By Abdulwahab Abdulah
As the Lagos State High Court, Ikeja division, handling the trial of the former Chairman of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Chief Olabode George and five others charged over alleged contracts splitting and inflation draws curtains on the case, both the prosecution and the defendants are in high spirits for the final judgment of the trail court.
While the prosecution canvassed that the defendants were guilty of the charges, the defendants however tried to convince the court that the charge preferred against them was not only political but a calculated attempt by the prosecution to call a dog a bad name in order to hang it
The trial started precisely on August 15, 2008, when Chief Bode George, with four others, including the former Managing Director of the NPA, Arc. Aminu Dabo were arraigned before Justice Joseph Oyewole on a 163 count-charge of conspiracy, disobedience to lawful order, alleged inflation of contracts and contracts splitting.
After the commencement of the case, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) prosecuting the case amended the 164 count-charge, reducing it into only 63 around the same categories of offences.
When their pleas were taken they all pleaded not guilty to all the counts. The trial court will soon deliver judgment in the case, after the parties in the matter formally adopted their written addresses already filed at the court registry.
Those charged with Chief Olabode George and Arc. Aminu Dabo were Captain O. Abidoye, Alhaji Abdulahi Aminu Tafida and Alhaji Zanna Maidaribe and Engr. Sule Aliyu was joined as 6th defendant after the charge was amended.
From the beginning to the end of the trial, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) supporters were always in court to show their support to Chief Bode George, a former Deputy National Chairman of the party and its leader in Lagos state.
Part of the charge stipulated that the defendants committed a â€œdisobedience to lawful order issued by constituted Authority contrary to Section 203 of the Criminal code Cap. C17 Vol. 2 Laws of Lagos State of Nigeria, 2003 and abuse of office contrary to Section 104 of the Criminal Code Cap. C. 17, Vol. 2, Laws of Lagos State of Nigeria, 2003.â€
Specifically, the defendants were alleged to have awarded contracts for the supply of several items and repair of some equipment worth billions of Naira in Foreign currencies. They were also accused of committing an abuse of office â€œby splitting three contracts into separate contracts; which sum was beyond yourÂ approved limitsâ€ which the anti graft body described as â€œarbitrary and prejudicial to the right of the federal Minister of Transportation, being the appropriate authority to award contracts in excess of N20 Million.â€
The court granted them bail in the sum of N5 million and a surety in the like sum. They, eventually, met the conditions and were subsequently, released setting the stage for trial.
The trialÂ started on October 29, 2008 withÂ Â Mr. Muslim Hassan, an official of the EFCC, prosecuting the case until it was handed over to Mr. Festus Keyamo who conducted and concluded the trial. The prosecution presented 10 witnesses to prove the allegations against the defendants. Chief Bode George defended others. The prosecution in the trial tried to establish before the court that, indeed, the alleged offences of inflation, splitting of contracts and disobedience to constituted authority were committed by the defendants.
The prosecution closed its case on May 25, 2009, while the defendants opened their defence on same day and ended on June 24, 2009. In its written addresses filed at the Registry of the state High Court, the prosecution, however, argued that the Defendants have no excuse permitted by law to disobey the order, and if they (Defendants) plead any excuse, the burden of proveÂ must shift to them.
According to the prosecution, the lack of knowledge of the 2001 directive of the Federal Government as mentioned in 9th meeting of the Board, the complex nature of Ports activities as claimed by the defendants and the improper procedure by which they were notified cannot by any means avail them.
Since the defendants were jointly charged as members of the same Board of Directors, other defendants relied on and adopted the evidence of Chief Olabode George, Chairman of the Board.
Led in evidence by the EFCC counsel, one of the major prosecution witnesses, Engr. Mustapha Bukar, a director in the federal ministry of transportation, who chaired the 7-man administrative panel instituted by the federal government to probe the activities of the NPA said his panel discovered that about 29,526 contracts were awarded by the management of the NPA between year 2001 and 2003.
In his evidence the witness, said that some of the contracts were split and inflated before they were awarded to different contractors by the NPA management. However, the witness, admitted under cross examinations by counsel to the defendants that there was no evidence indicating that the contracts awarded were given out or signed by the Board of the NPA led by Bode George.
Engineer Bukar, specifically, pointed to the court that the board while awarding contracts did not abide by a certain circular from the federal government which spelt out the limitation of the Board in award of contracts. The witness said the price intelligence units system and due process were ignored by the management in the award of contracts in the year under review. However, under cross-examinations by the defence lawyers led by Chief Tunji Ayanlaja, (SAN), Engineer Bukar admitted that one of the committee members, one Greg Ogbueifon had earlier written a petition against the NPA Board over some issues. He also agreed that it was morally wrong for same Ogbueifon to be a member of the committee investigating the management of the NPA. Ayanlaja also argued that one of the Board members, Alhaji Kurawa was not charged before the court as one of the members of the Board. He submitted that the trial was an orchestrated one to nail the defendants.
