- Senate, Ohanaeze youths, others condemn his arrest
Damilola Oyedele, Paul Obi in Abuja, Christopher Isiguzo in Enugu and David-Chyddy Eleke in Awka
More than 24 hours after the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) stormed the residence of the chief executive officer and founder of Innoson Vehicles Manufacturing (IVM) Group, Mr. Innocent Chukwuma, and arrested him over a commercial dispute between him and his bank – Guaranty Trust Bank Plc (GTBank) – the commission Wednesday released him on bail.
But the businessman has rejected his release by the commission on the grounds that he had not been informed by the commission the reason for his arrest.
In a twitter post Wednesday night, IVM said: “Innoson has refused his release because he is demanding to know the reason for his arrest.”
This was just as his arrest on Tuesday morning was roundly condemned by the Senate, the Ohanaeze youth wing, Igbo elders and others from the South-east, with the lawmakers querying the role of the anti-graft agency in a commercial dispute between the firm and its banker, which they said was already before the Supreme Court.
However, in a statement Wednesday, EFCC’s Head of Media and Publicity Wilson Uwujaren said: “The businessman who runs a local auto assembly plant was arrested on Tuesday, December 19, 2017 at his Enugu residence, following his refusal to respond to invitations by the commission, after initially being granted administrative bail by the commission, while his surety could also not be found.
“Unfortunately, the industrialist resisted arrest and stirred controversy by bringing six truck-loads of thugs to block the entrance to his Plot W1, Industrial Layout, Abakaliki Road, Emene, Enugu home.
“This was after he initially misled the Police Command by informing them that his home had been invaded by armed robbers and kidnappers, despite the fact that operatives of the commission duly identified themselves to policemen guarding his home.”
Uwujaren alleged that Chukwuma’s “unruly thugs” encircled and manhandled operatives of the commission who had gone to effect the arrest.
“Consequently, a distress call was sent to the commission’s Enugu office for reinforcement.
“In all of this, the commission’s operatives acted with decorum and civility. No one was manhandled or assaulted by the EFCC team, and not a single shot was fired, despite the provocation.
“Chief Chukwuma and his brother, Charles Chukwuma (who is still at large) are being investigated by the Insurance and Capital Market Fraud Section of the commission’s office in Lagos over matters bordering on N1,478,366,859.66 fraud and forgery.
“The industrialist, among other infractions, allegedly used forged documents to secure tax waivers,” the commission alleged.
However, before Chukwuma’s release on bail, the Senate Wednesday decried what it called the Gestapo-style arrest of the businessman by operatives of the commission and the alleged manhandling of Chukwuma’s wife in the course of the arrest.
The Senate also directed its Committee on Anti-corruption and Financial Crimes to investigate the matter and the role of the EFCC and report back Thursday.
Chukwuma, a business magnate and industrialist from Nnewi, Anambra State, set up his company more than two decades ago and grew it to become the first local automobile manufacturer in the country.
EFCC officials had arrested Chukwuma at his Enugu home on Tuesday in circumstances, which the senators said were reminiscent of the military era.
They also alleged that his wife was slapped by an operative of the agency.
The Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, raised the matter at plenary and wondered when the EFCC became a debt recovery agency.
Ekweremadu, who said he was able to speak with Chukwuma Wednesday morning on the phone, provided details of their conversation.
“Yesterday (Tuesday) I got a number of messages indicating that Mr. Innocent Chukwuma was arrested by the EFCC over a transaction between him and GTB.
“This morning, I made an effort and I spoke with him. His story is straight forward: he said he was at his house at 5 a.m. on Tuesday when he heard gunshots and he thought they were assassins and he went into hiding.
“After about two hours, he saw some people and policemen, and he thought that help had come. So, he came out of hiding and ran to a policeman who promptly arrested him.
“He tried to find out what his offence was and they told him that when they get to the police station they would inform him of the offence. As of today, nobody has told him what the offence is,” Ekweremadu said.
The Deputy Senate President noted that any person who is arrested and detained must be informed about the reason for their arrest.
“As I speak, Mr. Innoson Chukwuma is yet to be informed of what led to his arrest or detention, but if you go through the media today, the story is that he is owing GTB.
“As a lawyer, I’m at a loss for words on how a transaction between someone and his bank will concern the EFCC,” Ekweremadu added.
He lamented that Chukwuma, an industrialist who employs over 5,000 people, was being treated like a common criminal over a transaction with his bank.
“The story he told me is that he was not owing the bank anything, that he borrowed money from the bank which he had since repaid but the bank kept charging him and withdrawing money from his account.
“They set up an audit and the auditor came to the conclusion that they had deducted more than N500 million. He insisted on 22 per cent (interest on the deductions), but the bank said they would pay 17 per cent and that was where they had the disagreement,” Ekweremadu narrated.
According to the Deputy Senate President, Chukwuma had won the case against GTB at the Federal High Court and at the Appeal Court, with the matter now before the Supreme Court.
