Why Orji Kalu’s freedom riles EFCC
Last Friday, Nigeria’s Supreme Court nullified the conviction of a former Abia State governor, Orji Uzor-Kalu, who had been jailed some months back for corruption while in office.
Kalu was subsequently released from custody, from the Nigerian correctional facility in Kuje, Abuja.
The apex Court in the ruling also quashed the conviction of Ude Udeogu, who was the director of finance and accounts at the Abia State government house during Kalu’s tenure in the state.
Justice Mohammed Idris had on December 5, 2019 sentenced Kalu to 12 years in prison for allegedly stealing public funds while in office, while Udeogu was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
Kalu’s company, Slok Nigeria Limited, had also been ordered to wound up and its assets forfeited to the Nigerian government. The Economic and financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had brought the criminal charge against the duo for conspiring and diverting 7.65 billion from the state treasury.
Dissatisfied with the judgment of the Federal High Court, Kalu and Udeogu filed an appeal to challenge their sentencing at the apex court.
Delivering judgment on Friday, a seven-member panel of the apex court in a unanimous decision set aside the judgment of Justice Mohammed Idris of the Federal High Court in Lagos which convicted and sentenced Kalu and Udeogu.
The apex court’s judgment delivered by Justice Ejembi Eko, declared the conviction of the appellants as null and void on the ground that Idris was already a Justice of the Court of Appeal as at the time he delivered the judgment sentencing the appellants.
Justice Eko further held that a Justice of the Court of Appeal cannot operate as a judge of the Federal High Court.
However, within the last few years, Kalu has been in the news for several reasons; in 2016, he defected from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) where he was a founding member to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). His defection to the APC had elicited criticism from PDP members and political opponents who said it was an attempt to cover up his corruption trial and desperate move to resuscitate his waning political influence.
However, Kalu had responded by saying that he had been begged to join the APC and would work to entrench the party in the Southeast.
“I was invited to dinner over 20 times by some of the party’s chieftains, including the national chairman, while the wooing lasted.
“They had been on by neck, asking that I must come over to APC and the national chairman always buys me red wine. My red wine is still packed in his house and I visit his place regularly to chat because we attend the same church,” Kalu had said.
In 2019, he won a senatorial election to represent Abia North under the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC) defeating Mao Ohuabunwa with over 10,000 votes.
Ohuabunwa who had earlier defeated him in two previous elections for the same senatorial seat, however, disputed the result of the election saying that he was rigged out.
Kalu played an active role in the re-election presidential bid of incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari shortly after he joined the APC in 2016, touring all the regions of the country to sell Buhari’s candidacy and the APC.
He was a major actor who helped in coordinating Buhari’s campaign in the Southeast in 2019 presidential election, while helping the party garner some chunk of the votes in Abia State and other eastern states in a region largely controlled by the PDP.
Friday’s judgment by the nation’s apex Court has continued to elicit reactions among lawyers and political observers across the country.
A Lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Jhon Bayeisha said though the Supreme Court in its interpretation of the law was right, but described the judgment as a setback for the anti-graft war in Nigeria.
Bayeisha said the judgment showed an inherent contradiction and fault in the Administration of Criminal Justice Act in Nigeria and the state of the judiciary.
According to him, “I just believe he was released on technical ground; you know that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act made a provision to say that.
“This case took more than ten years to prosecute; so the Criminal Justice Act is trying to say a judge handling a criminal case like this and elevated to a higher Court should leave such case for someone else.
“This is how people like this get away with these things, because it is such a technical thing. Another judge would come and start all over again.
“Of course, he may be smiling now and see it as a good judgment; but I tell you that the criminal justice system is bleeding. The truth of the matter is that when that law was made I had reservation because I knew it would not survive the test of challenge at the superior court.
“Although what the Supreme Court said is right in law but for the society and what we are trying to do in the country is a damaging blow, in fact, the whole legal system is frustrated”.
Wunmi Bewaji, politician, activist and lawyer, said the Supreme Court was right, while there was nothing unusual in the judgment, stressing that it was blown out of proportion because a politician is involved.
