After 12 years of legal battle, the trial of former Abia State Governor, Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, over N7.65 billion fraud and money laundering preferred against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) ended yesterday in his conviction.
Justice Mohammed Idris of the Federal High Court sitting in Lagos, sentenced the former governor, who is now Senate Chief Whip, to 12 years imprisonment.
Kalu, who was accused of committing the offences while he was governor, becomes the fifth former governor to be jailed for diversion of public funds since the return of democratic rule in 1999.
Among Kalu’s colleagues convicted for similar crimes are Chief Lucky Igbinedion (Edo), Chief James Ibori (Delta), Rev. Jolly Nyame (Taraba) and Senator Joshua Dariye (Plateau).
A former governor of Adamawa State, Mr. James Bala Ngilari, who was sentenced to five years in prison by a Yola High Court for fraud he committed while in office, was later acquitted by the Court of Appeal.
There are, however, 19 other former governors who are under probe or on trial for alleged corruption while in office.
Civil society organisations, including the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) as well as the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) yesterday hailed Kalu’s conviction with CUPP calling for his removal as Senate chief whip.
In his judgment, Justice Idris declared the former governor guilty of all the charges preferred against him.
Kalu, who is the serving senator representing Abia North in the Senate, 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 tenure as governor.
They were first arraigned before a Federal High Court in Abuja in 2007.
Kalu challenged the jurisdiction of the court to hear the case and the case dragged to the Supreme Court, which in 2017 ordered the Federal High Court to hear the case afresh.
In an amended 39-count charge, the EFCC accused them of conspiring and diverting over N7.65billion from the coffers of the state.
In one of the counts, the EFCC alleged that Kalu, who was governor between 1999 and 2007, “did procure Slok Nigeria Limited– a company solely owned by you and members of your family– to retain in its account, domiciled with the then Inland Bank Plc, Apapa branch, Lagos, an aggregate sum of N7,197,871,208.7 on your behalf.”
The prosecution claimed that the N7.1 billion “formed part of the funds illegally derived from the treasury of the Abia State Government and which was converted into several bank drafts before they were paid into the said company’s account.”
The prosecuting counsel, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs, said the ex-governor violated Section 17(c) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2004 and was liable to be punished under Section 16 of the same Act.
Apart from the N7.1 billion, which he was accused of laundering, the ex-governor and the other defendants were also accused of receiving a total of N460 million allegedly stolen from the Abia State Government treasury between July and December 2002.
The prosecutor said they breached Section 427 of the Criminal Code Act, Cap 77, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990.
The defendants had pleaded not guilty to all counts.
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 judge further held: “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.”
In his allocutus, counsel to the first convict, said his client “is a first-time offender and has no criminal record.
“He has thousands of employees depending on him for survival. He also has health issues. We, therefore, want the court to take this into consideration in giving out the sentence.”
Counsel to the second convict also asked the court to temper justice with mercy, saying his client had no criminal record. “He was a public servant, who diligently served Abia State. He acted in the moment of indiscretion and this should not be the only basis to adjudge his career,” he said.
In his response, the prosecution counsel, Jacobs, said: “Though there is no record to show any criminal records involving the defendants, the court has sent a message to the world not to allow their personal interest to conflict with the interests of Nigerians because no matter how long it takes, they will not escape the wrath of the law.
“This case started in 2007 and the convicts filed series of applications to stall this case. For 12 years, the people of Abia have waited for this day and it is here; they can reclaim all that was taken from them.”
He also urged the court to wind up the company as provided by the law and all its assets forfeited to the federal government.
Consequently, Justice Idris sentenced Kalu to five years imprisonment on counts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11; three years on counts 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33; 12 years on counts 34, 35, 36, 37 and 38 and five years on count 39.
All the sentences are to run concurrently meaning he would be in prison for 12 years from the day of conviction.
The second defendant was convicted and sentenced to three years imprisonment on counts 24, 25, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32 and 10 years on counts 34, 37, 38 and 39.
