Tears freely flowed in the court room of the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court, as former Governor of Abia state, Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, was, Thursday sentenced to 12-year jail term in Kirikiri Maximum Correctional Service for defrauding the state of N7.65billion during his tenure as governor.
The lawmaker, representing Abia North Senatorial District, tried fighting back tears as the trial judge, Justice Mohammed Idris, read out the abridged version of the 238-page ruling.
Also, some women, believed to be supporters of the former governor, were full of tears as the officers of correctional centre, led the lawmaker out of the courtroom.
The judgement came barely twenty four hours after another court in the same division, ordered the federal government to recover pensions paid to ex-governors currently serving as ministers and members of the National Assembly.
The politician, was before now, a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), but crossed over to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), a platform from where he contested and won a seat in the National Assembly, and was consequently elected the Senate’s chief whip.
Kalu joins Dariye, Nyame
With the sentence, Kalu will be the fourth former governor to be so jailed.
As at the last count, former Governor of Plateau state, Senator Joshua Dariye, and his Taraba counterpart, Rev Jolly Nyame were variously jailed in 2018 for 14 years each by the FCT High Court, Gudu, over N2billion and N1.6billion frauds respectively.
Also, a former Adamawa state Governor, Mr. Bala Ngilari, was jailed for five years over N167.8million fraud in 2017.
While Ngilari was discharged and acquitted by the appellate court sitting in Yola, both Dariye and Nyame were not that lucky as the appellate court only reduced their jail terms to 10 and 12 years respectively.
Handing down the sentence to the former governor Thursday, Justice Mohammed Idris declared the former governor guilty of the charges brought against him in the 12-year-old suit.
Tried alongside the lawmaker was his company-Slok Nigeria Limited, and Udeh Udeogu, the then director of finance and accounts at the Government House, Umuahia during Kalu’s stewardship as governor.
In the amended 39-count charge, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) accused the duo of conspiring and diverting over N7 billion belonging to the state.
For instance, the anti-graft agency alleged that the two-term governor (from 1999 to 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 EFCC further alleged that the said sum “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.”
Besides, the ex-governor and his other defendants , were also alleged to have received some N460 million, said to have been stolen from the state government’s treasury between July and December 2002.
This, the prosecutor argued, was a complete breach of Section 427 of the Criminal Code Act, Cap 77, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990.
Arguing his case, the prosecution, led by Rotimi Jacobs, SAN, submitted that the ex-governor violated Section 17(c) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2004, and therefore liable to be punished under Section 16 of the same Act.
While the trial lasted, the prosecuting agency called about 19 witnesses, with the defendants coming up with none, but only testifying on their own behalf.
The defendants denied involvement in any fraud and therefore pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
At a point in the seemingly endless trial, the court threatened the former governor with arrest following his absence at the court when he travelled abroad for medical attention.
Delivering his judgement, Justice Idris convicted and sentenced Kalu, being the first defendant, to five-year 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 were to run concurrently. This implies the former governor would spend 12 years in correctional centre from the day of conviction.
For Udeogu; the second defendant, he got a reduced sentence compared to his erstwhile boss. He was convicted and sentenced to three-year imprisonment on counts 24, 25, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32 and 10 years on counts 34, 37, 38 and 39. All sentences are to run concurrently for 10 years.
The trial judge also ruled that the ex-governor’s company, Slok Nigeria Limited, the third defendant, be wounded up and all assets forfeited to the federal government.
It was an emotion-laden session as the jailed former governor, struggled to control his emotion while the ruling lasted.
At a point, the serving lawmaker reached for his white handkerchief to torch off the tears coming out of his eyes.
For a couple of unidentified supporters, particularly the women, they openly wept as officers of the correctional service led the governor out of the court room.
At this point, a visibly confused Kalu had to ask the officers where they were headed with him and his co-defendant.
This confusion was obviously demonstrated by the APC chieftain who also begged the officers not to handcuff him in public.
“Where are you taking us to? Please, don’t handcuff me in public. I will follow you,” the two-term governor pleaded
And while smiling at reporters, the lawmaker said: “2023, here we come.”
SERAP, others hail judgement
Meanwhile, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and some other civil society groups Thursday lauded the jail term handed down to the former governor Kalu.
Executive Director of SERAP 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 judgement; 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.
Also in another reaction, National President of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) Malachy Ugwummadu lauded the role the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) played in the speedy trial of the case.
Ugwumadu 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 judgement.
“To that extent, it is remarkable because it touches on the speedy dispensation of justice. What obtained before now was the matter starting de novo with the transfer or elevation of the judge,” he said.
He said the judgement proved that no individual is above the law. “The law remains the law. The fact that Sen. Orji Uzor Kalu defected to the All Progressives Congress (APC) from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) did not provide a cover for him.
“This judgement has established a precedent; but giving the caliber of the defendant, we are likely going to see an appeal against the judgment,” Ugwummadu said.
Also in an interview with NAN, the President of Voters Awareness Initiative, Mr. Wale Ogunade, described the judgment as victory for democracy.
“It is a victory for democracy because it shows that nobody is above the law.
