Justice Mohammed Idris of a Federal High Court in Lagos on Wednesday said that the court would await further directives to proceed with the trial of a former Governor of Abia, Orji Kalu, facing charges of N7.2 billion fraud.
Kalu, a chieftain of the ruling APC, was alleged to have committed the offence between August 2001 and October 2005.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is prosecuting Kalu together with his former Commissioner for Finance, Ude Udeogo and a company, Slok Nigeria Ltd., for the alleged offences.
On Oct. 31, 2016, the EFCC preferred a 34-count charge, bordering on N3.2 billion fraud against the accused.
The charges were however, amended and the charges increased to 39 counts.
Kalu and the others had each pleaded not guilty to the charges and were granted bail.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) recalls that Justice Idris, who has been sitting as trial judge over the criminal charge against Kalu, has been elevated to the Court of Appeal.
He had, however, been conducting trial in the case, following a fiat, authorising him to continue with the trial.
At the last adjourned date on Nov. 12, 2018, Kalu was absent from trial, after being absent on a previous adjourned date of Nov. 5, 2018.
Although, defence counsel had informed the court that he was away for medical treatment in Germany, the court had revoked his bail and ordered that at the point of his entry into the country, he must submit relevant travelling documents and himself to the EFCC, failing which he would be arrested.
The court had then adjourned the case until Jan. 23, for continuation of trial.
On Wednesday, the Prosecutor, Mr Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), appearing for the prosecution, informed the court that in spite of its order, the accused had refused to submit himself or his travelling documents to the EFCC.
He argued that such attitude constituted a clear disregard for the court, adding that in the circumstance, he would urge the court to give effect to the provisions of Section 352(4) of the ACJA, and continue with the trial of the accused even in his absence.
According to Jacobs, the court should order defence to call its witnesses, failing which the court is allowed by the provisions of the law, to close their case.
Responding, Counsel to the accused, Mr Awa Kalu (SAN), expressed his displeasure with the submissions of the prosecution, noting that such arguments as canvassed by Jacobs should be put in an affidavit for the defence to reply.
The court, however, in its reaction, informed parties that although the case had been adjourned for continuation of trial, the fiat issued by the presiding judge of the appellate court expired at the end of November 2018.
He said that on Jan. 10, he had received fresh fiat in respect of some other matters before him, adding that the instant case was not mentioned.
Idris said that for this reason, he had strong doubt if he should continue with proceedings, adding that it was important he acted with abundant caution.
“I should not proceed further, otherwise, I will be acting without authority. So, in the circumstance, I am of the view that further proceedings shouldn’t go on, until I receive further instructions,” he said.
The court added that as soon as such notice was received, hearing notices would be served on counsel.
Kalu was alleged to have utilised his company to retain in the account of a First Inland Bank, now FCMB, the sum of N200 million.
The sum is alleged to have formed part of funds illegally derived from the coffers of the Abia State Government.
In one of the counts, his company (Slok Nig. Ltd.) and one Emeka Abone, who is said to be at large, were also alleged to have retained in the company’s account the sum of N200 million on behalf of the first accused.
In counts one to 10, the accused were alleged to have retained about N2.5 billion in different accounts, which funds were said to belong to the Abia State Government.
Cumulatively, in all the counts, the accused were alleged to have diverted over N7.2 billion from the Abia State government’s treasury, during Kalu’s tenure as governor.
The offence is said to have contravened the provisions of Sections 15(6), 16, and 21 of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2005.
It also contravenes the provisions of the Money Laundering Act of 1995 as amended by the Amendment Act No.9 of 2002 and Section 477 of the Criminal Code Act, Laws of the Federation, 1990. (NAN)