SaharaReporters has obtained a copy of a fraudulent court judgment secretly arranged in 2008 by Delta State Deputy Governor, Amos Agbe Utuama, as part of a scheme to intimidate the media and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Mr. Utuama, a former professor of law who served as state attorney general and Commissioner for Justice under former Governor James Ibori, obtained the fraudulent judgment from a Delta State High Court.
One of several Nigerian lawyers who reviewed the judgment for SaharaReporters described it as “an apparent attempt by Professor Utuama to pervert the course of justice and tie the hands of the media in ever investigating and reporting his collusion with Ibori in any acts of corruption, including money laundering.”
In the ostensible judgment, Justice Marshal Umukoro of the Delta State High Court in Oleh perpetually barred a non-existent defendant from writing or publishing anything on Mr. Utuama at the expiration of the deputy governor’s tenure in office.
In its judgment, Justice Umukoro of the Oleh High Court said the writ of summons was filed on October 29, 2008 and that served the said Jackson Efe on October 31, 2008, along with the statement of claim. The address for the service was given as No.10, IDC Road, Oleh, Isoko South local government area of Delta state.
On January 20, 2009, the plaintiffs applied for the suit to be scheduled for hearing. The court claimed that a date was fixed and a hearing notice issued and duly served on the said defendant on February 9, 2009. The court stated that the defendant, “Jackson Efe,” neither entered appearance nor engaged any counsel to represent him. The court also stated that Mr. “Efe” did not appear in court.
But investigations by SaharaReporters found that the so-called defendant never lived at the address given for him, nor was there proof that he existed.
“It seems as if we have a legal ruse concocted by Professor Utuama,” said one lawyer who looked at the outcome of our investigations. “This may be the act of a man who knows that he might be arrested and prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for participating in illegal activities and abuse of office,” added the legal consultant. He described Justice Umukoro’s role in the scheme as “shameful and deplorable.”
Three defendants, Johnson Elendu, the Elendu Group and Jackson Efe, were initially listed in the case. However, at the instance of the plaintiffs’ counsel, E.O. Ohwovoriole, the case against the first two defendants was withdrawn. In moving for the withdrawal, the plaintiffs’ counsel said he was unable to serve summons on the 1st and 2nd defendants who were resident abroad.
In his lawsuit, Mr. Utuama asked for several declarations:
1. That there is no law, including the Code of Conduct for Public Officers, prohibiting a public officer from having an interest in a private business or law firm. 2. That the 1st plaintiff, Prime Chambers, has the right to carry on its registered business of general legal practices, research and consultancy even when its founder has assumed public office. 3. A declaration that in the circumstances of this case, payment of legal fees to named, existing reputable legal practitioners, Senior Advocates of Nigeria, retired jurists in the team coordinated by the 1st plaintiff is not illegal. 4. A declaration that the defendant’s publications, headed “Delta Deputy Governor Made Billions As Attorney-General” and “Delta Deputy Governor Enriched Judiciary,” were libelous.
Mr. Utuama sought N500 million as damages for libel published by the defendants and an order of perpetual injunction restraining the defendant, agents, servants, or privies from further publishing or causing to be published any libelous publication against the plaintiffs.
One of the plaintiffs’ witnesses, Ayo Asala, identified as a legal practitioner and director of legal services at Prime Chambers, told the court that the Mr. Efe was a diploma law student at Delta State University, Oleh Campus, and a human rights activist under the banner of National Democratic Defenders. Mr. Asala said he visited the Oleh campus of the university on August 8, 2009, and found a publication being circulated with the letterhead of National Democratic Defenders. He said the publications, signed by Mr. Efe, read, “How Delta Deputy Governor Enriched himself and Judiciary.”
Our investigation revealed that Mr. Utuama secretly filed his lawsuit at the height of the trial of Mr. Ibori before the Federal High Court in Kaduna on several counts of money laundering. In a statement of claims by the 1st and 2nd plaintiffs obtained from the High Court in Oleh by our reporter, the plaintiffs accused the defendant, “Jackson Efe,” of publishing that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had arraigned Mr. Ibori and five others for financial crimes but left out some other participants in Mr. Ibori’s alleged criminal activities. The rogue plaintiffs further accused Mr. “Efe” of stating that Mr. Utuama may have acquired immunity from prosecution by being sworn in as the deputy governor of Delta State on May 29, 2007.
