By Kingsley Omonobi, Ise-Oluwa IgeÂ &Â Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJAâ€”AN Abuja High Court, sitting in Maitama, yesterday, gave the Federal Government, suo motu, the green light to apply for a warrant to arrest the incumbent Chairman of the Peoplesâ€™ Democratic Party, PDP, Prince Vincent Ogbulafor and five others, for trial over alleged illegal diversion of N2.3billion belonging to the Federal Government.
The court said the Federal Government could explore the option if it suspected that Ogbulafor and his accomplices were attempting to either abscond or scuttle their arraignment already fixed for May 3, this year.
This was even as Vanguard gathered that Ogbulaforâ€™s lawyer, J. D. Gadzama, SAN, has secured and served a court warrant preventing the police headquarters from arresting the PDP chairman.
The go-ahead to apply for a warrant of arrest came on a day the trial high court judge, Justice Ishaq Bello, formally okayed all the accused persons for trial based on the 16-count charge preferred against them by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC.
The four others dragged to court, include a former secretary and member of the National Economic Intelligence Committee, NEIC, Mr. Emeka Ebilah, former Director, Budget Implementation, Federal Ministry of Finance, Mr. Emmanuel C. Bosah, Jude Nwokoro and Henry Ikoh.
Although the schedule of the court was not the arraignment of the accused persons, Ogbulafor and Henry Ikoh had already hired lawyers to formally announce appearances for them.
Ogbulafor alone hired four reputable law firms of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SAN, namely: Chief J. K. Gadzama, SAN, Paul Erokoro, SAN, Amechi Nwaiwu, SAN, and Chukwuma Ekomaro, SAN.
He mandated them to file an application to scuttle the legal move before it got to the level of docking them for the purposes of taking their pleas.
Senior lawyers file application
The senior lawyers filed the application which principal relief was to challenge the competence of the preliminary application filed by ICPC to get the leave of the court to prefer the 16-count charge against them.
If such application by Ogbulafor succeeds, the much awaited arraignment of the big masquerade and his accomplices would not see the light of the day, and this apparently is the reason the ICPC application is fundamental to the trial.
Although Ogbulaforâ€™s lawyers tried to move their application, yesterday, to stop ICPC from prosecuting him and others based on the charge before the court, the trial judge, Justice Bello, silenced them.
The judge specifically ordered spokesperson of the legal team, Chief J. K. Gadzama, SAN, to sit down and desist from pushing the mission.
He said he would not brook what he called such nonsense by stepping down the courtâ€™s business of the day for an application which the court was not aware of.
The judge who said Chief Gadzama, SAN, should know better, ordered:
â€œMr Gadzama, please sit down! You are a SAN and should know better, the business of the day is to hear the application filed by the prosecution, which I already slated for today and I am going ahead to hear it.
â€œYou have just filed your own application. And I have not even seen it. Why donâ€™t you save your energy. I cannot hear it today. So, please, sit down.â€
As soon as the oral motion to persuade the judge to take Ogbulaforâ€™s application first was shot down by the judge, the court motioned to the prosecution to move its own application.
In a matter of few minutes, the lead counsel to ICPC, Mr. Paul Ahmed Bassi, moved the application for leave to prefer the charge against the accused persons.
He said that apart from a copy of the charge already filed, the ICPC had supplied names and addresses of seven witnesses, proof of evidence and a number of exhibits with capacity to nail Ogbulafor and his alleged accomplices.
ICPC submits documents
The witnesses who were willing to testify against the accused persons include Basil Momodu, Steven Pimor both of the ICPC; Emmanuel Okocha resident in Lagos, a NEIC representative, a manager and official of Zenith Bank, Lagos, representatives of defunctÂ Owena Bank Plc, Lagos and another manager and, official of Zenith Bank Head Office.
Also yesterday, ICPC said it had submitted documents to nail all the accused persons including the alleged confessional statement of the accused persons, evidence of refunds made to the Federal Government by the accused persons and NEIC final report showing verification of debts owed by the Federal Government as well as the companies used by the accused persons to defraud the government.
