By Bassey Udo
Pursuant to the November 15, 2021 directive by the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Babadoko Mohammed, on Tuesday effectively took over the prosecution of the petitioner in the alleged N170.3 million Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) contract fraud.
At the resumed sitting of the Federal High Court, Maitama presided by Justice Peter Kekemeke, a senior state counsel in the Federal Ministry of Justice, Bagudu Sani, who represented the DPP, briefed the court on the status of the case which has lingered for almost six years.
Despite the handing over of the original case file by the police last week, Sani said prosecution would, however, not commence immediately, since the AGF would need some time to study the content of the file before instructing the DPP on what legal advice to give.
“My Lord, this matter was slated for continuation of hearing. If this honourable court will recall, this matter was taken over from the police by the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation, which directed them to forward the original case file for appropriate action.
“I was informed by the Director of Public Prosecution that the case file was brought to the office just last week, and is currently with the Attorney General of the Federation, who is yet to minute same down to the DPP for action.
“On that note, I seek to request for an adjournment till when the file comes down from the Attorney General to the DPP,” Sani told the court.
The representative of the law firm of Bob James & Co., legal counsel to the defendant, Philemon Achuara, did not raise any objection to the oral application.
Consequently, Justice Kekemeke adjourned sitting till May 26, 2022 for continuation of hearing and legal advice of the DPP.
The petitioner, Benjamin Joseph, who is the Managing Director of an Ibadan-based IT retail firm, Citadel Oracle Concept Limited, has been standing trial by the police since July 2, 2016.
Joseph was arraigned by the police on a one-count charge for alleged “false petitioning” of the then Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase, over the N170.3 million FIRS contract fraud.
On July 3, 2013, Joseph petitioned Arase, who was then the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police in charge of the Force Criminal Investigation Bureau (FCIB) to protest the continued refusal of the police to commence the prosecution of the suspects despite their indictment by the findings of the Special Fraud Unit (SFU) of the police.
In the petition, he reiterated his allegations that some senior officials of Zinox Group, and its affiliate, Technology Distributions Limited (TD), conspired to impersonate, fraudulently hijack and illegally execute a contract for the supply of laptops awarded to his company by the FIRS in 2012.
The businessman named the suspects of the fraud to include the Chairman of Zinox Group, Leonard Stanley Ekeh, and wife, Chioma. Both have always denied involved, against Joseph’s insistence otherwise.
The original petition only featured the Company Secretary/Legal Adviser, Zinox Group and TD, Chris Eze Ozims, and a director of TD, Folashade Oyebode.
Joseph accused the suspects of conniving with the chief executive of Ad’mas Digital Technologies Limited and Pirovics Engineering Services Limited, Onny Igbokwe, along with one Princess Okechukwu Kama, and two officials of Access Bank PLC – Obilo Onuoha and Deborah Ijeabu, of using his company’s profile to commit the fraud.
Oyebode and Ozims, Joseph further alleged, appointed themselves signatories of a fake account opened in his company’s name at Access Bank, Ikoyi-Lagos, using forged company documents, including a fictitious board resolution dated December 18, 2012, bearing a caricature of his signature.
To facilitate the fake account opening, Joseph accused Onuoha and Ijeabu of illegally giving out to the syndicate the original copies of his company’s documents with the bank in their possession.
Joseph also fingered Chioma Ekeh as the official who instructed the accountant at TD, Charles Adigwe, to disburse funds from the fictitious account at Access Bank to various benefiting parties in the fraud.
DPP’s legal advice 2014
Although the SFU of the Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID) in Lagos, during investigations into the allegations in Joseph’s petition in 2014, found the suspects culpable of the crime, the police refused to release the original case file to the DPP for their prosecution.
On March 9, 2015, the DPP, Muhammad Diri, in his legal advice, said after reviewing the case, “we have found enough concincing evidence to prosecute the suspects for the offences stated.”
Earlier on August 15, 2014, the SFU, through the deputy Commissioner of Police, Subairu Muazu, returned the verdict, just as the Lagos DPP, which recommended in its report of September 26, 2014, that all the suspects be “charged for forgery, conspiracy, impersonation and fraud.”