“The fact that the matter is before the court and is a commercial transaction gives no room for the intervention by EFCC. I would like to appeal to this Senate to ensure that Mr. Innocent Chukwuma is released promptly,” he said.
Senator Barnabas Gemade (Benue APC), contributing to the debate, said the bank in question took advantage of an “inept EFCC” to stampede Chukwuma into accepting a deal that is unacceptable in business transactions.
“We should order that in whatever circumstances GTB has issues with Innoson, they should follow due process in dealing with the matter and not to take advantage of an inept institution to stampede the poor man into accepting a deal,” he said.
The role of the EFCC in the matter, Gemade added, is one that borders on the misuse of power and authority.
He, however, noted that the anti-graft agency would not have got involved if GTB had not “presented a cooked-up report with specific inducement to go and deal with the man”.
“Today, our economy is skewed in the wrong direction. Bankers who trade in money have become lords in this nation because raw cash has become such an important commodity, that most of them who deal in it have become more important than any other citizen who produces goods and services,” Gemade lamented.
Similarly, the Deputy Majority Leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, said the development involving the EFCC was a carryover of military mentality.
“These things don’t happen even in the African countries that surround us. We will admit that our procedures which we unfortunately inherited from the military must be reversed, in order for us to meet the world’s civic standards,” he said.
Presiding, Senate President Bukola Saraki said the focus should be on the role of the EFCC in a private commercial transaction.
“As a society in which we are all as a country are trying to make civilised, I think this does not speak well for the country. How would a private commercial transaction now become the focus of EFCC? I think this is the area where our focus should be.
“Whether he owes (the bank) or not, we must be seen to be protecting the rights of individuals. I don’t think you have heard where the FBI interferes in the affairs of Citibank and Fords Motors, or the financial crimes agency in the United Kingdom interferes in an issue between Barclays Bank and a customer,” Saraki stated.
He said that the arrest had made a mockery of Nigeria.
Also joining the Senate to condemn Chukwuma’s arrest, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo Youth Council Worldwide introduced an ethnic dimension to the development, when it described the arrest as an attack against the Igbo nation.
The group, in a statement by its Secretary General, Mr. Okwu Nnabuike and Vice-President, Obinna Achionye, called on President Muhammadu Buhari to order the immediate and unconditional release of the automobile manufacturer.
They threatened to mobilise Igbo youths and youths of other ethnic nationalities to embark on a national protest in Enugu, Lagos and Abuja to protest against the arrest, warning that the anti-graft body was indirectly trying to plunge the nation into an avoidable crisis.
“This is the highest level of impunity against the Igbo nation and another plot to cripple the economic fortunes of Ndigbo, and Igbo youths will mount pressure on Ndigbo to withdraw their money from GTBank if our investigation shows that GTBank is intimidating one of the respected sons of Igbo land,” they warned.
Similarly, Igbo elders under the aegis of Igbo Leaders of Thought decried Chukwuma’s arrest, saying it was causing ripples all over Igboland.
They also warned that any attempt to ridicule Ndigbo in Nigeria would be resisted.
In a statement issued by the Deputy Secretary General of the group, Mr. Elliot Uko, who doubles as the Founder of Igbo Youth Movement, the elders warned that they would not continue to fold their arms while Igbo people are treated with disdain.
“The show of power displayed on Tuesday in Enugu by EFCC’s Magu is a loud statement to the Igbo nation that we are perceived as slaves in Nigeria.
“Sources close to Innoson confirm that there was neither earlier invitation, nor notice by the EFCC before Tuesday’s Invasion.
“The raw display of brute force by the EFCC, the empty shells of expended bullets all over the compound, are a sad reminder that in Nigeria, easterners remain second class citizens.
“Will Magu abduct Aliko Dangote that way? The total disregard for the ongoing court actions and a resort to military era abductions confirm to all that Ndigbo remain an endangered specie in Nigeria.
“The largest employer of labour in Igboland and a genius who has transformed the economic landscape of this clime in the area of automobile manufacturing, is abducted in a humiliating manner at his residence in Enugu, ostensibly over issues with a bank, issues which lawyers are handling.
“This is a loud message to the people of Eastern Nigeria of our status in Nigeria.
“Everybody knows Aliko Dangote cannot be abducted that way over issues with a commercial bank. The owners of Nigeria keep reminding the people of Eastern region that they are not wanted in Nigeria,” the group stated.
Uko added that an emergency meeting of the Eastern Consultative Assembly where he serves as secretary would hold this week to deliberate “on this humiliation on a leading light in our land”.
Also, the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) condemned, in strong terms, the arrest of Chukwuma by operatives of the EFCC.
The secessionist group also accused the federal government of deliberately masterminding his arrest as one of its plans to stifle prominent businesses in the South-east.
A statement issued Wednesday by the spokesman of the group, Mr. Emma Powerful, stated that the federal government was embarking on this after several failed attempts to emasculate Igbos through economically punitive policies.
