Five months after the Supreme Court ordered the re-arraignment of a federal lawmaker and former Abia governor, Orji Kalu, concerns are mounting over the delay in restarting his trial by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Mr Kalu, who is the current Senate chief whip, representing Abia North, had earlier been convicted for stealing N7.1 billion from the Abia State treasury while he served as governor between 1999 and 2007.
The EFCC had in 2018 re-arraigned the two-term governor alongside Ude Udeogu, a former director of finance and accounts in Abia, and his company, Slok Nigeria Limited, on a 39-count charge before the Federal High Court in Lagos.
The trial judge, Mohammed Idris, who has now been elevated to the Court of Appeal, in a case that started in 2007, sentenced Mr Kalu to 12 years in prison for stealing public funds while in office.
Mr Udeogu was sentenced to 10 years in prison, while the third defendant, Mr Kalu’s company, Slok Nigeria Limited, was ordered to be wound up and its assets forfeited to the Nigerian government.
Aggrieved with their convictions, Slok and Mr Udeogu filed an appeal on technical grounds, which was rejected by a three-man panel at the Court of Appeal, stating that the appeal lacked merit.
But, on May 8 this year, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision by a seven-member panel, led by Justice Amina Augie, held that the trial court presided by Justice Idris should not have continued to hear the case since Mr Idris had been promoted to the appellate court.
The apex court also ruled that the trial judge lacked jurisdiction as at December 5, 2019, when he convicted Mr Kalu, having been promoted to the Court of Appeal bench.
The Supreme Court did not, however, look at the merit of the ‘crimes’ committed by Mr Kalu, only ordering his retrial.
The apex court’s verdict did not include releasing Mr Kalu from prison. But his counsel filed a suit before the Lagos Federal High Court for Mr Kalu’s release.
In his judgement, Justice Mohammed Liman of the Lagos court ordered the correctional service to release Mr Kalu from its Kuje facility. The centre obeyed the order the next day.
Meanwhile, in a prompt reaction to the judgement, the EFCC vowed in May to commence preparation to re-arraign the embattled former governor, according to a statement signed by the then spokesperson, Dele Oyewale.
But, five months after his release from prison, the senator has begun his full legislative duties at the upper chambers of the national assembly, while his case is yet to be re-opened.
Some civil society organisations, including Transparency International Nigeria have, thus, called on the EFCC to act on the earlier statement.
Responding to an inquiry by PREMIUM TIMES, the EFCC spokesperson, Wilson Uwujaren, last week, explained efforts by the commission to have Mr Kalu’s criminal case reopened.
He explained that since the apex court gave the order that the charges be reassigned to another judge for retrial, the case was moved to the Federal High Court in Abuja instead of the divisional court in Lagos, where the case initially began.
“After the Supreme Court judgement, there was a directive that the matter should go back to the Federal High Court. After that judgement, the chief judge of the Federal High Court in Lagos transferred the matter from Lagos to Abuja.
“And the commission is asking that the matter should be moved to Lagos as Abuja does not have jurisdiction for that,
“The commission’s request for a transfer of the case back to Lagos has not been done. That is why progress has not been done (achieved),” Mr Uwujaren had said.
Lawyers and activists who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES insisted that the case can be tried either in Abuja or Lagos.
Mr Kalu can be re-arraigned anywhere – Experts
A Lagos-based lawyer and civil rights activist, Inibehe Effiong, said the issue of the venue where proceedings of Mr Kalu would be conducted should not be a problem for the EFCC.
“I do not think it is a question of venue,” Mr Effiong said.
“As far as I am concerned he (Mr Kalu) can as well be tried in his home state. Now the fact that the trial is asked to begin afresh is going to be impacted by several things including the calling of witnesses, some of whom may have died or who may not be conversant with the fact of the matter and many more.
“But for the EFCC to start new prosecution, they would need resources and to gather witnesses and the rest, and of course, with the prolonged trial and the number of years which the trial had dragged on, it is clear that it is going to be impacted by the delay.
“What I am saying, in essence, is that instead of bothering about the venue where to file the fresh charge, if the EFCC is truly serious about prosecution, they as well go-ahead with the trial either in Abuja or Lagos.
“Although the venue would be relevant for purposes of convenience, for example, proximity to witnesses and that should be in Abia State, where the former governor served. But since the EFCC is contemplating a venue other than Abia State, I think they should just go ahead and file the charge as directed by the court.
“Because in any event, the Federal High Court is one under the Federal High Court Act, it only sits in divisions.” he added.
The co-founder of Connected Development, Hamzat Lawal, also told PREMIUM TIMES that the venue to re-try Mr Kalu should not be a concern.
“It is quite sad and unfortunate that the judiciary, which is the last hope of the common man, is failing the Nigerian people. This is someone (Mr Kalu) who had been jailed for stealing our collective wealth. So for me, it does not matter if the trial is in Lagos or Abuja, what matters is for the EFCC to use the instrument of the constitution and re-arraign him for the course of justice.
Olanrewaju Suraj, the chair of Human and Environmental Development Agenda, said “that would be most unfortunate if we (system) have gone through this process and years, we talking about over 10 years, and what we are having is a delay by the Federal High Court that should be very angry at the development where the time has been wasted already on this case.
“We as civil society would be monitoring what is happening with the judge and development at the Federal High Court to show that the cases are properly assigned and the prosecution can commence in earnest.” he said.
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