Abebe vs Statoil: It’s Illegal to Keep Records of Nigerian Companies Abroad, Witness Tells Court

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Davidson Iriekpen

The trial of Dr. John Abebe for forgery before the Special Offences Court sitting in Ikeja yesterday took a dramatic twist when a defence witness and Deputy Director of the National Archives, Mrs. Roseline Ovesuor, informed the court that based on the provisions of sections 37 and 38 of the National Archives Act, it was an offence for companies registered in Nigeria to take their records outside the country.

Ovesuor made the revelation at the resumed hearing of the case before Justice Mojisola Dada.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had last July arraigned Abebe, who is a younger brother to the late former First Lady, Mrs. Stella Obasanjo, before the court on a four-count charge of forgery, fabricating evidence and attempt to pervert the course of justice.

According to the charge sheet, the defendant was accused to have on June 22, 2010 knowingly forged a letter dated November 30,1995 and belonging to BP Exploration Nigeria Limited to that of his company, Inducon Nigeria Limited.

The defendant had however pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Counsel to Abebe, Uche Nwokedi (SAN), argued that judgments had been delivered on the same matter in favour of his client by a Federal High Court and also by the Court of Appeal, thereby leaving the matter pending before the Supreme Court.

He also challenged the jurisdiction of the Special Offences Court to hear the matter.

However, the EFCC counsel, Rotimi Oyedepo, told the court that the charges before the Supreme Court were entirely different from what is before the High Court.

In the course of the proceedings, the EFCC through the Managing Director of Statoil Nigeria Limited, Paul Piche, who is the prosecution witness one (PW1), and PW2, Joanne Cross, who works with British Petroleum (BP) United Kingdom Plc, had produced documents before the court to allegedly prove the charge against Abebe.

The documents, which were prepared by BP Exploration Nigeria Limited and Inducon Nigeria Limited (both Nigerian companies), were said by PW2 to have been produced from a privately managed archive in London known as Iron Mountain.

But in part of Abebe’s case as argued by Nwokedi in his no-case submission which was dismissed by Justice Dada, he contended that the act of exporting or sending the documents to the United Kingdom for archiving is an offence prohibited by Nigerian law.

The counsel stated that the action contravenes the provisions of sections 37 and 38 of the National Archives Act, and that the documents were legally inadmissible for proving the charge against the defendant.

Flowing from the argument, Mrs. Ovesuor who said she has been working there for more than 30 years at the Department of National Archives of Nigeria, stated that by the provisions of sections 37 and 38 of the Act, it was an offence for a Nigerian company to take its records outside Nigeria.

The witness, who testified under examination-in-chief led by Nwokedi, said the Department of National Archives is responsible for the management and preservation of documents of historical value in Nigeria for federal ministries, parastatals, agencies, commissions as well as private companies, institutions, multinational companies and individuals.

She added that the National Archives is also mandated to assist ministries, agencies, departments at the federal level, state level, private organisations, business houses to establish their archives when necessary.

The defence witness testified that the National Archives Act is the law that regulates their activities and was promulgated in July 1992.

She explained that in every organisation, public or private, there exist three levels of records: that is, current, semi-current and non-current.

She noted with an organisation, private or public, incorporated in Nigeria and is functioning in Nigeria, the law states such records must be housed by
the organisation within the
country where that organisation was established and is
operating.

Under cross-examination by EFCC counsel, Rotimi Oyedepo, she pointed out that she was not aware of the facts of the charge against the defendant and that she had not seen the documents that were tendered in court in this matter.

When she was shown all the exhibits that were tendered in this case so far, the defence witness testified that she had not seen them before as they were not archived with the National Archives.

Further hearing on the case continues today.