By Ise-Oluwa Ige
More than one year ago, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) treated Nigerians to a rude shock.
That was when the anti-graft agency bundled the Chairman of Senate Committee on Power, Senator Nicholas Ugbane, his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Ndudi Elumelu and eight others before an Abuja high court sitting at Gudu for trial over alleged perpetration of monumental fraud involving N5.7billion.
The two serving lawmakers were alleged to have conspired with eight others to commit the alleged fraud.
They were still battling to get their bail when EFCC coasted all of them before the Abuja Federal high court over substantially the same offence.
Their alleged accomplices, according to EFCC, were Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Power, Dr. Abdulahi Aliyu, the Managing Director of Rural Electrification Agency, Samuel Gekpe; Simon Nanle, Lawrence Orekoya, Abdulsamad Jahun, Kayode Oyedeji, Igwe Paulinus and Jibo Mohammed.
The decision of the EFCC to prosecute the accused persons including the lawmaker was not shocking because of their status in the society.
It was shocking because Ndudi Elumelu was involved.
Elumelu, it would be recalled, was the arrow-head of a recent celebrated power probe championed by the National Assembly.
It was a probe that caused a great stir across the polity.
This was because the public hearing organized by the Power and Steel Committee headed by Elumelu brought to the fore shocking and startling revelations about how money was allegedly squandered on the sector by the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo.
For instance, while there were initial allegations that a whopping sum of $10 billion dollars was spent by Obasanjo and his cohorts, Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili, World Bankâ€™s Vice President for Africa, who was on the team, was swift to dismiss the allegation, arguing that only about $5.6 billion was spent on the project.
But the House of Representatives later discovered that the initial discovery of $10 billion was only a tip of an iceberg when further revelations showed that $16 billion was the total sum expended on the project.
The situation prompted the power and steel committee headed by Elumelu to undertake the adventure into the power terrain with a view to discovering the actual amount spent and how it was spent.
Among the incredible stories told at the public hearing on this subject matter was the award of contracts to 34 firms which were not registered by the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC).
The ghost firms won the total sum of N6.2 billion power contracts which already exceeded the $5.6 billion claim by Ezekwesili.
Further revelations before the panel showed that between 60 and 100 per cent of the contract sums were paid without records of jobs done. The firms were said to have been owned by cronies to the last military administration.
Many had praised the courage of the Elumelu committee to expose the alleged monumental
corruption in the power sector.
But he was not long celebrated when the EFCC arrested him alongside nine others over what it called alleged fraud involving N5.7billion and alleged criminal breach of the procurement Act 2000.
The arrest shocked many Nigerians, having gone home with the impression that Elumelu was a saint.
Of course, many said that Nigeria would never be a good place because there is no one to be trusted.
But a few Nigerians who knew how EFCC was used to do perfidious jobs during President Obasanjoâ€™s tenure were reluctant to believe that there was any merit in the case against Elumelu and his alleged fellow conspirators.
Those in this school of thought said that Elumelu was probably the target and that others were named as co_accused persons so that Nigerians would not raise eyebrow.
Of course, they reasoned that having stepped on big toes, the powerful whose feathers Elumelu ruffled have decided to make him (the hunter) the hunted.
However when EFCC charged them to court and made their offences public, the sympathy enjoyed by Elumelu and his alleged fellow conspirators began to diminish.
The case of EFCC against them is that Elumelu allegedly conspired with the nine others to award numerous phony contracts worth N5.7billion to some companies, some of which were not registered with the CAC.
For instance, they were accused to have awarded a total 156 contracts within a month with about 22 contracts awarded to only one company one day, December 18, 2008.
The facts contained by the charge made Elumelu and others to lose peopleâ€™s sympathy.
But many Nigerians felt that it was too early to form any opinion until proven guilty
Indeed, Elumelu strutted out from the pack to say he knew nothing about the alleged fraud.
He said if anything, he claimed EFCC only wanted to rubbish his integrity.
He said unfolding events in the trial of the case would soon establish his claim.
Indeed, as soon as they were arraigned and full blown trial was to kick off, Elumelu asked the court to sheathe its swords.
He said he would not submit to any prosecution until he was furnished with the comprehensive proof of evidence in the case.
He said he needed it to know the case of the EFCC against him and to prepare his defence.
He said his request was not a strange one.
According to him, by virtue of section 33 of the Federal High Court Act, criminal proceedings must be conducted substantially in accordance with the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Act and dictates of fair hearing.
He said the Criminal Procedure Act provided that upon arraignment, accused persons shall be provided with proof of evidence intended to be adduced by the trial.
EFCC kicked against the request but the court decided in favour of Elumelu.
Upon receipt of the proof of evidence, his legal team comprising an Ibadan_based member of the inner bar, Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) and Chief Patrick Ikwueto (SAN) said the charge was incompetent.
According to them, there was nowhere in the complaint and reports regarding the award of contracts by the Federal Ministry of Power and the Rural Electrification Agency where his name was mentioned.
They also said that his name was not mentioned in the Proof of Evidence which contained all statements of the witnesses.
They are contending that since there was no nexus between Elumelu and the alleged offence, they said the charge must collapse.
They cited a plethora of judicial authourities, mostly Supreme Court judgments to back up their claim.
Elumelu who had consistently denied any involvement in the alleged fraud exhibited some documents before the court to show that if any lawmakers were to be charged, he said it could not be himself.
The said documents were some of the letters written by Honourable members of the House of Representatives to the Director-General of the National Rural Electrification Agency, seeking its co-operation to award contracts to certain companies bidding for jobs.
He said that given the charge against him, he said EFCC ought to go for the lawmakers and not himself.
He said it was clear that the commission was out to embarrass him in view of the fact that there was no single incriminating evidence against him as revealed by the agencyâ€™s proof of evidence while those who committed the offences he was being charged with were not touched.
He presented before the court almost a dozen of such letters written by different lawmakers to the Managing Director of the National Rural Electrification Agency introducing various contractors to handle rural electrification contracts inÂ theirÂ various constituencies.
Some of the lawmakers include Honourable Baba Gishiwari[ Yussuf], Hon[Engr,] Anthony l. Madwaite, Hon.[sir] Austine Nwanchukwu, andÂ Hon. Abiodun Isiaq Akinlade.
He said they wrote to theÂ Minister of State, Federal Ministry of Energy.
Others include Hon. Beni Lar fromÂ Langtang north and south Federal Constituency, Hon. Patrick A Ikhariale,Hon. Samson R Osagie, and Hon. Ernest Ihejiako,[ Deputy Chairman House committee on FCT.] Hon. Zakariyaâ€™u Galadima. Hon. David N Iho,Hon. PatÂ Asadu.Hon. George E. Daika.
He said given the evidence he had ;produced before the court, he claimed that the conduct of the anti-graft agency was an indication that it was out to persecute him.
But EFCC dismissed as balderdash his argument that he was not indicted by the proof of evidence.
The commission said he should wait for its witnesses to mount the witness box before vaunting that there was no case against him.
Elumelu, though, is already before the Abuja Federal high court seeking for its order quashing the entire charge, the issue however is: will the content of the charge against Elumelu be considered on its merit when the proof of evidence is leaking?
This is a big question the Abuja Federal high court sitting in Central Area, Abuja is poised to answer on July 5, this year.
The verdict of the court is expected to rest, at least temporarily, the controversy touching on whether or not the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is really prosecuting or persecuting the lawmaker.
The validity of the expected high court verdict itself will determine whether or not the 157-count fraud charge preferred by EFCC against the lawmaker would be consigned to the dust-bin of history or not.