One political analyst once described Kalu as “an individual who bears the stamp of shame, becoming in the process, an incredulous moral burden, decorated with the baggage of alienation and ostracism.”
The story of Orji Uzor Kalu is that of a political heavy weight who once rode on the wings of opulence to impact lives but allowed greed and avarice to rob him of all, ultimately landing himself in the murky waters of prison.
He may be out of prison at the moment due to the foggy and muddy methods of Nigeria’s justice system but many have continued to ask: is he really free? How did his long walk to freedom come to pass? And will he be back to the dungeon anytime soon?
Road to prison
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Kalu’s long and shaky walk from the exalted position of a governor and Chief Whip of the Senate to prison, and later breathing the air of freedom after five grueling months as a guest at the Ikoyi Prison, began on December 5, 2019.
A Federal High Court in Lagos had sentenced him to 12 years in prison after finding him guilty of 39 counts of N7.2 billion fraud and money laundering.
Kalu was charged alongside Jones Udeogo, the then Abia State Director of Finance during his tenure as the governor, and his company, Slok Nig. Ltd., which was also a defendant in the suit.
While Kalu and his company were convicted on all the 39 counts of the fraud charge, Udeogo was found guilty on 34 counts.
In his ruling, Justice Mohammed Idris, apart from sentencing the former governor to 12 years in prison for the N7.65 billion fraud, also ordered that Slok Nig. Ltd. should be wound up, and its assets forfeited to the Federal Government.
While being marched to the prison, Kalu was heard telling the prison wardens:
“What are the handcuffs for? Are you putting those on me?”
On the wings of freedom
Five months later, exactly on May 8, 2020, reprieve came his way when, working on a lacuna, Kalu’s lawyers succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s judgment, rendering null and void the conviction and sentencing.
The apex court, in a unanimous decision by a seven-man panel of justices led by Justice Amina Augie, had held that the Federal High Court in Lagos acted without jurisdiction when it convicted Kalu, his firm, Slok Nigeria Limited, and Udeogu.
The court also held that the trial judge, Justice Idris, was no longer a judge of the Federal High Court as at the time he sat and delivered the judgment that convicted the defendants for allegedly emptying the Abia State treasury and for this, the Supreme Court ruled that Justice Idris, having been elevated to the Court of Appeal before then, lacked the powers to return to sit as a High Court judge.
The Court of Appeal, in its judgment read by Justice Olabisi Ige, held that section 98(3) and (4) of administration of criminal justice Act 2015 were not applicable to the appellants’ case.
“Nothing is perverse with the decision of the trial court. The complaint of the appellants is a non-issue.
“If a court has a jurisdiction/power, the fact of doing so under a wrong law is no reason to set it aside. The rights of the appellants were not infringed,” the judge had held.
But what many did not know was that it was actually Kalu’s lawyers who wrote to the President of the Court of Appeal to allow Justice Idris to conclude Kalu’s case which was already partly-heard before his elevation to the Court of Appeal, in line with section 396(7) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015.
Their contention was that by virtue of the said letter requesting that Justice Idris be allowed to conclude Kalu’s case, Kalu was deemed to have consented to the procedure and as such there was no basis to void the entire proceedings based on that singular point.
That is the justice system Nigeria has been saddled with, many would argue.
While expressing his happiness at breathing the air of freedom one more time, Kalu admitted to have learnt his lessons, and vowed to work assiduously to uphold justice for all and sundry.
He said, among others:
“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.
“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,” he had said as the huge doors of the prison were opened for him.
Not yet uhuru!
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Kalu’s joy may be short-lived as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has vowed that it would begin a fresh trial of the former governor for theft of public fund and money laundering as ordered by the Supreme Court.
Still, the case against Kalu may meet a brick wall as the intrigues leading up to his release could very well militate against the ex-governor’s return to jail. This is as many have since dismissed the EFCC’s threat to return to court as another flash in the pan that will fizzle out with time.
It will not be the first time the courts and justice system will bungle cases involving top politicians who have been caught with their hands in the cookie jars.
A case in point was that of former Gombe State governor, Danjuma Goje, whose embezzlement and misappropriation case was seen as an open and shut case, but within a twinkle of an eye, Nigerians woke up one morning to hear that all the charges against him had been dropped.
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In that instance, it was rumoured that the dropping of Goje’s case was in exchange for him to drop his senate presidency ambition for the incumbent, Ahmad Lawan.
Be that as it may, Kalu’s bargaining chips may have a lot to do with the permutations for the 2023 elections and the Igbo Presidency agenda.
Before his fall from grace, Kalu had drawn the anger of many Abians when he wrote an open letter, insinuating that the people did not appreciate all he had done for them, falling short of calling his people ingrates.
In the open letter laden with condescending and disdainful words, Kalu claimed he had serviced a debt of $600 million incurred by an administration in 1983, referring to the regime of the revered Sam Mbakwe who was governor of then Imo State at the time.
But Abians had taken him to task, saying nothing could be farther from the truth because Imo, Abia and Ebonyi (carved out of the then Imo State), collectively shared the subsisting liabilities incurred by the old Imo State and there was no record to show that Abia alone inherited the $600 million dollars debt.
Also in the letter, Kalu had shot himself on the foot by claiming he left a debt of N29 billion for Abia people, but that out of the sum, his predecessor, T.A Orji, had borrowed N20 billion in the first two months of his administration.
Yet, Kalu is still being dragged for the misfortunes of the state’s industries like the Golden Guinea Breweries, National Ambassador, Abia Hotels, Modern Ceramics Industry which were allegedly sold off to his companies and cronnies.
