…As FG re-arraigns them, fixes Dec 6 for opening of trial
After nine years of legal gymnastics, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), on Tuesday re-arraigned former Abia State Governor, Orji Uzor Kalu and two others before a Federal High Court in Abuja on a 34-count charge of siphoning N3.2billion belonging to the people of Abia State while Kalu held sway as the state governor.
That was after all the accused persons failed in their bid to stall the trial on Tuesday.
Besides Kalu, the two others are Jones Udeogo who was Kalu’s aide during his tenure and the former governor’s company, Slok Nigeria Limited.
Justice Anwuli Chikere presided over the trial on Tuesday.
Bar and Bench Watch reports that the anti-graft agency (EFCC) had on July 27, 2007 arraigned the trio of Kalu, Udeogo and Slok Nigeria Limited over the same subject matter before Justice Adamu Bello (now retired), a judge well versed in criminal jurisprudence.
However, trial on the merit of the charge could not commence in the case between 2007 and now following various interlocutory applications filed by Kalu and the two others to quash the charge in limine.
For instance, the accused persons first challenged the competence of the charge against them as well as the jurisdiction of the High Court to hear and determine the case.
Following refusal by the trial court to quash the charge on those grounds, Kalu, took the case before the Court of Appeal in Abuja.
The intermediate appellate court, in a unanimous judgment, upheld the competence of the charge, adding that the high court was constitutionally empowered to exercise jurisdiction on the trial.
Dissatisfied with the verdict, former Governor Kalu approached the Supreme Court, begging it to set-aside the concurrent findings of the two lower courts.
Orji Kalu, the former governor, through his lawyer Prof Awa Kalu, SAN, pleaded with a five-man panel of Justices of the apex court, headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, to quash the criminal charge against him.
He had contended that the charge filed by EFCC failed to link him to the ingredients of the offence contained in the charge.
It was also his contention that the proof of evidence the anti-graft agency filed against him did not disclose any prima facie case against him.
But the apex court, in a unanimous judgment delivered on March 16, 2016, disagreed with him and dismissed the appeal, even as it ordered the appellant to go and face his trial before the high court.
While upholding the Court of Appeal verdict, Justice Suleiman Galadima who delivered the lead verdict, said the apex court was satisfied that the former governor had a case to answer pertaining to allegations that were levelled against him by the EFCC.
Besides, the apex court ordered the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, to re-assign the case to another Judge to enable the trial to commence de-novo (afresh).
The apex court also ordered accelerated hearing in the matter.
After the case file was returned to the Chief Judge of the Federal high court, Justice Ibrahim Auta in obeisance to the order of the apex court re-assigned the case to Justice Anwuli Chikere.
But instead of EFCC going ahead with the old 107-count charge filed against Kalu and the two others nine years ago, the anti-graft agency reduced the charge to just 34-counts.
The amendment of the charge appeared to be a response to observation by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) at its 56th Annual General Conference in Garden City Port-Harcourt where EFCC’spractice of filing several scores of counts against just an accused person was fingered as one of the reasons why the commission was not getting convictions in record time.
But before the new charge of 34-counts was read to them on Tuesday, Kalu and others again kicked against their re-arraignment.
They urged the court to await the pending appeal by Slok also challenging the validity of the charge before the Supreme Court.
But the trial judge, Justice Anwuli Chikere rejected the objection to their arraignment and ordered that the charge be read to them.
They subsequently took turn to enter a plea of not guilty to each of the counts when they were read out to them.
Their counsel however pleaded with the court to allow them continue on their bail also on terms attached to it on April 30, 2008 after they were arraigned before Justice Adamu Bello (now retired).
The high court subsequently adjourned till December 6, 2016 for the commencement of trial.