In May, the Supreme Court of Nigeria nullified the judgment that convicted Orji Uzor Kalu, the former governor of Abia State. The Apex court based its ruling on the ground that Justice Mohammed Idris, who handed a 12 years sentence to Kalu, had been promoted to the Appeal Court, and therefore had no jurisdiction to preside over the Federal High Court that passed the verdict.
The Apex Court’s ruling means that the former governor, now a senator, has the right to walk back into the freedom that consists of lawmaking, and resuming his role as a chief whip in the upper house of Nigeria’s parliament, among other businesses.
Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s verdict, it took some weeks and further legal efforts for Kalu to be set free from the bounds of Kuje prison.
The December 5, 2019 ruling by Justice Idris Mohammed had handed Kalu, and codefendant, Jonnes Udeogu, a former Director of Finance and Account of Abia State, 12 and 10 years imprisonment respectively, for stealing N7.2 billion belonging to the Abia State Government. Udeogu appealed the ruling, and on May 8, the Supreme Court held that the fiat issued to Justice Idris to conclude the trial of the duo of Kalu and Udeogu, after he had been elevated to the Court of Appeal was “a nullity.”
Justice Idris was issued a fiat authorizing him to proceed with the case after his elevation to the Appeal Court.
Consequently, the Supreme Court ordered the release of Udeogu and retrial of his case. The decision of the Apex Court triggered Kalu to file an application for his own freedom, given that they both were convicted for the same crime.
On May 12, armed with a team of 12 lawyers consisting of six Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), Kalu filed the motion seeking to nullify his incarceration. On June 2, the Court granted the applicant’s prayer, and ordered his release from prison.
However, the prosecutor, the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), upon the verdict that granted the senator freedom, vowed to pursue a retrial that will take the accused back to prison.
In a statement issued after the ruling, the anti-graft agency said the judgment is unfortunate and “a technical ambush against the trial of the former governor.” It added that the Commission has overwhelming evidence to commence a fresh and immediate retrial.
“The corruption charges against Kalu still subsist because the Supreme Court did not acquit him of them. The entire prosecutorial machinery of the EFCC would be launched in a fresh trial where justice is bound to be served in due course,” the EFCC said.
At the release of Kalu from prison, it was all jubilation from his friends and well-wishers, most of them in the government. Members of the senate went straight to his home in Abuja, for a congratulatory visit that stirred backlash from Nigerians who said it’s an aberration for the lawmakers to dignify a convicted criminal in such a manner.
The development thus got many asking: should Orji Uzor Kalu be celebrating?
At the news of his release from prison, the Enugu chapter of All Progressive Congress (APC), issued a statement demanding an apology for what they perceived as injustice meted to their member.
“We respectfully demand that the EFCC should render an apology to you (Kalu) for wrongful prosecution. It is a time for deep reflection on the part of EFCC and not a time to make puffy statement regarding further prosecution. One wrong prosecution has already resulted in five months of unlawful conviction,” said the APC’s state chairman, Dr. Ben Nwoye.
“H.E Senator Kalu deserves an apology from the EFCC not a re-prosecution. We respectfully, request that EFCC should channel its resources to the prosecution of backlogs of other cases instead of engaging in vindictive repeat prosecution of an Igbo icon.
“We are calling on the Senate and House Committee on Judiciary to investigate the facts and circumstances that led to the malicious prosecution and unlawful incarceration of Distinguished Senator Orji Uzo Kalu,” he added.
Following this statement and other events that have taken place since he was set free, the momentum garnering around Kalu is gradually dampening the hope that he will be found guilty if retried. The major reason being that there is an immense lack of trust in the Nigerian justice system, and that the retrial may take longer time than the first.
In 2017, an appeal court sitting in Yola acquitted the former Adamawa State governor, Bala James Ngilari, who was convicted for corruption and unlawful procurement. His acquittal was based mainly on technicalities. The court ruled that Ngilari was not a procurement entity as noted by the trial court that convicted him, and therefore cannot be charged as a procurement officer.
The former governor who previously was sentenced to five years imprisonment was set free and charges against him were quashed. Nevertheless, the ruling, just like in many other cases set a precedent that has lowered many people’s confidence in the courts, and dimmed their expectation of justice.
Consequently, it is believed that Kalu’s retrial may be determined by technicalities that would once again set him free.
While there are still people who believe that the court will render justice, they are also wary that it may take so long a time owing to the slow court processes and the entire judiciary overwhelmed by cases.
The trial that got Kalu convicted in May started in 2007. It took 13 years before the High Court brought it to an end. In that period, Kalu was actively participating in politics and secured for himself a place in the ruling APC and in the senate. It is believed therefore, that his retrial may take even longer, enough time for him to serve up his term in the senate, contest for more public offices or secure more political positions that will shield him from the law.
While Kalu was in prison, the senate refused to declare his seat vacant, a gesture many believed that it signaled that he will be freed and shows how far his party members and his colleagues could go to protect him. It is also considered hypocritical on the part of the ruling party that rode on the anti-corruption bandwagon to get to power. The development has given concerned Nigerians more reasons for lamentation.
“Orji Uzor Kalu’s return to the senate is so depressing. He was convicted for N7.5bn fraud and sentenced to 12 years in prison,” Ada Campbell wrote on Twitter. “While in prison, he received salaries from the government. 5 months into his sentence, he’s been released and back in the senate. Just hopeless.”
As the circumstances surrounding his case continued to be discussed, more and more people are using the word “hopeless” to describe it. The belief that he should be celebrating, as someone who has nothing more to be afraid of is winning, as can be deduced from his statement upon resumption in the senate on Wednesday.
He said: “By the grace of Almighty God, I resumed my normal legislative duties & I remain committed. I encourage us all to be thankful in every circumstance of our lives. Let me conclude in the language of the good people of the Southwest by saying “Ati lo ati de” (we have gone, we have come).”