The travails of the former governor of Abia State, who turned the Senate’s Chief Whip, Orji Kalu, began way back before he ended his tenure as governor of the state.
He was the Peoples Democratic Party’s star governor in the South-east in 1999, priding himself as a founding member and a major financier of the party.
He has consistently maintained that he gave huge sums of money to the party at inception, specifically N100 million for its registration in 1999 and another N100 million to former President Olusegun Obasanjo as support for his presidential campaign in the same year.
Mr Kalu was powerful as a PDP governor and wielded so much influence as one of the close confidants of the Obasanjo administration.
Not a few attributed Mr Kalu’s political successes to his mother, Eunice Kalu, who is believed to have had a strong mobilisation machine at the grassroots. She was also a strong supporter of Mr Obasanjo during his tenure as President.
But things fell apart and Mr Kalu became an outcast.
Even as a sitting governor, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) under the leadership of Nuhu Ribadu, beamed its search light on Mr Kalu’s government, raising several issues of corruption involving his mother and many other officials of his government.
Businesses suffer, EFCC unleashed
Actual signs of trouble manifested in open confrontation with former President Obasanjo.
The former governor’s Slok Airlines lost its licence to fly Nigeria’s skies. Despite pressures from within and outside Nigeria to get the federal government to reconsider its decision, the decision remained unchanged.
The then Minister of Aviation, Isa Yuguda, had claimed that the decision not to renew the license of Slok Airlines was devoid of politics. Without a doubt, it was impossible for it to be completely devoid of politics.
There were also indications that other licences of the former governor with the NNPC were also revoked, indicating a total blackout by the Obasanjo-led government.
Then the EFCC knocked on his doors.
In October 2016 the EFCC declared Eunice Kalu wanted over issues bordering on corruption and money laundering. The commission at the same time also declared wanted the then Chief of Staff to Mr Kalu, Theodore Orji, for the same allegations. Mr Orji later became the governor.
Several other officials of the Kalu government numbering about 16, including his brother, Mascot Ikweche Kalu, who was then a lawmaker, were also fingered by the EFCC of involvement in corruption and pilfering of public funds.
While the EFCC stated that Mrs Kalu was wanted for corruption and money laundering, Mr Kalu said the Obasanjo-led government was using the EFCC to harass his mother because she had refused the request that she mobilised for the president’s third term ambition.
In an interview with Daily Sun in Lagos in 2006, Mr Kalu disclosed: “I knew this would happen when during the third term debate, he sent word to my mother to mobilise support for him. My mother said ‘no, I can’t be part of this. We have given you two terms, and on those two terms I stand.’
“So, this is just a continuation of the third term agenda, a new scheme is coming up. They want to weaken all opposition so that Mr President can stay on in office.”
Also, Mr Kalu himself had alleged that his quarrel with the former president was because he also turned down the overtures to pursue his famed third term agenda.
While it has been difficult to doubt the alleged third term bid, Mr Obasanjo has consistently denied being involved in seeking to perpetuate himself in office.
Mr Kalu, like ex-Ekiti governor, Ayo Fayose, is very loud at slamming the former president with corruption charges at every given opportunity.
He had written his own “letter” calling out Mr Obasanjo as corrupt. He has also called on the Buhari administration to arrest Mr Obasanjo for corruption to underscore the seriousness of his administration’s fight against corruption.
The bitter battle has been well documented. The former governor’s vitriol against the former president is well understood. He has good reasons to seek to get back at him.
Journey Of Survival
Given that Mr Kalu could no longer stand the suffocation within the PDP, he led supporters of his government and other South-east leaders to set up the Progressives Peoples Alliance, where he held sway and on which he contested the 2007 presidential election.
Despite the efforts to nail him, the EFCC’s strong arm could not reach him while he took cover under Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution.
However, he indirectly got bashed through his Chief of Staff, Mr Orji, who was detained over corruption charges in the run up to the 2007 governorship election.
Mr Orji was the candidate of the PPA, the party raised by Mr Kalu in his opposition to the leading elements of the PDP.
He won the governorship election while in detention, making history as the first Nigerian governor to be elected while in detention. His victory was also attributed to the influence of his godfather, Mr Kalu, who had the support of residents as reflected in the outcome of the 2007 election in Abia State.
As soon his tenure expired in 2007 and was no longer covered by constitutional immunity, the EFCC formally called him to account. He was arrested and charged for using his company, Slok Nigeria Limited, to siphon funds belonging to the Abia State government.
In the same vein, his ally, Mr Orji, broke his oath and refused to “pay tribute” to his former boss.
