In the Supreme Court of Nigeria
Holden at Abuja
On Friday, the 3rd day of March, 2023
Before Their Lordships
Kudirat Motonmori Olatokunbo Kekere-Ekun
Uwani Musa Abba Aji
Ibrahim Mohammed Musa Saulawa
Emmanuel Akomaye Agim
Justices, Supreme Court
GBENGA OJO APPELLANT
FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA RESPONDENT
(Lead Judgement delivered by Honourable Uwani Musa Abba Aji, JSC)
The Appellant (as the Vice Chairman of the Akure North Local Government Council) was made the Chairman of the Planning Committee set up by the then Chairman of Akure North Local Government Council, to organise events to host the visit of the then Governor of Ondo State to Akure North Local Government Council. In furtherance of this purpose, the sum of N1,300,000.00 was approved and released to the Committee. The Appellant and another person were alleged to have misappropriated N70,000.00 and N90,000.00 respectively, out of the money disbursed for the Governor’s visit. This was what formed the basis of a three-count charge, for which the Appellant was charged before the High Court of Ondo State. At the end of the trial, the Appellant was found guilty on all the three counts, and sentenced to five years imprisonment with an option of N2 million fine on each count.
While the Appellant paid the aggregate sum of N6million as fine, he filed an appeal at the Court of Appeal (the “lower court”) challenging the decision of the trial court. The lower court allowed the appeal on counts 2 and 3 but upheld the conviction of the Appellant on count 1 of the charge of making false statement in respect of N70,000.00 belonging to the Akure North Local Government Council and received by him, by claiming that part of the money was disbursed to security agents of the Governor of Ondo State for the fuelling of their vehicles, contrary to Section 16 of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act 2000. Aggrieved, the Appellant filed a further appeal to the Supreme Court.
Issues for Determination
The Appellant submitted two issues for determination, which were adopted by the Respondent, for the Apex Court’s determination, to wit:
1. Whether the lower court was not wrong in holding that the Appellant did not suffer miscarriage of justice or breach of right to fair hearing or fair trial, by the way the learned trial Judge wrote the judgement in this case?
2. Whether the lower court was not wrong to have affirmed the conviction of the Appellant on count one of the information in this case?
Counsel for the Appellant submitted on the first issue, that the lower court erred in law when it held that the approach of the trial Judge to make damaging conclusions against the Appellant before reviewing the case of the parties, did not occasion a denial of fair hearing or miscarriage of justice. He cited OSUAGWU v THE STATE (2013) ALL FWLR (PT. 672) at 1625-1626 in support.
In rebuttal, the Respondent’s counsel contended that while there is a recommended style of writing judgements, the individual style of a Judge is not conclusive proof that the judgement is wrong. Counsel submitted that the Appellant was wrong to equate the manner the judgement was written with the premeditation of guilt and lack of fair hearing, in neglect of the weighty evidence against the Appellant. Respondent’s counsel further argued that, the emphasis should be that the prosecution should prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. He relied on IBEH v STATE (20010 2 ACLR at 386.
On the second issue, the Appellant’s counsel argued that the trial court failed to properly evaluate the oral testimonies of the relevant witnesses on count 1. His argument was that the Appellant signed Exhibit 6C or F in good faith, on behalf of the Chief Security Officer to the then Governor (PW2), Personal Assistant to the Governor (PW4) and Aide De-Camp (PW7) as acknowledgment that the money was delivered to them. Counsel further argued that the determinant factor of whether money was disbursed should have been the evidence adduced by both parties and since the evidence from DW2 and DW3 (the Appellant’s witnesses) go to confirm that money was indeed disbursed to the Governor’s aides, count 1 could not be said to have been proved beyond reasonable doubt. On this premise, he urged the Court to allow the appeal, discharge and acquit the Appellant.