The plaintiffs accused the non-existent Mr. “Efe” of linking Mr. Utuama, as the Delta State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in the Ibori administration (1999-2007), with the former governor’s corrupt schemes. The lawsuit specifically charged the fake defendant with asserting that counts 4 to 23 of the money laundering case against Mr. Ibori in Kaduna alleged that Mr. Utuama conspired with the former governor to steal various huge sums of money from Delta State.
The plaintiffs further claimed that the so-called defendant had also published that some of Nigeria’s big commercial banks as well as Swiss and other European banks played roles in the financial crimes.
One of our sources described the court process as “deceptive from start to finish.” In a twenty-eight page judgment, Justice Umukoro claimed that Mr. Utuama had mounted the witness box and denied being engaged in the management of Prime Chambers during the period he held public office. The court then stressed that Mr. Utuama neither committed any crime nor used Prime Chambers to commit any crime.
In the bizarre judgment, Justice Umukoro exonerated the plaintiffs, Mr. Utuama as well as his law firm, Prime Chambers, of any complicity in the extensive money laundering scheme that later earned Mr. Ibori a 13-year jail sentence in a maximum security prison in London. Justice Umukoro declared that there was no law, including the Code of Conduct for public officers, prohibiting a public officer from having an interest in a private business or a law firm.
The judge further declared that the 1st plaintiff, Prime Chambers, “has the right to carry on its registered business of general legal practices, research and consultancy even when its founder has assumed public office.”
Justice Umukoro also declared that, “in the circumstances of this case, payment of legal fees to named, existing reputable legal practitioners, Senior Advocates of Nigeria, retired Jurists in the team coordinated by the 1st plaintiff is not illegal.”
In a twist that our legal consultant called “sad and laughable,” Justice Umukoro declared “that the defendant, Jackson Efe, is liable to pay the sum of five million naira as damages for libel he published against the plaintiffs.” The judge then issued a “perpetual injunction restraining the defendant, agents, servants, or privies from further publishing or causing to be published any libelous publication against the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs are entitled to costs assessed at ten thousand naira only.”
On a tip-off from a source at the law court, SaharaReporters carried out a series of investigations to track down the so-called defendant. But when our correspondent checked at Mr. “Efe’s” purported address, 10 IDC Road, Oleh, the landlord revealed that he never had any tenant with the name of Jackson Efe, or anything close to that name.
“Ever since my compound was built I have never admitted any student as a tenant on this my property and in case you are in doubt, you are free to ask people around here,” said the landlord.
Another independent search carried out at the Oleh campus of the Delta State University revealed that there was no diploma or full-time student with the name of Jackson Efe.
“There’s no question that this so-called case by Professor Utuama is a big legal scam committed by a high court judge in connivance with the deputy governor,” said a lawyer based in Asaba, the Delta State capital.
SaharaReporters also interviewed court officials in Oleh, including two lawyers who stated that most of their appearances were in that court system. All sources told SaharaReporters that there was never a time in 2008 or thereafter that the deputy governor appeared in court in Oleh to testify in any lawsuit.
SaharaReporters also discovered that the bailiff never provided any evidence of serving any court summons on “Jackson Efe.” Yet, Justice Umukoro proceeded to give the impression that “Jackson Efe” actually existed. A source at the court alleged that Justice Umukoro had hidden the case file from public knowledge, and that the judge took the file to another court when he was briefly transferred from Oleh.
Neither Mr. Utuama’s lawsuit nor the judgment mentioned the platform or medium used by the mysterious “Jackson Efe” to ostensibly defame or libel the deputy governor. Earlier in the case, two other defendants whose names were given as “Johnson Elendu” and “ElenduGroup” were dropped from the case because the court could not physically serve them papers to appear.
Other lawyers who reviewed Justice Umukoro’s so-called judgment said they were shocked that the judge was willing to engage in a self-evident scam. “How can a judge take part in this kind of legal malady by trying a case that has no defendants and then giving a judgment?” said one of the lawyers. “The participants have further tainted the image of the judiciary,” he added. Another lawyer said she hoped appropriate disciplinary action would be taken against the judge. “Any member of the bench who takes part in this kind of scheme deserves to be booted,” she said.