was said to be against Tuesday’s dropping of charges earlier filed against the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Mr. Mr. Ahmed Saleh, and two other officials of the apex court.
The charges withdrawn by the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation against Saleh, Muhammed Abdulrahman Sharif and Rilwanu Lawal involved alleged diversion of N2.2bn belonging to the apex court.
The three Supreme Court officials were also accused of receiving gratifications totalling N74.4m from private contractors who were providing services to the Supreme Court between 2009 and 2016.
Adeogun-Phillips was engaged by the Federal Government to also lead the prosecution of the apex court’s officials but was absent when a lawyer from the Federal Ministry of Justice, Mrs Hajara Yusuf, announced the withdrawal of the charges before a High Court on Tuesday.
A source familiar with the handling of the judges’ and court officials’ cases said, “The Chief Registrar case is the biggest among these cases concerning judges but if you notice they were never arraigned.
“The claim that they dropped the charges so that he could be used as witness in Ngwuta’s trial is just a facade.
“The truth is that his evidence is not going to do much in Ngwuta’s case.
“Adeogun-Phillips noticed that the government was not ready to prosecute the Chief Registrar and others because all the three are northerners.
“He asked the authorities, ‘why do you prosecute one and leave the other? If we are fighting corruption let us know we are fighting corruption, if we are not, let us know we are not’.
“When he could no longer agree on a number of issues he had to quit.
“That was why despite the fact that he was the lead prosecuting counsel, the Chief Registrar’s case was withdrawn in his absence on Tuesday”.
But another source also told our correspondent that, “his withdrawal from Ngwuta’s trial on Thursday was an inevitable end because of recent, he disagreed more than he agreed with AGF office”.
The spokesperson for the AGF and the National Prosecution Coordinating Committee, Mr. Salihu Isah, could not be reached for his comment on Thursday as repeated calls made to him indicated that his line was not available.
Adeogun-Phillips announced his withdrawal before the case was called by the court’s registrar on Thursday.
After adjourning some other cases, Justice Tsoho had asked if both the prosecuting and the defence teams, were ready for trial of the apex court’s judge.
Adeogun-Phillips, in response, rose to tell the judge that he had decided to withdraw from the case.
The lawyer gave no reason for his decision, but he sat back till when the case was eventually called by the court’s registrar.
When the case was called, Mrs. Hajara Yusuf, a counsel from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions of the Federation, took over as the leader of the prosecuting team.
Informing the judge of the change, she said, “I have been instructed to inform the court that Mr. Charles Adeogun-Phillips, the lead prosecuting counsel, will not longer be appearing in this matter.
“In view of this change, myself and my colleagues will be appearing subject to the reconstitution of the team in due course.”
The judge thanked Adeogun-Phillips for his “courtesy” of appearing in person to inform the court of his decision.
“He is wished success in his further endeavours,” the judge said.
The defence lead counsel, Chief Kanu Agabi (SAN), described the erstwhile prosecuting counsel as a man he loved and respected so much.
Adeogun-Phillips remained seated with the new prosecuting team in the front row till the end of Thursday’s proceedings.
He also declined to speak on his withdrawal from the case when asked about it by journalists at the end of the proceedings.
The trial was adjourned till February 13, after the the defence asked the first prosecution witness, Mr. Nwamba Chukwuebuka, a few questions.
Chukwuebuka, a building contractor, had in his evidence-in-chief on January 18, narrated to the court how he was paid a total amount of N313m within nine months by Justice Ngwuta for the building of three sets of houses.
Chukwuebuka said the houses were built in the Abakaliki and Onicha areas of Ebonyi State, the apex court Justice’s home state.