With this reality, Mr Kalu had to deal with the double edged sword posed by the EFCC breathing hot from Abuja and the collapse of his political fiefdom, with Mr Orji cornering his labours in PPA and moving the machinery to the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) before making a return to the PDP.
In trying to remain politically relevant, the former governor had kept his eyes on the Senate to represent Abia North.
He had failed to clinch the seat when he contested for it in 2011 on the platform of the PPA. However, in the build up to the 2015 elections, Mr Kalu returned to the PDP to the discomfort of his former associates within the party.
The PDP did not fare well in the elections.
The APC became the ruling party at the centre. Perhaps this became an attraction for the former PDP chieftain. In November 2016 Mr Kalu formally joined the APC as a member. He had said his movement was due to pressures from friends “who wanted him to come and contribute his own quota in the building of the country”.
In spite of the reasons he adduced for jumping ship, many believed he had to join the ruling party as a strategy to stall his corruption trial.
He obviously enjoyed some respite at the time, suggesting that the Buhari government was willing to bend the rules and turn a blind eye to corrupt APC party members.
It will be recalled that Mr Kalu spiritedly campaigned for the president’s reelection bid. He also won his election to the Senate on the platform of the APC, rising to the position of the Chief Whip before he was convicted on Thursday.
As part of his strategy to remain in the good books of the power brokers at Aso Rock, Mr Kalu feted very influential persons in the North and was even turbaned in August 2018 by the Emir of Daura, Umar Faruq, with the traditional title of Danbaiwan-Hausa.
It was said to be “in recognition of his efforts in the development of Abia and Nigeria at large.”
Mr Kalu reportedly proceeded to the residence of President Buhari where he held a closed-door meeting with him.
Fighting tooth and nail
Meanwhile, the former Abia governor fought hard both within and outside the courtroom to either stall his trial or endlessly prolong the process.
The trial leading up to Thursday’s conviction was characterised by several adjournments occasioned by frivolous applications and provocative absenteeism.
After his arraignment in 2007, the former governor was granted bail. His bail conditions included the deposition of his travel documents with the court and being restrained from traveling outside the country without permission.
Mr Kalu flouted the bail conditions, leading to the revocation by the Federal High Court in Ikoyi, Lagos of his bail in November 2018.
The trial judge, Mohammed Idris, retracted the bail conditions granted to Kalu in 2007 when he was first arraigned before Justice Binta Nyako in Abuja.
Mr Kalu had travelled out of the country without permission. The judge ordered him to report himself to the EFCC on arrival in the country or be arrested if he failed to make himself available. His prolonged absence stalled the continuation of the trial.
Earlier, on the September 10, 2018, Justice Mohammed Idris openly scolded Mr Kalu for being absent from the continuation of his alleged N7.65 billion fraud trial.
The judge described as “highly irresponsible” the conduct of the former governor in the case since July 31, 2018 when his no-case submission was dismissed and he was directed to open his defence.
Justice Idris recalled that on July 31 after he had dismissed Mr Kalu’s arguments and directed him to open his defence, the former governor begged for a six-week adjournment on the claim that he had a surgical appointment in Germany.
But the judge on Monday said he doubted that Kalu had any such appointment as of July 27 when he wrote to the court to seek a six-week adjournment of his trial.
When the case eventually resumed in January 2019, specifically on the 23rd, the trial was again adjourned indefinitely because Mr Kalu did not show up in court.
There was a relief when in July 2019, the former governor finally opened his defence in the alleged N7.6 billion fraud.
But while he gave his testimony which lasted for about seven minutes, his counsel, Awa Kalu, truncated the proceedings as he sought for further adjournment to enable his client prepare well for the defence. His prayers were not granted on the grounds that he was properly notified on the proceedings.
Also, in August this year, his trial was stalled at the Federal High Court sitting in Lagos. Mr Kalu’s trial could not continue as a result of the absence of his counsel. Although the former governor was present in court, the trial judge, Justice Idris, was informed that the counsel was ill.
Following the delay, some groups made efforts to pressure the EFCC to expedite action on the trial of the former governor, warning that the delay in his trial was lending credence to the allegation that the commission was dallying over the prosecution of members of the ruling party.
Many believe that it is a welcome development that Mr Kalu, like ex-governors, Joshua Dariye, Lucky Igbinedion and others, has finally received his judgment for the acts of corruption while in office.
It is not certain if all Nigerians will agree that justice has been properly served.
Over N7 billion was diverted from the state’s till. Is there any way the Abia people could recover all of it? That is surely a case for another competent court of law.