“Orji Uzor Kalu moved from one political party to another trying to hobnob with President Buhari to save him from the law.
“Nobody is above the law, no matter how connected you are, no matter how long it takes, the long arm of the law will catch up with anyone who breaks the law.
“I hope it will serve as a warning to any Nigerians who think they are powerful; the only powerful being is God,” Ogunade, a lawyer and rights activist, said.
It shows Buhari’s sincerity –BMO
In a similar reaction, the Buhari Media Organisation (BMO) has said the ex-governor’s conviction demonstrated the sincerity of the anti-corruption war of the present administration.
The group also said it showed that being an APC member is not a shield from prosecution, contrary to what opposition elements had been saying about the ruling party.
In a statement signed by its chairman Niyi Akinsiju and Secretary Cassidy Madueke, Thursday in Abuja, BMO argued that the conviction of a high ranking APC chieftain proved that the courts were indeed independent in this dispensation.
“For some time, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its supporters had been casting aspersion on the anti-corruption crusade, especially in the run-up to the 2019 elections.
“The claim then was that all a politician seeking protection from trial needed to do was to join APC. And this was even after two former governors who are also members of the ruling party, had been convicted and sent to jail.
“This speaks to the focus and uncompromising nature of the administration, and if a high ranking Senator is in jail, then clearly a message has been sent out on the rule of law.
“So if there was any doubt about President Muhammadu Buhari’s sincerity, then the fact that a ranking member of his party has been sentenced to a 12-year jail term is proof that such doubts had been unfounded.
“We hope that the judgement delivered by Justice Muhammad Idris of the Federal High Court in Ikoyi, Lagos would clear all doubts about the seriousness of the anti-graft crusade,” it said.
It commended President Buhari for his efforts at ensuring that Nigeria has stronger institutions that can operate independently without interference.
“On his watch, the nation’s anti-graft agencies now have a new lease on life and are exceeding previous records of performance.
“Just like the case of the former governors of Plateau and Taraba states, the trial of Senator Kalu first began in 2007 and had witnessed all sorts of drama, but a stronger Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) ensured that the matter was concluded with a conviction.
“If there’s any one that deserves commendation, it is the president that showed he meant business with his repeated assertion that there would be no sacred cows in the war against corruption.
“In times past, the Senator could have qualified for some form of immunity as a result of his closeness to the Presidency, and we dare say that this has shown that this President is different.
“We hope that Nigerians would no longer be regaled with tales of a selective war against graft, especially when judgement day comes for some members of the previous administrations standing trial for sundry corruption charges.”
BMO also expressed hope that more Nigerians would come to appreciate President Buhari as a man that is more interested in stronger institutions and not in shielding any Political Exposed Person (PEP) from trial.
Mixed feelings in Abia
From Abia state, our correspondents reported that it was a moment of confusion and excitement.
While scores of Abians hailed the judgment which they described as Daniel finally coming to judgement, others felt it was a target to rubbish Igbo elites in the political equation of Nigeria.
While some Abians hailed the judgment, saying it served him right that he laid the foundation of bad governance in Abia, others saw it as a trap to stop his rising political profile.
They said it was one judgement to whittle his influence ahead of 2023 Presidency which the Igbos were seriously laying claims to.
Reacting over the judgment, a retired staff of the state owned newspaper(names withheld), said Kalu deserved to go to prison.
He said the former governor did not rule well while his tenure lasted.
But a retired banker who did not want his name in print said “it is a conspiracy against the Igbos,”, who he said, “deserved to be in prisons are not there.
He cited example of the ordeals the Innoson Motors,Nnamdi Onyema and Kalu were passing through.
Another respondent who also craved anonymity said it was a shocking news, but Kalu’s experience will serve as a deterrent to others wishing to toe his path.
Also reacting in a telephone interview, Victor Otie Esq, a member of Kalu’s legal team, described the judgement as faulty, insisting it was unknown to law and cannot stand.
According to him, this is a temporary distraction from his (Kalu’s) legislative duty.
“We are challenging it. We are sure of victory just like the tribunal case. The ruling cannot stand. How can you say a company (Slok) that has been in existence before he became governor should wind up? Does it make sense?
On whether the judgment will affect his position as a senator and chief whip of the Senate, the counsel answered in the negative, saying “Kalu remains a senator and chief whip of the Senate.”
He added that the judgement will be appealed from the Appeal court to the Supreme Court.
As for Hon. Maduka Okoro,the media aide to the embattled lawmaker, his boss won’t be distracted by the judgement, assuring that the verdict must be appealed so as to prove that the court’s decision was wrong.
Okoro told our correspondent in a telephone interview that his principal did not steal money as a former governor, and won’t do so as a serving lawmaker.
He, however expressed optimism that his boss would be vindicated at the end of the day.
“Orji Kalu is a democrat, he is not distracted and would surely appeal against the ruling after the lawyers would have studied the judgment,” Okoro said.
To scores of Abians, especially the artisans, the judgement against Kalu is one of the strategies to undermine Igbo political heavy weight politicians ahead of 2023 election.