“The Supreme Court is the apex court and the judgment is the final, the Supreme Court has ordered a retrial that is what should be done. I think technically the Supreme Court is right.
“If the judge was appointed into another office it may sound technical, but it has nothing to do with the merit of the case, so when a trial is reordered it means something as been identified wrong with the process.
“Nothing wrong and suspicious happened, it is because the individual involve is a politician; people may want to read meaning into it which I think is not necessary,” Bewaji said.
In its reaction Friday, Abia APC lauded the Supreme Court for repealing Kalu sentence.
Benedict Godson, publicity secretary, APC, Abia State chapter in a press release, made available to BDSUNDAY, stated that Kalu’s freedom was an answer to the prayer of his people.
“Today (Friday) is a happy day for everyone, who loves justice and fair hearing. Our leader is out from where he shouldn’t be in the first place.
“His constituents have cried for so long, Abians have cried for so long, Nigerians have cried for so long and today, God has decided to hear all of us and set this great man free. We say glory be to God for his love.
“His freedom is not for him alone. It’s a freedom for Nigeria, because there are many persons, who have been praying, fasting and waiting for a day like this, because they know that his freedom will bring fresh air into the lives of many families,” Godson.
“It’s also not surprising that the apex court took a unanimous decision, where a seven-man panel of Justices agreed that the Federal High Court in Lagos acted without jurisdiction when it convicted him.
“Our prayers have been answered and we’re waiting to receive our leader back home and wish him sound health,” he further said.
In his address after his release, Uzor Kalu had thanked Nigerians and Judiciary.
He noted that the past five months had provided him an opportunity to learn invaluable lessons about Nigeria.
In a statement personally signed by him, the Abia North Senator stated that the judgment reaffirmed his belief in the judicial system
“Today, the Supreme Court of Nigeria gave a judgment in my favor, quashing the conviction which the lower court had entered against me. By today’s judgment, the Apex court of our dear country affirmed my right to fair hearing and equal protection of the law.
“The past five months have been quite a profound period for me. As challenging as that period has been, it has provided me an opportunity to learn invaluable lessons about our country, our peoples, our justice system and the true meaning of love. I mean love for family, love for our country and love for humanity.
“I want to use this moment to thank my family, my colleagues, my friends, my supporters, the people of Abia State, and all Nigerians for their unflinching and unwavering confidence and trust in me through the very testing period. We all know today that their prayers have not been in vain. I also use this opportunity to express my gratitude to the Nigerian Correctional Service for the unalloyed professionalism and sincere humanity extended to me by its staff while I was in their custody,” Kalu said.
“Overall, my experience tested and reaffirmed my belief and confidence in our country, Nigeria. My case is a true Nigerian story with a bold MADE-IN-NIGERIA stamp on it. It is a story of initial injustice that was caught and ultimately corrected. It is a story of restoration. It is a story of how a wrong was righted and how justice and truth prevailed in the end. It is a story of the power of hope. My case should teach us all that even though we may not get things right at the first attempt, with patience and dedication, we shall get them right eventually. That is the lesson of my case and that is the lesson of our country – that with dedication and patience, we shall place Nigeria in its rightful place eventually,” he said.
Meanwhile, while basking in the euphoria of his freedom, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has said it was ready for fresh and immediate retrial of the former governor of Abia State.
The agency in a statement signed by its Head of Media and Publicity, Dele Oyewale, described the judgment of the apex court as quite unfortunate.
“The attention of the Economic And Financial Crimes Commission has been drawn to the judgment of the Supreme Court nullifying the trial of a former governor of Abia State, Orji Kalu, his firm, Slok Nigeria Limited and Jones Udeogu, a former Director of Finance and Account of Abia State Government and ordering their fresh trial at the lower court.
“The apex court based its verdict on the grounds that Justice Mohammed Idris, who convicted Kalu and others, had been elevated to the Court of Appeal before the judgment and returned to the lower court to deliver the judgment which it considered as illegal,” he said.
According to Oyewale, “The corruption charges against Kalu still subsist because the Supreme Court did not acquit him of them. The entire prosecutorial machinery of the EFCC would be launched in a fresh trial where justice is bound to be served in due course.”