The conviction, at the weekend, of a former Abia State governor, Orji Uzor Kalu, has thrown up different issues, including how he conducted himself throughout the trial as partly responsible for the harsh decision of the court. Davidson Iriekpen and Kingsley Nwezeh writes
It is no longer news that a former Governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu, was last Thursday convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison by Justice Mohammed Idris of the Federal High Court in Lagos over N7.65billion fraud.
What is, however, news is the revelation that the judge might have been angered to descend heavily on the chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) due to the way and manner he conducted himself throughout the trial.
Kalu, who is the serving senator representing Abia North, was tried alongside his company, Slok Nigeria Limited, and Mr. Udeh Udeogu, who was Director of Finance and Accounts at the Abia State Government House during his days as governor.
In an amended 39-count charge, the EFCC accused them of conspiring and diverting over N7.65billion from the coffers of the state. During the trial, the prosecution called 19 witnesses while the defendants testified on behalf of themselves.
Delivering his judgment yesterday, Justice Idris found the defendants guilty on all counts. He held that the prosecution had established its case against the defendants.
“The case was conclusively investigated as the prosecution conducted thorough investigations. No gaps were left unfilled; this is the acceptable practice. The first defendant failed in his obligations under the law.
“He acted contrary to his codes of conduct and will be dealt with accordingly. No evil deed will go unpunished. The offences are anti-human; it is condemned worldwide, because it is a crime against humanity,” the judge held.
Sources close to the court said what angered the judge were some of the actions of the former governor to frustrate the trial. The case, which took 12 years to prosecute, was first delayed by Kalu’s interlocutory applications and appeals.
As soon as Kalu left office in May 2007, the EFCC arraigned him before Justice Binta Murtala Nyako of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court on July 27, 2007 on a 107-count charge. The charges bordered on the alleged complicity of the erstwhile governor in money laundering and illegal diversion of public funds to the tune of N5.6billion.
The judge later granted him bail in the sum of N100 million with two sureties in like sum. She directed that the two sureties must be taxpayers with evidence of regular payment for three consecutive years. It court equally seized the travelling documents of the defendant, warning that he must always apply for leave to travel out of the country.
But Kalu challenged the competence of the charge against him, as well as the jurisdiction of the court to hear and determine the case. He asked the court to quash the charges, a request the court refused to grant.
Following refusal, Kalu took the case before the Court of Appeal in Abuja. The appellate court, in a unanimous judgment, upheld the competence of the charge, adding that the high court was constitutionally empowered to exercise jurisdiction on the trial.
Dissatisfied with the verdict, Kalu approached the Supreme Court, begging it to set aside the concurrent findings of the two lower courts. The former governor, through his lawyer Chief Awa Kalu, SAN, pleaded a five-man panel of justices of the apex court, headed by the then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, to quash the criminal charge against him. He contended that the EFCC failed to establish a prima-facie nexus linking him to the ingredients of the offence contained in the charge.
The Supreme Court, after listening to the submissions, in a unanimous judgment dismissed the appeal and ordered the appellant to go and face his trial before the high court.
While upholding the Court of Appeal verdict, Justice Suleiman Galadima, who delivered the lead verdict, said the apex court was satisfied that the former governor has a case to answer pertaining to allegations that were levelled against him by the EFCC.
Besides, the apex court ordered the then Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, to re-assign the case to another judge to enable the trial to commence afresh.
By the time it was remitted to the Federal High Court in 2017 on the orders of the Supreme Court, under the pretext of medical treatment and sundry excuses, the trial was characterised by constant delays at the instance of the former governor and his lawyers.
Investigation by THISDAY revealed that this angered Justice Idris, who though kept his calm all through the trial, waited anxiously to take his pound of flesh. A source informed THISDAY that the judge was angry that Kalu did not religiously attend the trial and his lawyers were giving sundry excuses on why he was absent in court.
Many observers believed that his undoing, perhaps, was that while he was always absent in court during trial and giving excuses, his image and photographs were always very frequent on television and the page of the newspapers, where he was seen either holding meetings or hosting people.
“Sometimes we forget that our judges are Nigerians like us. They watch television and read newspapers like us. They see all these things. If your lawyer told a judge that you were in Germany for treatment and you were seen hosting or holding meetings with people on many occasions, how do you expect the judge to feel? This conviction is a lesson to others,” said the source.
It was gathered that the situation was so bad that after the elevation of the trial judge to the Court of Appeal, the fiat that he was given by the President of the Court of Appeal to continue with the criminal trial expired twice with the case still far from over.
THISDAY gathered that so bad was the case that the EFCC on many occasions expressed reservation over after Kalu’s frequent absence from trial. In one of the court sittings in September 2018, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), appearing for the prosecution, informed the court that the former governor travelled out of the country without seeking permission from the court. He therefore urged the court to revoke the bail granted the former governor. Although the defence counsel frantically opposed the request, Justice Idris was not pleased.
