Concerns have been raised over delay in reconvening the trial of Chief Orji Uzor Kalu, a Federal Lawmaker and former Governor of Abia state, by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), months after the Supreme Court had ordered for his re-arraignment.
Mr. Kalu, the current Senate Chief Whip, representing Abia North, had been convicted for stealing the sum of N7.1 billion from the Abia State treasury while serving as a governor between 1999 and 2007.
The EFCC had in 2018 re-arraigned the 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.
Mohammed Idris, the trial judge, 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 embezzling public funds while serving the state.
Mr. Udeogu was sentenced to 10 years in prison, while the third defendant, Mr. Kalu’s company, Slok Nigeria Limited, was ordered to be shut down and its assets forfeited to the Nigerian government.
Subsequently after this pronouncement, Slok and Mr. Udeogu filed an appeal on technical grounds, which was revoked by a three-man panel at the Court of Appeal, on the basis that the appeal lacked merit.
On May 8, 2020, the Supreme Court, in a collective 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 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.
Justice Mohammed Liman of the Lagos court in his judgement, ordered the correctional service to release Mr. Kalu from its Kuje facility, and this was effected the next day.
Reacting to the judgement, the EFCC affirmed in May, to arrangement to re-arraignment of the convicted former governor
However, months after his release from prison, the senator had begun his full legislative duties at the upper chambers of the national assembly, while his case is yet to be re-opened.
Civil society organisations including Transparency International Nigeria have called on the EFCC to act on the earlier statement.
Wilson Uwujaren, the EFCC spokesperson, responded to the call by unveiling the efforts made by the commission to reopen Mr. Kalu’s criminal case.
He explained further 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).’
Inibehe Effiong, a Lagos-based lawyer and civil rights activist, reiterated that, the issue of the venue where Mr. Kalu’s proceedings would be conducted shouldn’t pose a problem for the EFCC.
He said, ‘I do not think it is a question of venue.’
‘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.’
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