Reacting to the foregoing, the Respondent’s counsel submitted that the signing for another is indicated with “for” and as such, the person who signs for another assumes full responsibility for the implication of such document signed. He argued that by the Exhibit 6C or F which were meant to be signed by the beneficiaries of the disbursements as proof that they received the money, the Appellant had only signed on behalf of others who claimed that they did not collect their money. He submitted that it was not the law to debunk reliable evidence in a document, with contradictory oral testimonies. He cited IKEM v VIDAH PACKAGING LTD (2011) ALL FWLR (PT. 601) 1506.
Court’s Judgement and Rationale
In determining the first issue, as to the style adopted by the trial court in writing its judgement by first coming to specific conclusions on the guilt of Appellant on counts 2 and 3 before a review and evaluation of the case of the parties, the Apex Court held that once a judgement complies with the constitutional provision and components/requirements of a valid judgement, the judgement cannot be attacked by a party on ground of style of writing, save where there is a miscarriage of justice. What is essential is that the Judge should show a clear understanding of the facts in the case and the issues involved, as well as knowledge of the applicable law, and from all this, he is able to draw the right conclusions and make a correct finding on the evidence before him. Once these essential elements are present in the judgement, it will not matter what method was employed in writing the judgement. The Court referred to its decision in REVEREND KING v STATE (2016) LPELR-40046 (SC) PP.56 PARA. B.
The Court held that although the trial court’s approach may appear to be some sort of pre-judgement or premeditated conclusion which ought not to have been done by the trial Judge, it has not been shown to have occasioned any miscarriage of justice to the Appellant in any way. The “damaging conclusions” insinuated by the Appellant cannot affect the validity of the judgement delivered, except the Appellant has suffered some injustice therefrom.
In its determination of the second issue, the Apex Court considered the veracity of the Appellant’s testimony that he signed Exhibit 6C or F on behalf of PW2, PW4 and PW7 as proof that the sums were delivered to them because they were in a hurry to leave with the Governor, vis-à-vis conflicting evidence by the said PW2, PW4 and PW7 that they did not receive any money from the Appellant. The Court held that where there are conflicting or different versions of oral testimonies from the prosecution and the defence, it is documentary evidence that can resolve such a conflict; and similarly, where there are conflicts in documentary evidence, oral evidence is called to resolve same. In essence, where documentary evidence supports oral testimony, oral testimony becomes more credible.
The Apex Court reasoned that given that the oral testimonies of PW2, PW4 and PW7 that the money was not disbursed to them by the Appellant, sharply conflicts with the oral testimonies of the Appellant’s witnesses that the money was disbursed to them, it was only documentary evidence that could resolve the conflict. This is premised on the position of the law that, documentary evidence serves as a hanger from which to assess oral testimony. The Court placed reliance on its decision in ODUNLAMI v NIGERIAN NAVY (2013) LPELR-20701 (SC) (PP. 32 PARAS C. In the result, the Court held that an examination of Exhibit 6C or F clearly shows that the Appellant signed money for himself and not on behalf of the Governor’s aides. The conflict in the oral testimonies before the trial court as to the purported disbursements must therefore, be resolved to the effect that the Appellant did not give the Governor’s aides the money allocated to them as he claimed, based on the content and representation in Exhibit 6C or F. The court held further that in line with the principle that the burden is on the prosecution in a criminal charge to establish the guilt of an accused person beyond reasonable doubt, the evidence before the trial court showed beyond reasonable doubt that the Appellant made a false statement regarding the disbursement of money to those particular security aides for the fuelling of their vehicles. The Court of Appeal was thus, right, to affirm the Appellant’s conviction on count 1 of the charge.
Dr Olukayode Ajulo, Esq. with Tauyyib Kayode Shittu, Esq. and Patrick Emmanuel, Esq. for the Appellant
O. G. Iwuagwu, Esq., Chief Legal Officer ICPC, with Z. S. Oass, Esq. CLO ICPC for the Respondent
Reported by Optimum Publishers Limited, Publishers of the Nigerian Monthly Law Report (NMLR)(An affiliate of Babalakin & Co.)
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