Chief Ayanlaja contended that the Federal Executive Council rejected the report of the Engineer Bukarâ€™s committee which re-commissioned the EFCC under the leadership of Malam Nuhu Ribadu to review the activities of the NPA on the groundÂ that the federal government panel was ill-motivated.
Also, other witnesses including investigators from the EFCC, especially Mr. Bamanga Bello, who led the EFCC investigators that partook in the investigations of the case also gave evidence. They told the court what they discovered during their investigations, while, some of the witnesses corroborated each other. However, under cross_examinations by the defence counsel, some of the officials admitted that they did not carry out any market survey on product pricing, but only relied on what their investigative team got from the office of the due process in the Presidency which they said was part of the investigative committee. The EFCC team whose report was used in prosecuting the defendants also told the court that they cannot produce any document to support the inflated pricing claims, but relied on the presentations from different sub committees within the investigative team to write their final report.
Throughout the duration of the trial, Chief Tunji Ayanlaja (SAN) representing Chief Bode Olabode George had insisted that the prosecution was out to nail his client without concrete evidence.
With the support of exhibits before the court, lead defence counsel, Ayanlaja said there were no verifiable documents from the witnesses to support their claims. He maintained that there was no splitting of contracts but that the alleged contracts were separate ones which were split by the investigative teams.
Chief George in his defence told the court that there were 12 members of the Board and only 6 of them were charged before the court. Also, he informed the court that previous Managing Directors of the NPA used the controversial 2001 circular as their guiding document.
He said on assumption of office with his Board members, he was briefed by one Mrs. Fregene, the secretary of the NPA Board, who gave him the Act, setting up the NPA, the Boardâ€™s operating manual and 1999 circular issued by the Minister of Transport to NPA containing spending approval limits for all levels of management and the Board.
He told the court that there was never a time that any contract brought to the Board was split and that there were appraisal officers who carried out market survey and price intelligence before advising on what sum a contract should be awarded for and that it was not the responsibility of the Board to embark on fixing prices on contracts to be awarded. He submitted that Part 4 of the NPA Act gave the NPA financial independence since it does not get any fund from the government to prosecute its projects. He further said that the controversial 2001 circular expected to guide award of contracts was never sent to NPA whilst he was Chairman of the Board of NPA, but that the Board got wind of the said circular several weeks later through a member of the Board. He said contrary to their expectations, the circular which was signed by the minister of finance was addressed to the ministry of water resources without a covering note, adding that no such letter came from the Transport Minister who is the supervisory autho
rity of the NPA.
He added that all the contracts awarded under his leadership in NPA were backed up by Bank guarantees and irrevocable letters of credit from reputable banks. To this end, he denied that he and other defendants disobeyed any lawful order. He said if international standards are not met, the Nigerian Ports will be blacklisted, hence the reason why the NPA could not afford to embark in an unnecessary bureaucracy.
Under cross examination he noted that it was not necessary for him to look for other documents on his assumption of office as Chairman, apart from the working documents handed to him by the company secretary. He agreed that the Board continued to award contracts above the 2001 circular limits pending the time the response of the Minister of transport on the circular.
He said he spoke for the Board not the management, while he denied that contracts were split or inflated. He further claimed under cross-examinations that he was not aware of any requirement for due process on certification apart from the work of the price intelligence unit of the NPA carried out by appraisal officers.
In the written address filed by the defendantsâ€™ counsels, four issues were raised for determination to discharge and acquit the defendants. First, was whether the prosecution proved the allegations of inflation of contracts contained in the charge beyond reasonable doubts; whether the prosecution proved the allegations of disobedience of lawful orders and the allegations of conspiracy to disobey lawful orders contained in the amended information against the defendants.
After supporting its arguments with several decided cases and relevant laws, the defendantsâ€™ counsel prayed the court to â€œdischarge and acquit the Defendants of all the counts,â€ and that the prosecution has not proved counts 1_7 of the Amended Information dealing with alleged infractions of Section 22 (3) of the Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Act 2000 beyond reasonable doubt.
He further prayed the court to hold that the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt on count 58-68 dealing with abuse of authority of office in line with Section 104 of the Criminal Code Law of Lagos State and also failed to prove the case of Conspiracy against the defendants as well.
As the stage is set for judgment in the case, only time will tell, where the pendulum of justice will swing.