When at another sitting Kalu still did not appear for trial, Jacobs again exploded. He argued that such attitude constituted a clear disregard for the court, adding that in the circumstance, he would urge the court to give effect to the provisions of Section 352(4) of the ACJA and continue with the trial of the accused even in his absence.
According to him, the court should order defence to call its witnesses, failing which the court was allowed by the provisions of the law to close their case.
Responding, counsel Kalu’s expressed his displeasure with the submissions of the prosecution, noting that such arguments as canvassed by Jacobs should be put in an affidavit for the defence to reply.
At the next adjourned date with Kalu still not in court, Justice Idris was forced to revoke the bail he granted him and ordered that the EFCC should out into effect, his arrest if he failed to submit himself to the anti-graft agency on arrival into the country.
“I have perused the proceedings from court records and I discovered that one of the conditions for granting bail to the 1st defendant, who happens to be Orji Uzor Kalu, is that he should deposit his international passport with the court and the permission must be granted before he can travel outside the country for whatever reason.
“It is clear that the 1st defendant has flouted this order. No one, high or low, rich or poor, can disobey a valid order of court and expect such court to show mercy. Consequently, the bail granted to the 1st defendant is hereby revoked.
“It’s hereby ordered that the first defendant upon his return to Nigeria must submit himself to the EFCC, with all his travel documents. EFCC should effect his arrest if he fails to submit himself,” the angry judge said.
Last week’s conviction of former Abia State governor, Orji Uzor Kalu, made it six former governors, who had been convicted for corruption by the EFCC since the nation’s return to civil rule in 1999. Those on this list include Chief Lucky Igbinedion (Edo State), Joshua Dariye (Plateau State), Jolly Nyame (Taraba State) late Diepreye Alamieyesegha (Bayelsa State), James Ibori (Delta State) and Bala Ngilari (Adamawa State).
Kalu was convicted alongside his firm, Slok Nigeria Limited, and Jones Udeogu, who served under him as the Director of Finance and Account at the Abia State Government House in Umuahia.
While Kalu was handed 12 years jail term, Udeogu was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. The trial judge, Justice Idris, ordered the winding up of Slok Nigeria Limited, stating that his assets and properties be forfeited to government. Kalu was convicted on 28 counts in which his name featured out of the 39 counts filed against the three entities.
On each of the counts 1-11 and 39, he was sentenced to five years imprisonment while on each of counts 23-33, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment; and on each of counts 34-38, he was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.
The offences for which Orji Kalu was charged and convicted were in contravention of section 17(c) of the money laundering (prohibition) Act, 2004. The EFCC had contended that the defendants breached section 427 of the Criminal Code Act, CAP 77, laws of the federation 1990.
How about a run through the other Jailed former governors?
Jolly Nyame, a reverend and former governor of Taraba State, was last year sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for fraud by Justice Adebukola Banjoko of an Abuja High Court. He was accused of diverting N1.6 billion ecological funds. Nyame is presently serving his jail term in Kuje, Abuja.
Former Governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for laundering N25 billion. Curiously, he was let go via a plea bargain after paying a fine of N3.5 million.
The Federal High Court sitting in Enugu had convicted the former Edo State governor on a one-count charge of corruption.
However, contrary to expectations, the former governor walked away with what many considered a slap on the wrist. The trial judge, Justice Abdullahi Kafarati, only fined him N3.5million
The late Gov. Diepreye Alamieyesegha of Bayelsa, popularly known as the Governor-General of the Ijaw nation got two years jail term based on a plea bargain after he was found guilty of money laundering.
He had allegedly escaped from London where he was detained by the Metropolitan Police and found his way back to Nigeria disguised as a woman. He though denied disguising as a woman he was later impeached by the Bayelsa State House of Assembly, before facing trial. President Goodluck Jonathan later granted him a state pardon before he passed on.
Former Governor of Delta State, James Ibori was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment by a London court for laundering $250 million within the eight years he served as the state chief executive, while his assets worth $35 million, were frozen by the London court, as part of the judgment.
A former Governor of Adamawa State, James Bala Ngilari, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for defrauding his state of N167 million. He was sentenced without an option of fine. He was, however, set free by the Court of Appeal.
Other former governors still facing trial for corrupt enrichment include Chimaroke Nnamani (Enugu State), Saminu Turaki (Jigawa State), Murtala Nyako (Adamawa State), Adebayo Alao Akala (Oyo State), Sule Lamido (Jigawa State), Danjuma Goje (Gombe State), Abdullahi Adamu (Nasarawa State) the late Abubakar Audu (Kogi State), Gabriel Suswam (Benue State), Ikedi Ohakim (Imo State) and Gbenga Daniel (Ogun State).
And a Postscript…