By Ikechukwu Nnochiri, Abuja
Respite came the way of the embattled former governor of Abia State and Chief Whip of the Senate, Dr, Orji Uzor Kalu, on Friday, as the Supreme Court, quashed the judgement that convicted and sentenced him to 12 years imprisonment.
The apex, in a unanimous decision by a seven-man panel of Justices led by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, nullified the entire proceedings that led to Kalu’s conviction, even as it ordered the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to re-assign the money laundering charge the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, preferred against him and two others, to another judge for re-trial. Meanwhile, ex-governor Kalu, in his prompt reaction to the judgement, lauded the apex court, saying he would henceforth dedicate his time to fight against injustice in the country.
The Supreme Court had in the lead verdict that was read by Justice Ejembi Eko, held that the trial High Court Judge, Justice Mohammed Idris, acted without jurisdiction when he convicted Kalu, his firm, Slok Nigeria Limited and a former Director of Finance in Abia State, Jones Udeogu. It noted that Justice Idris was no longer a judge of the Federal High Court as at December 5, 2019, when he sat and delivered the judgement that convicted the defendants for allegedly stealing about N7.1billion from Abia state treasury. According to the Supreme Court, Justice Idris, having been elevated to the Court of Appeal before then, lacked the powers to return to sit as a High Court Judge.
It held that the Fiat that was issued to him by the Court of Appeal President pursuant to section 396(7) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, was unconstitutional. The apex court held that no statute in Nigeria empowered the Court of Appeal President to give vires to a Justice of the appellate court to return to the High Court to deliver judgement in a pending criminal trial, stressing that the Court of Appeal President, “acted ultra-vires his powers when she purportedly gave the authorization” with respect to Kalu’s case.
“The Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal are all courts that were set up and established by the Constitution. No head of either court perform the function or interfere in the internal activities of either court. “Just as the Court of Appeal President has no power to assign case to any Federal High Court Judge, so also does the Federal High Court Chief Judge lack the powers to interfere in the activities of the Court of Appeal”, Justice Eko held.
He held that the Court of Appeal President, by issuing a letter to Justice Idris to return to the Federal High Court to conclude the trial of Kalu and his co-defendants, usurped the power of President Muhammadu Buhari to appoint Judges for both superior courts, as well as the power of Chief Judge of the High Court to assign cases to Judges under him. Consequently, the apex court held that since Justice Idris returned to the trial court based on an unconstitutional directive by the Court of Appeal President, the judgement and subsequent conviction of the defendants amounted to a nullity.
It therefore ordered that the charge in suit No. FHC/ABJ/CR/26/2017, which EFCC entered against Kalu and his co-defendants, should be remitted back to Chief Judge of the Federal High Court for re-assignment to any other judge for the trial to commence de-novo (afresh).
The judgement followed an appeal Kalu’s firm, Slok, lodged to challenge the jurisdiction of the high court that tried the matter and found the defendants guilty. It will be recalled that Kalu who is currently the federal lawmaker representing Abia North Senatorial District, Slok, and a former Director of Finance in Abia State, Jones Udeogu; were initially convicted for allegedly using the firm to defraud the Government of Abia State in the eight years Kalu held sway as governor of the state.
Whereas the trial court sentenced Kalu to 12 years imprisonment, Udeogu was handed a 10-year jail term. The court ordered that the firm be wound up with its assets forfeited to the government.
Dissatisfied with the decision of the trial court, Kalu’s firm challenged it at the court of appeal, insisting that it was perverse and occasioned a miscarriage of justice. However, the appellate court, in a unanimous verdict by a three-man panel of Justices, on March 26, dismissed the appeal and affirmed the decision of the trial court. The panel in the judgment that was read by Justice Olabisi Ige, held that the appeal lacked merit.
Though Kalu’s corruption case began in 2007, the trial however suffered series of setback owing to various interlocutory objections the defendants raised up to the Supreme Court
. EFCC eventually closed its case against them after it called a total of 19 witnesses that testified before the trial court. Meantime, in a statement he issued barely one hour after the judgement, Kalu said he would henceforth, dedicate his time to ensuring that there will be justice for all Nigerians, adding that events of the past five months gave him an added perspective on matters of justice and injustice in the country. He decried that a situation where over 70% of all prison inmate population in the country is made up of people awaiting trial, should not be allowed to continue. He said:
“Today, the Supreme Court of Nigeria gave a judgement 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. “I must accord a special mention to the Justices of our Supreme Court for their unwavering commitment to rule of law.
“We all stand reminded of the consistent and strategic relevance of the Nigerian Supreme Court in holding this country together, even in moments of great peril. “As far back as in the 1971 case of LAKANMI V. ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE FEDERATION, (the Ademola Adetokunbo-led Court) the Nigerian Supreme Court has severally rescued this country from the precipice.
“Also throughout the dark era of military rule in Nigeria, the Supreme Court neither wavered nor flinched in its commitment to justice and fairness. And despite some moments of distraction and mass hysteria, the Nigerian Supreme Court has remained the veritable compass to the highest ideals of justice attainable in this country.
“This long tradition of the court was exemplified in today’s judgment. I was humbled by the court’s boldness and sense of justice as shown in my case.
“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.
“Before I end, I would like to let it be known that the events of the past five months gave me an added perspective on matters of justice and injustice in Nigeria.
“I have come to know that the course of justice will not be complete if it stopped at my case.
It must continue until it touches the lives of millions of Nigerians who face injustice anywhere in this world. “I shall be dedicating my time henceforth to ensuring there will be justice for all Nigerians whether they are in Sokoto or Akwa Ibom or in Lagos or Maiduguri or in Jos or Enugu, or wherever they may be.
“Justice for one man or for a few people will no longer be enough in this country. A system whereby over 70% of all prison inmates population is made up of people awaiting trial cannot be allowed to continue.
“Situations where innocent people are falsely charged with murder just to get them out of the way does not dignify our country and cannot continue. Justice must now mean justice for all. That is my pledge to Nigerians. “I look forward to rejoining my colleagues in the Senate as soon as possible. Thank you and God bless all of you”.