Inside the booming business of document racketeering in Lagos courts

Inside the booming business of document racketeering in Lagos courts

Friday, September 27, 2019 3:28 pm

Ikeja High Court

…’professional suretying’ as a case study


By Kunle Ogunsakin

Sometimes in 2016, a friend to this reporter, Otunba Jare Ladoke spent 30 days at the Kirikiri Prisons after a Lagos High Court had granted him bail over a business transaction that ran afoul of the law. A businessman with a chain of hotels, he had bought a 100kva generator from a company that he regularly did business with. The deal was that the company would supply the generator; he would then issue monthly cheques to the company until the cost is liquidated. Both parties had done this at least three times.

Otunba Ladoke however ran into troubled waters when business went down in the middle of 2015. By July 2016, several of his cheques were dishonored by his bankers. The generator company, in the bid to recover its debt petitioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The Anti- Corruption agency in turn charged Ladoke before the court with issuing dishonored cheques, a crime under Nigeria’s criminal code.

Ladoke was brought before a Lagos High Court, Ikeja Division. After he pleaded not guilty, his lawyer applied for his bail. Since it was a bail-able offence, the judge had no qualms in granting the bail in the sum of N1million and two sureties. His friends gathered and raised the money hoping that Ladoke would be out in no time. But they were wrong.

This reporter and Ladoke’s junior brother, Taiwo, agreed to stand as sureties. In the processes that would lead to them being sureties, two hurdles stood out. First, both of them were asked to produce proof of tax payment which they did but the second criterion couldn’t be met immediately. Prospective sureties must be interviewed by the Chief Registrar of the High Court, certified and approved before being allowed to stand surety. But in Ikeja High Court, it doesn’t just happen that way.

The point of presentation of sureties is when racketeering starts. One of the officers in the office of the Chief Registrar opened a register and gave a three- week appointment before the sureties could be interviewed by the Chief Registrar. The excuse was that the Chief Registrar was very busy with official works that he would not be able to conduct any interview.

Desperate to prevent his friend from going to prison, this reporter begged to be interviewed that day. It was then that the official directed him to a fairly old man who he introduced as a professional surety.

To professional surety or bondsmen, as they are fondly called, is ready to do business but at an unimaginable cost. He requested for N500, 000 to stand as surety for a bond of N1million.

“If you had been sensitive and met me when I approached you in the courtroom, the charges would have been less. I could have even collected N200k from you but now that they are aware, their returns cannot be less than N500k”, he had told this reporter. After haggling, the professional surety agreed to take N300, 000 but the family of Ladoke was not ready to pay that much. In company of this reporter, they decided to try another shot at the Chief Registrar’s office.

It yielded a result, but not quite. The official who earlier directed them to the professional surety requested for N100, 000 to secure the interview. Still, the family decided not to pay.

At this point, this reporter approached two senior judicial officers (judges) who helped facilitate the interview same day. After the interview, the Chief Registrar, a woman directed EFCC officials to carry out the inspection of offices and homes of the two sureties. This was promptly done.

Five days after, the report was out. Both sureties were disqualified from standing surety. Reason? EFCC officials inspected the houses instead of the office.

Otunba Ladoke began afresh the process of looking for another set of sureties. Two others were rejected and he wasn’t released until he sought the services of two professional sureties who insisted on N300, 000.

After this, he was asked to pay what was called Security Fee, meant to assure the court that the surety would not abscond. This security fee is payable only to an account opened in the name of the Chief Registrar at the Oba Akran branch of Zenith Bank. The fee is meant to be refundable to the surety. However, investigations reveal that very few people have ever collected the refund, raising posers as to who spends the money and for what purpose. In the case of Otunba Ladoke, he paid N150k Security funds which he never reclaimed.

In the process of all these back and forth, Otunba Ladoke was at the Ikoyi Prisons from December 10, when the judge granted him bail, to January 29, when the bail process was concluded.

The experience this reporter had in securing the release of his friend encapsulates what transpires in Lagos courts.

How professional surety works now

In Lagos, the operations of sureties are not limited to the state courts. They prowl from court to court, particularly where their services are needed.

Funso Mogaji, an unlicensed surety who volunteered to speak with this reporter said sureties risks so much to do their job.

“Most sureties you see around have experienced jail terms because accused persons ran away. You must be ready to pay a bond if your “customer” runs away; otherwise you will have to go to jail”.

Asked why he did not register with the state judiciary as a bondsman, he replied that no one would register him because of the stringent conditions court attaches to bail.

“A court asked an accused person to get a civil servant in the rank of a director to stand surety, and a landed property in Ikoyi or Ikeja, how many sureties do you think could afford that? This is what encourages presentation of fake papers by sureties. How many directors in the civil service will come and  stand surety for an accused person? How many landlords will risk his property for the bail of an accused person?

