By Ise-Oluwa Ige
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), few weeks ago, 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 ofÂ Representatives , Ndudi Elumelu and eight others before an Abuja high court sitting at Gudu for trial.
They were accused of criminal conspiracy and perpetration of monumental fraud involving over N5.2billion in the course of award of contracts for rural electrification projectsÂ across the country. The two serving lawmakers on the list of the accused persons were specifically accused ofÂ abusingÂ their positions in the course of performing their oversight functions to conspire with the eight others who are public servants to commit the alleged fraud.
They said accomplices include 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 was not shocking because lawmakers were involved.
But it was shocking because Ndudi Elumelu was involved.
Elumelu, it would be recalled, was the arrow-head of a recent celebrated power probe in the country 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 InstanceÂ 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 past heads of state in the country and cronies to the last administration.
In fact, the Elumelu panel surprised Nigerians as some influential Nigerians whom many never knew could be involved were fingered with a damning report written against them.
Many had praised the courage of the Elumelu committee to expose the alleged monumental corruption in the power sector.
In fact, he and his committee members were not only highly celebrated by many a Nigerians but their courage to give a damning recommendation against those indicted earned them accolades.
But Elumelu was not long celebrated when the EFCC arrested him alongside nine others over what it called alleged fraud involving N5.2billion in the course of award of contracts and alleged criminal breach of the Procurement Act 2000.
The arrest shocked many Nigerians, having gone home with the impression that Elumelu is a saint.
Of course, many wondered aloud whether NigeriaÂ would ever know progress if those who portrayed themselves as saints and incorruptible are indeed the worst crooks in the country.
But a few Nigerians who knew how EFCC was used to do perfidious jobs during
President Obasanjoâ€™s tenure were reluctant to believe that the story making the rounds about Elumelu and others was true.
They said there might be no merit in the case against them
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 eyebrows.
Of course, they reasoned that having stepped on big toes while investigating how the Obasanjo administration squandered $16billion dollars on power sector without a commensurating results, the powerful whose feathers Elumelu ruffled have decided to make him (the hunter) the hunted.
In fact, the media was not exempted in making this insinuation.
But 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 N5.2billion to about 20 companies, some of which were not registered with the CAC.
Specifically, they were accused of awardingÂ a total ofÂ 156 contracts in less than 30 days.
Worse still, EFCC told the court that the accused awarded a total 22 contracts to only one company one day, December 18, 2008.
The company is suspected to belong to one of the accused persons.
The facts contained by the charge made Elumelu and others to lose peopleâ€™s sympathy for them.
The media also simmered when facts contained by the charge were made public.
Nevertheless, many Nigerians still felt that it was too early to form any opinion about those facing trial until proven guilty.
After all, they said they have all entered a plea of not guilty to the 157-count charge preferred against them.
They also said that the recommendations by Elumelu Committee which many Nigerians had looked forward to its implementation was rejected and thrown into the dustbin of history as soon as Elumelu who is the arrow-head of the probe was arraigned.
They said the careful cannot but see the nexus between the probe report and the on-going trial of Elumelu.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi himself had dabbled into the arena.
He had cautioned serving judges in the country to follow code of conducts for judges while sitting on cases involving parties before them.
Although he did not mention specifically the case of Elumelu, Justice kutigi dismissed as scandalous the bail conditions given by some judges on some political cases pending before them.
It is history today that more than three weeks after bail was granted the ten accused persons in the case involving Elumelu, only two have met the bail conditions since it was stringent.Â The CJN was of the view that bail is of right and should be given when it is established that the applicant would not jump it while appellate courts particularly the Supreme Court had frowned at the conduct of some judges imposing stringent bail conditions.
But for those who saw no good intention in the prosecution of Elumelu and others by EFCC, they argued that the imposition of stringent bail conditions was a ploy to disgrace them, particularly Elumelu who stepped on some big toes in the country.
They said the plan by them was to keep them perpetually in detention to break their spirit and spawn their integrity.
They said that was why the EFCC brought another 158 separate count charge against them and another 20 corporate persons before the Abuja Federal high court sitting in Maitama.
They said the calculation was that if they eventually succeeded to meet the bail condition in the first case, they will have problems meeting the bail conditions in the second case.
But the leading prosecuting counsel to EFCC, Mr Godwin Oblah said that facts are sacred and that opinions are free.
He said as much as the matter was in court, he said he would not join issue with those accusing the commission of persecuting Elumelu and his alleged fellow conspirators.
He said that notwithstanding the fact that the matter is in court, he said it was necessary to clear the air on why there were two sets of charges in court.
Oblah said that it was only the Abuja high court that has jurisdiction to try charge touching on fraud
He said the 157-count charge before the Gudu high court sitting in Abuja is on fraud.
He said the second set of charge containing 158 counts before a Federal high court sitting in Maitama was on breach of the Procurement Act 2000 which the court has sole jurisdiction to try.
He said he was not unaware of how people have been running their tongues anyhow but that the fact was that the two charges were filed before courts of jurisdictions.
But an Ibadan based member of the inner bar and lead counsel to Elumelu had faulted Oblah on the charge.
He said the two charges wereÂ the same subject-matter wise and that the counts were duplicitous.
He said it was wrong of EFCC to have filed the second charge on the same matter.
He said if there was any motive behind EFCC filing the charge, he said it could not be prosecutorial but persecutorial.
As persuasive as the arguments of both sides are, it is difficult to believe that EFCC is acting out a script of whoever Elumeluâ€™s report has offended It is also difficult to believe that Elumelu was brought to court without committing any wrong known to law.
But since trial has already commenced in the case, time will tell whether some extraneous forces are behind Elumeluâ€™s travail or whether indeed the lawmaker is guilty as charged.
Given the facts and circumstances of this case, the controversy surrounding this case will linger as long as the case lasts.