It accused the federal government of secretly hatching a de-industrialisation policy against the South-east, adding that it specifically chose Chukwuma because as an Igbo man, he decided to set up his company in Igboland.
“Had Innoson sited his factory in Lagos or Kaduna, every possible line of credit would have been extended to him. But due to the fact that his company is located in Enugu, he must be chased down and destroyed.
“This hopefully is to serve as a deterrent to others who might be entertaining the idea of relocating their businesses to Biafraland,” IPOB said.
IPOB described Chukwuma as a very successful businessman and one of Africa’s topmost industrialist who must be supported rather than being humiliated.
“What Innoson Motors has accomplished so far, no indigenous business in sub-Saharan Africa has been able to do. If Innoson Motors were owned by a Northern Hausa Fulani man, he would have been revered and idolised to the high heavens.
“But because it is a business owned and run by a Biafran and equally sited in Biafraland, it must be destroyed.
“Since the emergence of this Buhari regime, Biafrans of Igbo extraction have been lurching from one persecution to another. After Operation Python Dance, the Buhari regime has turned its attention to the destruction of economic interests in the South-east starting with Innoson Motors, in the hope of frustrating the first indigenous automobile company in West Africa because he opened his factory in Igboland.
“We are warning those involved in the orchestrated campaign to frustrate Innoson Motors to desist from their evil act before it is too late,” IPOB warned.
Innoson: It’s a Witch-hunt
Meanwhile, 24 hours after Chukwuma was whisked away by the EFCC from his residence, his company has dismissed as false and deceitful the claims by the commission that Chukwuma’s arrest was as a result of his refusal to honour their invitation.
The company also denied knowledge that he was admitted to administrative bail in the past as claimed by the EFCC.
Sources at the EFCC South-east zonal office in Enugu told THISDAY that Chukwuma had spent the night in their office and also confirmed that he was flown to their Lagos office Wednesday.
Another source also disclosed that the Innoson owner was interrogated throughout the night, adding that attempts by some close family members to initially give him his drugs were rejected by the operatives of the agency who were said to have come from Lagos.
Speaking on the ordeal of his boss, the head of Corporate Communications of Innoson Group, Cornel Osigwe, said the reason adduced by the EFCC for arresting him was false and unfounded.
“The information published in the website of the commission that Chief Innocent Chukwuma’s arrest followed his refusal to honour an invitation of the commission having earlier jumped an administrative bail granted him in a case being investigated by the Capital Market and Insurance Fraud Unit of the commission’s Lagos office is totally false,” he said.
Osigwe called on the anti-graft agency to provide proof of such investigations, stressing that he still had a pending case on the commercial dispute with GTB at the Supreme Court.
“We challenge EFCC to show proof of the invitation extended to Mr. Chukwuma; the various dates of the invitations and the letters of invitations extended to him.
“We further challenge the EFCC to show proof of how and when Mr. Chukwuma jumped the administrative bail granted to him.
“On whose petition is this investigation being carried out and proof of any letter of investigation ever written to Innoson from this unit stating also the month and year,” he said.
The company’s spokesman further noted that there was never a time Chukwuma got queries from the EFCC recently, disclosing that the last interaction he had with the EFCC was an invitation extended to him in 2012 based on a complaint against him by GTB, which he duly honoured.
“Upon completion of the investigation, EFCC requested him (Chukwuma) through a letter to pay some money to GTB, saying that the money is what Innoson owed GTB after it (EFCC) deducted an excess charge of about N560 million that GTB illegally and unlawfully took from the company’s account.
“Innoson rejected the demand, maintaining that it was GTB that was owing it and that GTB is supposed to pay interest on the excess and unlawful charges.
“This resulted in a stalemate between Innoson and EFCC. Consequently, Innoson commenced a lawsuit against GTB at the Federal High Court, Awka division in suit No: FHC/AWK/139/2012 and got a judgment in its favour in the sum of N4.7 billion against GTB,” Osigwe revealed.
On claims by EFCC that the Innoson boss used thugs to resist arrest, he said Chukwuma had no reason to either resist or evade arrest, insisting that he was a respecter of the rule of law.
“The truth available at our disposal is that some factory workers on hearing that their boss was being arrested, mobilised themselves to his residence to protest what they said was an illegal arrest.
“However, the EFCC operatives together with the police team fired tear gas and dispersed them. We have pictures to back up our claims.
“At no point did these factory workers manhandle the armed EFCC and police officials at his residence. This is pure falsehood aimed at tarnishing the reputation of Mr. Innocent Chukwuma.
“EFCC as a law abiding organisation and a strong advocate of the rule of law as constantly shown and practised by its chairman, Ibrahim Magu, should allow the court process to reach its logical conclusion.
“Mr. Chukwuma’s case against GTB is already at the Supreme Court and we have absolute faith in Nigeria judiciary.
“They should be allowed to adjudicate over this matter without undue interference from any quarters,” Osigwe added.