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Missing Vessel: Accused Fault Panel Membership

Posted by By Abimbola Akosile and Eugene Agha on 2004/10/28 | Views: 1469 |

Missing Vessel: Accused Fault Panel Membership

Two of the three Navy Admirals yesterday arraigned before a seven-man military court martial in Lagos over alleged involvement in the unauthorised release of a seized crude-oil bunkering vessel, M.T. African Pride, faulted the panel's membership.

As Three Admirals Face Court Martial...

'You were put here to nail us'

Two of the three Navy Admirals yesterday arraigned before a seven-man military court martial in Lagos over alleged involvement in the unauthorised release of a seized crude-oil bunkering vessel, M.T. African Pride, faulted the panel's membership.

However, no charges were read out and no plea taken, despite defence counsel insistence that due procedure be followed in the trial, which opening lasted for about five hours at the NNS Quorra Naval Base, Apapa, Lagos.

The officers arraigned yesterday are Rear Admiral Anthonio Bob-Manuel, Deputy Com-mandant Command & Staff College, Jaji, Rear Admiral Francis Agbiti, Chief of Training & Operations, Nige-rian Navy, and Rear Admiral Samuel Kolawole, Flag Officer Commanding (FOC) Western Naval Command.

Represented by civilian defence counsel, the accused persons were arraigned before a military panel consisting of four Rear Admirals, a Major-General, an Air Vice-Marshal, and a Colonel.

The panel members included Rear Admirals Joseph Ajayi (President), Amos Adedeji (member), Christopher Ehamo (member), Anthony Oni (spare member), Colonel John Audu (Judge-Advocate), Air Vice-Marshal Samuel Odesola (member), and Major General Patrick Akpa (member).

Though Bob-Manuel (1st accused person) raised no objection to the composition of the panel, Kolawole and Agbiti alleged the panel was constituted to ensure their eventual conviction, as the members, whom they accused of likely bias, had prior knowledge of the matter.

Kolawole, in his objection, said Oni had on October 1st, on behalf of the Chief of Naval Staff (Vice-Admiral Samuel Afola-yan), authorised a signal that I should vacate my position. He is already aware of what is going on. I do not think that it is right for him to appear on the panel."

Agbiti, responding to a question on whether he had any objection to composition of the panel, declared, "Yes, I have objections, starting from President himself, because of possible bias against me. I also have reasons for my objections. You (Ajayi) phoned me in 2002, describing me as your problem in the Navy. I cannot be your problem".

"Recently, you claimed myself and Rear Admiral Adesokan connived to retire you from the Navy, even though I am only in charge of training. You also asked me to send one of your men for training overseas which I refused to do. I definitely believe you would not be just in handling any affair pertaining to me", Agbiti stated.

"Also in the case of Rear Admiral Oni, the image-destroying publication in the Insider magazine was sponsored by him. Even the Chief of Naval Staff had indicted him in an earlier meeting. If Rear-Admiral Oni was responsible for the publication, how fair can you be? I believe you were put here to nail me", he added.

Agbiti also picked holes in the rank of panel members. He said two of the panelists, Akpa and Odesola, were his peers at the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), adding that having obtained his promotion before them by three days (December 15 for him, and December 18 for the duo), his juniors should not sit on a panel to court-martial him, in accordance with Armed Forces Decree 105, Section 133, sub-section (3b).

Following the objections panel members hurriedly rose to deliberate on the issues raised, a process which lasted for two hours 15 minutes (3.50 - 6.05pm).

On resumption of sitting, Ajayi read out the panel's decision to over rule all the objections raised on various grounds of falsehood and lack of merit. The panel also overruled Kolawole's objection on the grounds that the signal to remove him from his position was duly authorised by the Chief of Naval Staff.

The panel members having taken their oath, the prosecution team, led by Brigadier-General Idada Ikpomuoen (rtd.) requested for a short adjournment to study at the charges and other documents properly, and examine the witnesses.

Defence team, comprising of Chief Bayo Ojo, SAN, current President, Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) and Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, immediate past president of NBA, however, asked that the charges be read to the accused persons, their pleas taken, and trial allowed to continue. They insisted that due process must be followed to ensure a fair trial.

"I am opposing the application for an adjournment. A charge has been served on us, which has to be read. Application is over-reaching. They (prosecution) brought us here and they should have prepared their case. I apply that the charge be read to the accused", Ojo (representing Bob-Manuel) said.

Olanipekun, Agbiti's counsel, declared, "I also object to the application for adjournment. Agbiti is a very senior member of the Armed Forces. I want to believe he is not being brought here for parade or display. We want to protest vehemently that my client is not denied the right to fair hearing. We are not waiving that right at all. The charge must be read and the plea taken before any other thing. That is a constitutional provision, which guarantees fair hearing".

Rear-Admiral Ajayi, panel President, however, said though it is a joint trial, the charges are not the same, and the prosecution needed time to prepare their case properly.

He thereafter adjourned the matter till Monday, November 1st, and asked the prosecution team to furnish the defence counsel with the necessary materials to enable them prepare for trial.

MT African Pride, arrested last year for illegal oil bunkering and detained by the Navy disappeared in controversial circumstances. Following the House of Repre-sentatives investigation into the vessel's disappearance, Admiral Afolayan who had initially alleged that the ship disappeared in police custody, authorised the court martial.

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