“Most documents used as bail bonds are fake. Even those in authority, including EFCC officials know that bonds presented by sureties are mostly fake because they also share part of the proceeds that come to the surety”.

He then dropped the bombshell; “I will not be surprised if the court will revoke the bail of former Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof Maurice Iwu is revoked at the next adjourned date. One of the people who facilitated the bail bond was shortchanged, and he has spilled the beans. The court may not allow him to go home in the next adjourned date”.

Mogaji said that many sureties are into the trade because of poverty.

“It is not as profitable when you consider the risk in it. There many young men today that has joined the trade because they have no other means of survival. Most of them will stand surety even when they know the accused person has the tendency of running away. But they have to eat. Except in big cases like the EFCC cases that involves billions, bondsmen actually survives from hand to mouth”, he said.

Welcome to the world of fake documents

In order to get an original driver’s license, this reporter on June 25, 2019 approached one of the racketeers simply identified as Dorcas (not real name). The racketeer gave him a form to fill and once done directed him to the FRSC office at the Old Secretariat Complex, Oba Akinjobi road, GRA, Ikeja.

Dorcas went into one of the offices and by the time she came back, she told this reporter to listen attentively to my name. In less than fifteen minutes, an FRSC official, called his name biometrics and photo. In another five, he was called to collect his temporary drivers’ license. All happened in one hour with N16,000.

This, however, is not the case if this reporter wanted to go through the normal means of application.

New prospects are required to visit the office of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), where several tests will be conducted, including driving test. This usually takes from three months to one year.

However, if this reporter had gone through the online route, it would have cost N10, 450.00 to procure a five year tenure license. Added to this however is a tip that Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO) collects before certifying that you passed driving test.

Hardened touts

The menace of touting at the premises of courts did not start today. Neither is it limited to Lagos State High Court, (basically the Ikeja High and Magistrates ‘Courts and their environs). Investigations by this reporter revealed that most of the elderly touts in Ikeja today started as youths at the Ebute-Meta Magistrate Court. Some also started from Igbosere Chief Magistrate Court. Many of them had tasted the wrath of the law on this trade.

“Many of these people that you see have been in prison before. Some have experienced jail terms more than two times but they still come back when they are released”, one of the touts who spoke to this reporter said, adding that “they come back because this is what they know how to do”.

The Judicial authorities had received several complaints from those that were duped by the touts and have consistently invited the Lagos State Government Environment and Special Offences Task Force in Alausa to carry out raids on the touts. The last raid took place in 2017 when the immediate past Chief Judge, Justice Opeyemi Oke assumed office. The Chief Judge then went a step further by introducing different measures to differentiate fake documents from original ones issued by the courts. Apart from introducing measures to make the procurement of affidavits faster, and easier, they also introduce different measures such as court seals and stamp to be affixed into every affidavit issued from the registry.

Touts, however, have devised a way around this effort. The first way is to convince customers to use Notaries Public lawyers rather that swear an affidavit in court. Unfortunately this does not work for some categories of documents. For example, an affidavit for the loss of a mobile phone SIM card must be a court affidavit Telephone companies such as MTN, GLO, Airtel etc do not take affidavits from Notary Public.

A notary public of the common law is a public officer constituted by law to serve the public in non-contentious matters usually concerned with estates, deeds, powers-of-attorney, and foreign and international business.

However, our investigations revealed that many touts has one notary public or the order that he or she works for. They bring prospective customers to the Notary and they collect their commission. At the old secretariat complex, there are some notaries who sit under trees to notarize documents, rather than staying in their offices.

This reporter found out that within the past two years, not less than four major raids had been carried out by the task force with aim of cleaning up the court premises of touts. These raids had resulted in prosecution of some of those arrested but this has not stopped the nefarious activities of the touts. Whenever a raid is carried out, there would be a lull for a few days and after that the touts would blossom again.

Why do they keep coming back? From interaction with multiple sources, this reporter found out that most of the women in the illicit trade are wives and daughters of police officers that live in surrounding police barracks. Despite the fact that many may have moved out of the barracks through transfers or even death of their husbands, they still find their way back, or are left behind to continue their trade. It therefore becomes difficult for police officers to arrest wives and children of fellow officers. Some are also retired court officials or prosecutors who had worked within the system for many years. They now use their knowledge of the system to eke out a living in their retirement.

How touts buy ‘official protection’

The touts have a union, but very clandestine. Investigations also reveal that the touts have executive officers that take care of discipline and welfare. They contribute weekly protection money for the executive officers, who in turn pay protection money to the surrounding police stations. Anytime there’s going to be a raid, the police would have warned the officers beforehand. Information is therefore passed around for all to lie low. In case of those arrested, the President and his executives are responsible for the bail of such members.

Read the full story here: Gavel International



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