Orji Uzor Kalu
The recent ruling by Nigeria’s Supreme Court upturning the incarceration of Senate Chief Whip, Orji Uzor Kalu, by Hon. Justice M. B. Idris of the Federal High Court, Abuja, underscores the country’s undulating national politics that began in 2015.
A quick rehash: With a lofty electioneering promise to change the way government business was carried out in Nigeria, notably fighting official corruption, defeating Boko Haram insurgents and diversifying the economy, the newly minted All Progressives Congress (APC) defeated erstwhile invincible political armada, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
What made the 2015 presidential poll very momentous was not only because APC fielded a serial presidential aspirant and former military head of state, General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd), but also that the PDP had as its standard-bearer, an incumbent in Dr. Goodluck Jonathan.
While Nigerians looked forward to the promised change, despair quickly set in when the president found it hard to put together a federal cabinet of aides, even as the suspense left a debilitating impact on the economy.
In the absence of a federal cabinet, two huge national happenstances riled the citizenry: The man elected President of the 8th Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, was arraigned at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), for political reasons, but on the guise of some discrepancies in the Asset Declaration forms he filed 12 years prior when he served Kwara State as governor.
Secondly, the first election to be conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) after its well-received outing in 2015 presidential poll threw up what has settled in Nigeria’s political lexicon as inconclusive elections.
Kalu’s defection politics/defective trial
NOT long after the 2015 loss of the presidential power by PDP, Kalu, who served Abia State as its governor from 1999 through 2007, started singing a dirge about opposition politics. He lamented what he called former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s reprisal against him for standing alongside other ‘progressives’ to defeat a tenure elongation plan devised by the former president’s insiders.
Signs that the former Abia State governor had resolved to jump ship to APC emerged when he sent his mother, Chief (Mrs.) Eunice Kalu, and brother, Mascot Kalu, to 40 Balantyre Street, where they were received by the then APC national chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun.
That was also despite the fact of his incomplete metamorphosis from his Peoples Progressives Alliance (PPA), upon which he contested the 2015 Abia North Senatorial seat poll to PDP, whose presidential candidate he supported.
By the time the various election petitions and re-runs were concluded, Kalu announced his membership of APC at his ward in Igbere. Not long after his eventual voyage to the party in power than words started making the rounds in Umuahia and Abuja that the former governor was seeking shelter for case No: FHC/ABJ/CR/56/07, a corruption criminal charge filed in 2007 shortly after he left office.
Having joined the governing party and buoyed by the much sought-after federal might that is a huge fillip to politics in the Southeast, Kalu regaled Nigerians through the media with sad tales of how he lost his major investments in banking, shipping and aviation to the highhanded vendetta machinations from former President Obasanjo.
While he accused PDP of being peopled by ingrates, especially given the quantum of financial support he rendered to build the party, Kalu did not spare the umbrella socio-cultural organization of Igbo, Ohanaeze Nd’Igbo, stressing that everybody should bear his burden even as he claimed that he was made by northern political actors in business and commerce.
Yet, as the restless former governor continued to stand in the gap for APC and the presidency, the perception grew that he was sure to bluff his way out of the corruption trial, particularly after he was honoured in Daura, President Buhari’s hometown, with a traditional title. But, while the maverick continued his political exuberance, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) amended the charges against him, a developmental that stunned Kanu and his supporters.
Coming barely nine months to the 2019 general elections, for which he had expressed the intention to recontest Abia North Senatorial seat, observers claimed that the amended charges were proof that President Buhari’s anti-corruption battle was no respecter of persons.
Others, however, dismissed the development as part of the antics of EFCC to continue to pull the wool over the eyes of Nigerians, that the commission was not looking at graft cases through partisan binoculars.
As it turned out, the amended charges, which came after an adjourned sitting on May 11, 2018, brought the counts to 39, upon which the accused persons promptly filed no-case submissions and played up the air of suspense surrounding the former governor’s alleged N3.2 billion fraud alongside his former director of finance, Jones Udeogu and Slok Nigeria Limited.
Not long after the Federal High Court dismissed his no-case submission, Kalu traveled to Germany, where he was said to have undergone a surgical procedure for an undisclosed ailment. Although pictures of the embattled former governor in a hospital with a bandaged leg were circulated on social media platforms, it was widely speculated that the first accused person had escaped overseas pending Buhari’s loss of the 2019 presidential poll.
But putting a lie to the summations of conspiracy theorists, Kalu returned to Nigeria at a time posters announcing his presidential ambition adorned the entire stretch of Airport Road through Lugbe to Abuja city centre. As a political actor that craves headlines and controversies, Kalu made a song and dance of his denunciation of presidential aspiration, explaining that “President Buhari was doing well and deserves a second term” in office.
On June 26, 2018 the office of the President of Court of Appeal (PCA), Abuja, received an application from Kalu’s counsel, Gordy Uche, asking PCA that Justice Mohammed B. Idris, who had been elevated to the Court of Appeal, be allowed to conclude the trial of the criminal corruption case.