Other exhibits which ICPC asked the court to consider for the purposes of okaying its request to prosecute Ogbulafor and others include bank statements of all the accused persons from Zenith Bank Plc, as successor to Africa International Bank, Wema Bank and all other banks used as they related to the charges.
ICPC said that banks statements of witnesses would also be tendered where necessary, while documents presented to the NEIC by the accused persons in furtherance of the fraud and copies of financial instruments allegedly used in the disbursement of the monies by the Federal Government would also be presented.
Paul Bassi of the ICPC argued that the processes already filed before the court disclosed a strong prima facie case against the accused persons.
He noted that being an exparte application, Ogbulaforâ€™s legal team had no right of reply.
In a short ruling, the trial judge, Justice Bello, said the application had merit and gave the ICPC the go-ahead to dock the accused persons. But he said that since the accused persons were not in court, he would fix a date in May to take their pleas.
His words: â€œI have carefully considered the motion exparte filed by the prosecution as well as the attached exhibits. The application merits my approval and I hereby fix Monday, 3rd May, 2010, for the arraignment of all the accused persons.
â€œThe evidences against them should be produced on that day for the accused persons to take their plea.
â€œSection 185 of the CPC provides that when a high court is ready to commence trial, the prosecution will apply for the accused to be produced in court to plead guilty or not guilty to the charge against him.
â€œSince the prosecution said the accused are not under incarceration, it is trite to order the accused persons to appear on that day. My order is that a copy of the charge be served on each of the accused persons through the prosecution before the adjourned date.
â€œHowever, the prosecution is at liberty to apply for an order of arrest if it is convinced that any of them is planning to abscond trial. Ordinarily I would have allowed the plea to be taken on Thursday this week but we have so many cases already.
This is a case that has attracted much public attention, I will ensure that justice is done in time, thus I am going to give this matter an accelerated hearing.â€
The anti-graft agency, ICPC, is prosecuting Ogbulafor and four others for allegedly using three fake companies to defraud the government in 2001. Ogbulafor was alleged to have connived with the other accused persons to float three fictitious companies while in office as the Minister of State for Special Duties.
Alleged floating of fake companies
The said ghost companies allegedly floated by them were Henrichiko Nig Ltd, DHL Consultants and Chekwas Industries. ICPC said the three bogus companies were used by the accused persons to siphon N82.6m, N11.5m and N6.2m respectively, in 2001 from the coffers of the Federal Government.
Of the 16-count charge, the PDP Chairman prominently featured in 12 counts.
Specifically, Ogbulafor was accused of abusing his position as the Head of National Economic Intelligence Committee, NEIC.
NEIC, which Ogbulafor headed then was established by the Federal Government to verify debts owed local contractors.
He was alleged to have used his position to okay forged documents presented by contractors as genuine with a view to defrauding the government.
ICPC further alleged that Ogbulafor relied on such forged documents to certify that the three fake companies successfully executed jobs worth N104m.
Ogbulafor was equally alleged to have collected kickbacks of N2m and N28m from the second accused person, Mr. Ebilah, and one Chris Nwoke respectively.
For instance, counts 1, 2, 3 and 4 read:
Count 1: That you Vincent Ogbulafor (M), Emeka Ebilah (M) and Emmanuel Bosah (M) in the month of March 2001, beingÂ public officers to wit: Minister in Charge of Special Duties, Secretary, Member of the National Economic Intelligence Committee, NEIC, and Director, Budget Implementation, Federal Ministry of Finance respectively did use your positions to confer corrupt advantage upon yourselves by fraudulently receiving for yourselves through a proxy, Henry Ikoh, the sum of N82,631,03.41 from the Federal Government of Nigeria in the name of a company Henricho Nig. Ltd. as payment for a fictitious contract purportedly executed for the Federal Government of Nigeria and you thereby committed an offence contrary to and punishable under section 19 of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences ActÂ 2000.