The long-drawn battles
On July 11, 2007, Kalu was first arrested by the EFCC on charges of corruption while serving as the governor of Abia State but was later released on bail. He was to accuse the Olusegun Obasanjo regime of persecuting him during and after his tenure in office.
Though he left office in 2007, in October 2016, the EFCC renewed its prosecution and preferred 34 count charges against Kalu and Udeogo, but they both pleaded not guilty to the charges and were granted bail.
The EFCC ultimately reactivated Kalu’s case again in 2018, filing amended graft 39 charges of up to N7.7 billion against him and in 2019, he was found guilty of all the charges and sent to jail.
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After long years of legal battle, Kalu was eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison and in one of the counts against him, the EFCC alleged that he “did procure Slok Nigeria Limited, a company solely owned by you and members of your family, to retain in its account, domiciled with the then Inland Bank Plc, Apapa branch, Lagos, an aggregate sum of N7,197,871,208.7 on your behalf.”
The prosecution claimed that the N7.1 billion “formed part of the funds illegally derived from the treasury of the Abia State Government and which was converted into several bank drafts before they were paid into the said company’s account.”
The prosecuting counsel, Rotimi Jacobs, said the ex-governor violated Section 17(c) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2004, and was liable to be punished under Section 16 of the same Act.
Apart from the N7.1bn, which he was accused of laundering, the ex-governor and the other defendants were also accused of receiving a total of N460 million allegedly stolen from the Abia State Government treasury between July and December 2002.
Prison beckons again?
Though his supporters had celebrated his walk to freedom, one misconception that must be cleared as far as the Kalu’s case is concerned, is the fact that the apex court did not acquit him of the corruption charges for which he was earlier convicted.
The Supreme Court, rather, ordered the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to reassign the case to another judge of that court for a fresh trial. The apex court, in a way, was saying that though Kalu may be guilty as earlier found by Justice Idris, nevertheless, the case must be reassigned to another judge in the same court due to Justice Idris’ elevation.
Now, the crucial question being asked by Nigerians remains thus:
Is section 396 (7) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, actually inconsistent with the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution so as to justify the Supreme Court’s verdict which nullified Kalu’s trial?
Again, does the fact that it was Kalu’s counsel that requested in writing for the conclusion of the trial by Justice Idris who was already a justice of the Court of Appeal, make any difference?
A provision of section 396 (7) of the said Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, states:
“Notwithstanding the provision 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 partly-heard criminal matter pending before him at the time of his elevation;
“And shall conclude the same within a reasonable time, provided that this section shall not prevent him from assuming duty as a Justice of the Court of Appeal.”
That provision expressly permits a judge of a High Court who has been elevated to the Court of Appeal to continue to sit as a High Court judge for the purpose of concluding any partly-heard criminal matter before his elevation.
The provision further states that this arrangement shall not prevent such judge from assuming duty as a Justice of the Court of Appeal.
While the purpose of the provision is to fast-track criminal trials and to ensure that elevation of judges handling partly-heard criminal matters do not frustrate or delay criminal cases in Nigeria, the implication of the provision is that it tends to confer two status; a judge of the High Court on one hand, and a justice of the Court of Appeal on the other hand, on one judge of two different courts at the same time.
Experts have, therefore, posited that the nullification of Kalu’s trial by the trial court was not based on technicalities as argued by many senior lawyers but that it was a constitutional issue, especially one that touched on jurisdiction, which could not have been regarded as a matter of technicality.
Kalu’s case might have had grave inconveniences to all stakeholders that were involved in the matter but according to legal luminaries, the court was wrong to have declared the law as they found it.
Would Kalu be heading back to prison soon? The answers may not be readily available as the law, many argue, is still an ass. What is certain, however, is that the EFCC, under the chairmanship of Abdulrasheed Bawa, must execute the mandate of the Supreme Court and go for retrial and pursue the matter to a logical conclusion?
The Orji Kalu we know
Born on April 21, 1960, Kalu is recorded to have attended University of Maiduguri. As a student activist, he participated in the “Ali Must Go” riots against the then Education Minister and was subsequently suspended from the institution.
But while his fellow students later took the school authorities to court asking to be reinstated, Kalu dropped out of school to start his own business.
He eventually established SLOK Holding, a conglomerate that would consist of a number of successful companies, including the Ojialex Furniture Company, SLOK Nigeria Limited, SLOK United Kingdom Limited, Adamawa Publishers Limited, SLOK Vegetable Oil, Aba, SLOK Paper Factory, Aba, SLOK United States Incorporated, SLOK Ghana, Togo, Cotonou, Guinea, South Africa, Liberia, Botswana, SLOK Korea, Supreme Oil Limited, SLOK Airlines, First International Bank Limited, before venturing into publishing by establishing The Sun Newspapers and later, the New Telegraph Newspaper.
Prior to becoming the governor of Abia State, Kalu served as the chairman of the Borno State Water Board and the chairman of the Cooperative and Commerce Bank Limited.
He was also a founding member of the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA), the chairman of the PPA Board of Trustees, and the party’s candidate for president in the April 2007 general election.
Kalu was chairman of the First International Bank Limited at the age of 33, as well as the facilitator of Nigerian commercial relations with China’s SinoPacific Shipbuilding Company, while serving as chairman of SLOK Holding.
In 1999, Kalu contested for the governorship seat in Abia State and was elected governor on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), where he served two terms from May 29, 1999, to May 29, 2007.
He had, in 2015, lost his bid to be elected senator but returned in 2019 when he won the Abia North senatorial election on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
He was to later emerge as the emerged as the Senate Chief Whip before he was convicted and jailed in 2019.