The sentences will run concurrently meaning he would be in jail for 10 years.
Justice Idris further held that Kalu’s company, Slok Nigeria Limited, the third defendant, be wounded up and all assets forfeited to the federal government.
Prior to Kalu’s conviction, some of his other colleagues had been convicted for similar offences.
On May 30, 2018, Nyame was convicted by Justice Adebukola Banjoko of the Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja, for charges bordering on misappropriation and fraud preferred against him. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Gudu, Abuja, had on June 12, 2018, sentenced Dariye to 14 years imprisonment for criminal breach of trust and misappropriation of funds (N1.6 billion) while he was the governor of Plateau State.
Both former governors are serving their jail terms at the Kuje Correctional Centre, Abuja.
However, 19 other former governors, according to data obtained from the EFCC, are either on trial or being investigated for corruption while in office.
They are: Bukola Saraki (Kwara), Ali Modu Sheriff (Borno), Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom), Chimaroke Nnamani (Enugu), Saminu Turaki (Jigawa), Sule Lamido (Jigawa), Ahmed Yerima (Zamfara), Gabriel Suswam (Benue), Martin Elechi (Ebonyi), Danjuma Goje (Gombe; but the AGF took over the matter under “nolle prosequi”), Murtala Nyako (Adamawa), Ikedi Ohakim (Imo), Peter Odili (Rivers), Boni Haruna (Adamawa), Gbenga Daniel (Ogun), Rashidi Ladoja (Oyo), Adebayo Alao- Akala (Oyo), Adams Oshiomhole (Edo) and Akinwunmi Ambode (Lagos).
SERAP, CUPP, Others Hail Judgment
Reacting to Kalu’s conviction, CUPP lauded the judgment and called on the former governor to resign his position as the chief whip of the Senate.
CUPP in a statement by its spokesman, Mr. Ikenga Ugochinyere, said the conviction had made Kalu ineligible to continue to function in that capacity.
The opposition coalition described Kalu’s conviction as a “test case” for President Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressives Congress’ (APC) anti-corruption fight.
It said: “As Orji Kalu goes to prison today (yesterday), will he take the office with him to prison under a government that claims to be morally upright or will be getting injunction pending appeal etc?
“President Buhari-led APC government wanted Senator Bukola Saraki and Justice Walter Onnoghen to resign from their positions of Senate President and Chief Justice of Nigeria respectively even when there was no conviction.
“The government based its demand then on the grounds that there were allegations levelled against these two former top government officials and charges instituted against them in different courts.”
SERAP also welcomed the conviction of Kalu as its Executive Director, Mr. Adetokunbo Mumuni, hailed the judiciary for justice delivery.
Mumuni said the judiciary was playing its part in the anti-graft war.
“What we see now is that the judiciary is trying to live up to expectations; what must be done has to be done.
“The facts of the case have been properly reviewed, evidence thoroughly analysed; there is no basis for querying the judgment; however, let us see the reaction of Orji Uzor Kalu’s counsel to the verdict.
“If his counsel wants to appeal, they have the right to do so, but if the allegations and evidence are anything to go by, I believe justice has been properly served irrespective of whoever is involved,” he said.
CDHR National President, Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu, noted the role the Administration of Criminal Justice Act played in the speedy trial of the case.
Ugwummadu hailed the provisions ACJA, which prevented the trial from starting de novo (from the beginning) when the trial judge was elevated to the Court of Appeal.
“The speed with which this case was adjudicated has everything to do with the ACJA that now allows that a trial judge, though elevated, can return to conclude an ongoing criminal proceeding.
“The ACJA is explicit, it is proactive, it is definitive, it allows a judge, who started a trial and got elevated to a superior court, to return to conclude proceedings.
“This is exactly what happened here. Orji Uzor Kalu was arraigned before Justice Mohammed Idris, who within the period of the trial was elevated to the Court of Appeal. Today, he delivered that judgment,” he said.