Titled, “Application for Hon. Justice M. B. Idris to conclude the part-heard trial in charge No: FHC/ABJ/CR/56/07, Federal Republic of Nigeria vs. Orji Uzor Kalu & 2 others,” the counsel to Kalu stated: “We are counsel to the 1st defendant (Orji Uzor Kalu, the former governor of Abia State) in the above corruption criminal charge, currently pending at the FHC, Lagos and which was being handled by His Lordship, Hon. Justice M. B. Idris, who was last week sworn-in as a Justice of the Court of Appeal…
“However, the above charge was filed since the year 2007, about 11 years ago, and is now almost at its concluding stages after a protracted trial in which the Prosecution filed 7 additional Proofs of Evidence, fielded 19 witnesses and had closed its case. The defence has since filed their respective No-Case-Submissions, which would have been ruled upon by His Lordship save for his recent elevation to the Court of Appeal.
“We are therefore constrained to humbly request that Hon. Justice M. B. Idris JCA be allowed to conclude the trial of the part-heard corruption trial at the Federal High Court, Lagos.
“Our application is hinged on the provisions of Section 396 (7) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, which provides that: “Notwithstanding the provisions of any other law to the contrary, a Judge of the High Court, who has been elevated to the Court of Appeal, shall have dispensation to continue to sit as a High Court Judge only for the purpose of concluding any part-heard criminal matter pending before him at the time of his elevation and shall conclude the same within a reasonable time; provided that this subsection shall not prevent him from assuming duty as a Justice of the Court of Appeal.””
From Senate to prison
WITHIN the period of the prolonged trial, Kalu stood election on three consecutive times for the Abia North Senatorial District, only to be elected on the third attempt after his defection to the governing party.
One of his rivals in the senatorial contest, Senator Mao Ohuabunwa of PDP, cried foul over the return of Kalu as the winner of the February 23, 2019, National Assembly, complaining that the APC candidate employed soldiers and INEC officials to swing the votes in his favour.
Although the National Assembly Election Petition sitting in Umuahia invalidated the senatorial contest and Kalu’s victory, the Court of Appeal sitting in Owerri upheld the election, thereby rendering the order for a re-run unnecessary.
Meanwhile, as he battled with the election dispute, Kalu schemed his way to emerge as Senate Majority Whip, after stepping aside from his contrived aspiration for the post of Deputy President of Senate.
But, not long after he won his case against the tribunal ruling, which nullified his election into the senate at the Appeal Court, the application by his counsel to have Justice Idris, conclude action on the 12-year old corruption trial received positive response.
On December 12, 2019, Kalu and his fellow respondent, Udeogu, were handed 12 and 10 years jail terms apiece, just as the court ordered the winding down of Slok group owned by the former governor.
Nullification of judgment
FIVE months after the Senate Majority Whip took up residence, first in Ikoyi and later at Kuje prison, the apex court declared his incarceration null and void, explaining that Justice Idris lost the jurisdiction to jail the former Abia State governor.
The apex court, however, ordered a retrial of the accused persons. No matter which way the retrial ends, whenever it takes off, public perception would harbour doubts about justice and the merit of the outcome.
It would be recalled that barely two weeks before the committal of the Senate Whip to prison, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammad, warned presiding judges of the nation’s courts of superior jurisdictions to ward against using technicalities to obfuscate justice delivery in the country.
The CJN, who spoke at the opening of 2019 All Nigeria’s judges’ conference of superior courts at the National Judicial Institute (NJI), regretted that reliance on technicalities in the dispensation of justice contributes to the delay of justice delivery.
Speaking on the theme of the conference, which was “Sustaining Democracy through Effective and Efficient Administration of Justice,” Justice Tanko stated: “In order to sustain public confidence in the judiciary, judges must continue to be proactive by not allowing technicalities to stand in the way of substantive justice.”
But against Friday, May 8, 2020, nullification of Kalu’s conviction and committal, it is open to conjecture whether the CJN’s position on technicalities received proper attention or was seen as a mere feel-good public relations message to the citizens.
In their unanimous judgment read by Justice Ejembi Eko, the seven-man panel of Justices ruled Justice Idris out of order, pointing out that the fiat he got from the PCA in line with the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) did not give him the constitutional enablement to descend from the court above to deliver judgment on a matter in an inferior court, having become a Justice of the Court of Appeal (JCA).
The ruling has thrown up a lot of legal issues, but the entire weight of the pros and cons, merits and demerits of the inconclusive prosecution echoes the politics of the governing APC, which promise of change continues to engage public debate. Did the desire to make a statement about the efficacy of the anti-corruption fight prompt the judiciary under CJN Tanko to rush the defective ruling given that the matter had endured three electoral cycles?
Was there back-channel consultation to grant some reprieve to the Senate Whip so as to push back on the growing perception that the former Abia State governor was imprisoned to disable the Southeast’s contention for the 2023 presidency?
The Secretary-General, Movement for National Restructuring (MNR), Mr. Fred Nzeako, said the bulk of the blame for the disjointed judicial process should go to the electorate in Nigeria, who he said elected low-quality federal legislators bereft of intellectual depth for balanced legislation.
Nzeako, who is a lawyer and administrator, declared that even if Kalu’s lawyers do not brag to be the masters of the law, they could brag to be the masters of its loopholes.
According to him: “Who then can be blamed for what the society considers a judgmental loss? Was it the fault of the National Assembly, which made the laws and the Acts? No; they were eager to cure a very bad situation where hitherto cases had dragged for decades, including this one that lasted for over 11 years.
“The members of NASS, in their wisdom, gave what they felt was their best. Does one give what he has not? No. They gave what they had, based on the limits of their knowledge and intellectual capacities. After all, the constitution provides that they needed only attempted School Certificate or its equivalent to be in the Senate and House of Representatives.
“Blame the electorate for electing apex legislators with doubtful competencies.”