By Adesina Wahab
Monday, December 9, 2019 was judgement day for six defendants in a fraud case – four of whom were three bankers and a businessman, the other two being corporate bodies.
The defendants were Anayo Nwosu, Olajide Oshodi, Ashok Israni, Sunny Obazee, Keystone Bank and NULEC Industries Limited.
The matter had dragged for seven years and Justice Kudirat Jose of the Lagos High Court, Igbosere was poised to bring the case to a close. At the end of the day, only one of the defendants went home a free man, but the freedom came with emotional and other trauma he suffered for seven years. Delivering her judgment, Jose discharged and acquitted the fourth defendant.
The judge, however, convicted and sentenced the first, second and third defendants to five years imprisonment each on counts 1, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10 and 13 of stealing. The companies were also ordered to pay a fine of N20 million to the Federal Government on counts 1, 10 and 13. The judge also ordered the convicts to pay, as restitution, N395 million to the victim of the fraud.
Though from a humble background, and with dint of hard work and divine provisions, he rose to become a sought after investment banker in the country and, for over 20 years, he worked in UBA Capital, Oceanic Bank among others. He was soon headhunted to join Bank PHB and he became the Divisional Director, Investment Banking in December 2007, but an ugly development that would shape the life of Sunny Obazee for years to come started in the bank few years before he came on board.
An Indian, Ashok Israni, the owner of NULEC Industries Limited, had taken some loan from the then-BankPHB. Israni indebtedness to the bank rose to N130 million and around June 2007, before Obazee joined the bank, he decided to raise capital for his company through Private Placement and BankPHB constituted a team to make a presentation to the authorities to be the Issuing House for the exercise and Obazee, by virtue of his position, was the leader of that team.
Public Placement and what followed
A series of events followed the success of the bank in securing the mandate to be the Issuing House for the Private Placement exercise.
“NULEC gave us the mandate to be the Issuing House. I wasn’t in Corporate Finance; the person who headed it was a Senior Manager. Also, the offer for the Private Placement was not underwritten by the bank. If that was the case, I would have been required to sign and the bank would have needed an Approval Memo, as that would mean we were exposing the bank to some risks”, Obazee told Sunday Vanguard.
“The document they produced said the transaction should be underwritten by the bank, but that was not done. I wasn’t a signatory to the account and nobody in my division was.
“The allotment of the shares was done by the bank and I wasn’t involved also. I didn’t ask anybody to falsify any report. We asked that a Reporting Accountant and a Solicitor be appointed for the transaction.
“The job of the Reporting Accountant was to verify the viability of NULEC Industries Limited and NULEC would do two or three years’ projection about its activities and what it wanted to use the funds for.
“In the course of the trial which lasted seven years, the Reporting Accountant gave evidence that NULEC was viable as of the time the money was given to it. When we handled the offer, the company was not dead.
Why was he charged to court?
“I personally also committed N5.7 million to Private Placement. However, we all witnessed how the Capital Market crashed in 2009. A company, Dozzy Oil and Gas Limited, owned by one Chief Chukwudozie, committed the sum of N855 million to buy 600 million units of the shares at N5 per share.
“And other things being equal and in accordance with the regulations, if the shares were listed as planned, the company and its owners would have made N3 billion from the sale of the shares and about N2 billion as profit. Unfortunately, the Capital Market collapsed.
“By the time the market collapsed, it affected a lot of things, even banks and BankPHB was not left out. Chukwudozie started making a demand for his money and some of my colleagues in the bank were being interrogated and probed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
“I came back from leave in 2011 and I was asked by the management to go to the EFCC office to explain myself. Before this time, some of my colleagues were already being investigated by the agency.
“It was at the EFCC office that I met Chukwudozie for the first time. I explained to him that the ugly development was as a result of the market collapse and I also invested some funds into the project and that if I didn’t believe it would work, I would not have done so.
“The next thing was that I was made to write a statement and asked a series of questions. I was now joined with those who had been under investigation for two years over the matter”.
Before the EFCC dragged Obazee and others to court, BankPHB had been taken over and it eventually became Keystone Bank and Obazee, who was even due for promotion, not only forfeited that but was also axed along with others because of the matter.