Count 2: That you Vincent Ogbulafor (M), Emeka Ebilah (M) and Emmanuel Bosah (M) in the month of March 2001 or thereabout did conspire to use NEIC contract verification panel to verify a fictitious contract purportedly executed on behalf of the Federal Government of Nigeria by a company known as Henricho Nig. Ltd. and receive for yourselves the sum of N82, 631, 031as payment for the aforesaid contract and you thereby committed an offence contrary to section 26 and punishable under section 19 of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences ActÂ 2000.
Count 3: That you Vincent Ogbulafor (M), Emeka Ebilah (M) and Emmanuel Bosah (M) in the month of March 2001, beingÂ public officers to wit: Minister in Charge of Special Duties, Secretary, Member of the National Economic Intelligence Committee, NEIC, and Director, Budget Implementation, Federal Ministry of Finance respectively did use your positions to confer corrupt advantage upon yourselves by fraudulently receiving from the Federal Republic of Nigeria the sum of N11,519,906.25 through a proxy, Chris Abuajah, in the name of the company, DHL Consultants, as payment for a fictitious contract purportedly executed on behalf of the Federal Government of Nigeria and you thereby committed an offence contrary to and punishable under section 19 of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences ActÂ 2000.
Ogbulafor gets warrant to stop arrest
Following rife insinuations in Abuja, weekend, that law enforcement agencies were poised to arrest Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Vincent Ogbulafor between yesterday and today, in connection with a N4billion fraud, indications have emerged that lawyer to the PDP Chairman, Joe Kyari Gadzama, SAN, has secured and served the Police headquarters, a court warrant preventing them from arresting Prince Ogbulafor.
The warrant was served even as Police sources hinted Vanguard that security agencies at all airports, especially the international airports and borders have been put on the alert to apprehend Chief James Ibori, former Delta State governor should he make any attempt to escape through any of the gateways.
Confirming that they were searching for Ibori in conjunction with the EFCC because of a court warrant ordering the Police to assist the body arrest him, the source, however, expressed doubt about media reports that the former governor has actually fled the country, saying the gimmick cannot fool them.
A senior officer told Vanguard: â€œWe donâ€™t believe Ibori has fled the country as widely speculated. Some said he has run to Dubai, others said to Cameroon. Which airport did he take to these countries or which border did he follow? The truth is that he may be somewhere in the creeks because that is the only area he can run to for now. But how long will he be there, that is the question?â€
On the planned arrest of Ogbulafor, Vanguard gathered that the PDP Chairman who is said to be under ICPC investigation for alleged fraud, did not take the insinuation of his arrest lightly hence his recourse to Gadzama, SAN, to go to the court of law to seek protection from such especially when allegations against him were still being investigated by the anti-corruption body.
It was further gathered that when the Police High Command received the court warrant restraining them and other security agencies from arresting the PDP Chairman, the Police expressed surprise that such a warrant should be served them, â€œsince we are not ICPC that is investigating him and we donâ€™t have any case against him.â€
PDP yet to receive court order
However, answering questions from journalists, the National Publicity Secretary of the Party, Professor Rufai Ahmed Alkali said: â€œFrom what we are hearing it has been drawn to our attention, to some broadcast in the media giving an order restraining us from conducting our NEC meeting tomorrow (today) but at the moment as I am talking, about 5:43 p.m., we have been here in the office, if there was any court order we would have gotten it. At the moment we are talking about there is no court order served on us and it is already past the working hours.”
On the question that some people were at the gate to serve the party, Alkali said he was not â€œa magician to know who was at the gate. What I am talking about is that at the moment no court order has been served on us. If in the event that we are served the national working committee will look at the order and take the appropriate decision.â€
When Vanguard called him back at 7.10 p.m to know if the party had been served, the PDP spokesperson still insisted that the party was yet to be served.