James Ocholi, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria reliably described as one of President Muhammadu Buhari’s top picks for appointment as Nigeria’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, represents several controversial clients including an Indian accused of defrauding several Nigerian banks of billions of naira, a former Managing Director of Finbank, Okey Nwosu, who is undergoing prosecution for questionable financial transactions, and a university professor from Kogi State currently facing trial over his suspected links with an Islamist terrorist group whose attacks have claimed thousands of Nigerian lives and led to billions of naira in damages.
One source within the Presidency told SaharaReporters that President Buhari was receiving “very bad advice” from some of the associates he trusts most when it comes to appointments. “If he chooses Ocholi as the AGF, then his action would be at variance with what he has always said he stands for,” said one source. “He has said he has zero tolerance for corruption and that he is fully committed to the war against terrorism in Nigeria. The appointment of Ocholi as Minister of Justice and AGF would rubbish those claims,” the source added.
Mr. Ocholi’s importance in the defense of Patrick Fernandez, who allegedly defrauded five banks of N32 billion, was demonstrated last week when the trial had to be adjourned because the lawyer claimed that he was being screened as a minister. But a reliable source in Abuja disclosed to SaharaReporters that the truth was that Mr. Ocholi had already been screened and confirmed as minister at the time the trial was to proceed. “But his inability to be present physically in court stalled the case brought against Fernandez by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission,” said the source.
Our Presidency source revealed that Mr. Ocholi rose to the top spot among those being considered for Minister of Justice because “he performed better that Abubakar Malami, another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, during the screening process.” According to the source, Mr. Buhari and his associates were appalled by Mr. Malami’s lack-luster performance during the screening.
While Mr. Ocholi’s representation of Mr. Fernandez, an Indian accused of defrauding banks of billions of naira, may be perceived as a case of defending a wealthy client, his legal representation of Yunus Nazif, a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Kogi State University, is bound to raise troubling questions. Mr. Nazif, who has a PhD, was in 2013 arrested with two AK-47 rifles in his possession. Prosecutors suggested that the academic had strong links with members of insurgent Islamist group, Boko Haram.
“It’s baffling that Ocholi came to represent Dr. Yunus Nazif who is not known to have the means to afford a high-priced SAN like Ocholi,” one of our sources said. Even so, Mr. Ocholi has vigorously defended the suspect, arguing at one point that, since the weapons found on his client were not labeled as “AK-47,” they could not be considered deadly weapons. He made the startling submission during one court session in 2014. A police investigator disclosed that the lecturer had virtually confessed to maintaining links to the Islamist terrorist group, even though his trial is ongoing.
Mr. Ocholi’s role as lead defense lawyer for former Finbank MD, Okey Nwosu, raises further questions about his fitness to become Nigeria’s chief lawyer. Mr. Nwosu and three other erstwhile directors, namely, Dayo Famoroti, Danjuma Ocholi and Agnes Ebubedike, are accused of stealing N10.9 billion from their former employee, now known as FCMB.
The EFCC is pursuing a 26-count charge against Mr. Nwosu and his fellow former bank executives. Mr. Ocholi and two other defense lawyers have been handling the case.
“Even if we allow for the presumption of innocence until proven guilty for Ocholi’s clients, there is still the issue of appearance. Will Nigerians ever feel confident that Ocholi can seriously prosecute cases of corruption and terrorism when he is a major player in defending high-profile defendants in corruption and terrorism?” one source asked.