One of the counts read: “That you, Anayo Nwosu, Ashok Israni, Olajide Oshodi, Sunny Obazee, Bank PHB Plc/Keystone Bank Ltd and NULEC Industries Limited, between 14 July and 31 July 2008, in Lagos within the jurisdiction of this Honourable Court, did fraudulently convert to your use the sum of N285, 000, 000 being the property of Dozzy Oil and Gas Ltd, when you credited the account of NULEC with the said sum to defray its debt owed to Bank PHB Plc as against paying the sum into the Private Placement Account of NULEC, which sum was to be used as payment for the purchase of shares of NULEC Industries Limited under a Private Placement.”
Another count read: “That you, Anayo Nwosu, Ashok Israni, Olajide Oshodi, Sunny Obazee, Bank PHB Plc/Keystone Bank Ltd and NULEC Industries Limited, sometime in 2008 within the jurisdiction of this Honourable Court, with intent to defraud, obtained the sum of N855, 000, 000 from Dozzy Oil and Gas Ltd, on the false pretence that NULEC Industries Limited was in active profit-making manufacturing and trading activities, thereby purporting same to be payment for the purchase of shares of the said NULEC Industries Limited under a Private Placement.”
His response to the charges, “I knew I wasn’t involved in any criminal activity. Though I am from a humble background, my father, who worked in the palace of the Oba of Benin, wrote on the lintel of his house, in Bini Language, that good name is better than gold and silver and he inculcated that in his children.
“The mental torture was great. At a point, I had to file a case of breach of human rights against the EFCC because they were harassing and intimidating me with calls and intermittent detention after we had been admitted to bail.
“I have a boy and a girl and both were studying in Canada; all of us, including my wife, were broken down emotionally. In fact, one day in 2015, I put a call to my son and told him we would be going to court the following day and he told me that he was not feeling okay because he kept thinking about my ordeal.
“He said he could not move one of his legs and one arm. He was crying on the phone. He said he didn’t want to tell me about his situation so as not to compound my problem.
“I had to call my younger brother, who is a medical doctor in the United States to go and help check on him.
“The second day in court, I sat down weeping profusely and a lady lawyer in the EFCC team had to go and explain my situation to Rotimi Jacobs, the lead lawyer for the agency, who brought the matter to the attention of the court.
“The court magnanimously granted that I be allowed to go and see my boy. Only God helped me not to lose a boy who was close to finishing his university education over a case I knew nothing about. I would have lost Edosa over nothing”.
What he has lost since then
Obazee said he could never quantify what he had lost emotionally and financially.
“By the virtue of my position, the bank ought to give me two cars and a generator every four years, but before the trouble started, they only gave me one car and a generator”, he narrated.
“While they sacked me when I was still pursuing the matter, I wrote them on the need to reconcile what I need to get from them or return to them.
“They said they were coming to take the car and the generator and I was not at home the day they came, but they took away the car and said my dogs did not allow them to take the generator, only for them to later write that I am owing them N12 million for the generator.
“In the course of the trial, a friend recommended me to a British firm coming to Nigeria and who needed an investment banker.
“I met the officials and we discussed and I told them that I had an issue with EFCC and that I was sure I would come out unscathed when we departed, they never got across to me again. The EFCC stamped me with an indelible mark”.
Is he seeking any remedy?
Obazee said his main concern is to get over the burden the trial placed on him.
“We were arraigned in 2011 and re-arraigned on 15-count amended charge in October 4, 2016. They still wanted to amend the charges again this year, but the court refused to entertain that”, Obazee lamented.
“Each time they amended the charges, it was like starting all over again. I just wish the stain the trial put on me is removed.
“The establishment of the EFCC is laudable, but their activities must follow due process and based on facts. My son and daughter came all the way from Canada to be in court on the day of judgement because they know the type of father and parents they have. And I am grateful to God that in the end I was vindicated”.
For now, Obazee said he would like to cool down and listen to counsel from different quarters before deciding on the next line of action and he is thanking his stars that neither him nor any member of his family lost their lives during his ordeal.