The report was even more specific in its assertion that: “Technology distribution who supplied the computers also acted fraudulently…. The Acess Bank officials that opened the fraudulent account are also guilty….”
On April 16, 2015, the Police Special Enquiry Bureau (SEB) department in FCIID, Abuja in its final investigation report dated April 7, 2015 and signed by the then head of the Unit, CSP Olayinka Ajeigbe, to the Commissioner of Police (Admin) Special Enquiry Bureau, Force Criminal Intelligence & Investigation Dept. (FCIID) Abuja, also advised “that in view of the enumerated facts and findings, I opined that the case diary be forwarded to the office of the Attorney General of the Federation as requested to enable the office to commence prosecution of the suspect without further delay”.
However, despite these legal advice and requests to then DIG Arase for the transfer of the case file to the DPP for the prosecution of the suspects, the police refused.
On May 8, 2015, following Arase’s appointment as IGP, Joseph sent another reminder highlighting his company’s frustrations in getting the police to transfer the case file to the DPP for the prosecution of the suspects.
But Arase advised his lawyers to allow the civil case instituted against the suspects to run its full course before their prosecution in the criminal case, ostensibly to prevent a miscarriage of justice.
Petitioner turned accused
However, in a curious twist, on June 16, 2016, a few days before Arase’s retirement, Joseph was charged by the police for allegedly misinforming the former IGP against the suspects in the fraud.
On July 2, 2016, Joseph was formally arraigned before Justice Peter Kekemeke of Court 14, FCT High Court, Apo, Abuja, on a one-count charge of “false petitioning” in case No FHC/HC/CR/216/2016.
The police prosecution counsel, Simon Lough, accused Joseph of providing false information to the IGP through his petition, which falsely accused the suspects used a fictitious Board resolution of his company to open a fake account with Access Bank PLC used in siphoning the proceeds from the fraud.
Following his arraignment by the police, Joseph petitioned then acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, who directed the AGF, Abubakar Malami, to intervene.
Also, Osinbajo instructed the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to wade in and investigate the allegations contained in Joseph’s petition.
The AGF, acting on Osinbajo’s directive, asked then DPP, Mohammad Umar, to take over the prosecution of the case by the police to avoid a miscarriage of justice.
Suspects frustrate DPP taking over the case
On December 7, 2016, the DPP actually took over the case. But the decision was reversed few days later following a controversial petition from the counsel to the suspects, Integrity Law Firm, against Joseph.
In the petition by Integrity Law Firm, Innocent Eremionkhale, claimed a civil case was pending against Joseph. But Joseph vehemently denied knowledge about any such case, except the criminal case he filed at the Ikeja High Court against the suspects in 2013. The trial on the case is still pending.
Meanwhile, the EFCC, acting on Osinbajo’s directive, invited and quizzed all the suspects in the matter.
Findings from the interrogation of the suspects contained in a report by the anti-graft agency also confirmed police indictment of the suspects. Yet, the police remained adamant in its refusal to prosecute them.
On April 11, 2017, Joseph again wrote to Osinbajo and Malami to demand the investigation of the then director, International and Comparative Law in the Federal Ministry of Justice, Stella Anukam, accusing her of abuse of office.
Joseph accused Anukam of using her high position to obstruct justice against the suspects.
He said his findings showed Anukam was the top Ministry official behind the controversial petition that misled the AGF into reversing himself on the earlier directive to the police to discontinue prosecuting him.
Apart from being the lead partner in Integrity Law Firm that wrote the petition on behalf of the suspects, Joseph said Innocent Eremionkhale, the signatory to the petition, was Anukam’s sibling.
In 2017, when the EFCC quizzed the suspects over their roles in the fraud, Joseph said one of the documents showed Anukam used her position to stand surety to some of the suspects, including Chioma Ekeh, the director of TD and wife of the Chairman of Zinox Group, Stan Leo Ekeh.
Integrity Law Firm and Eremionkhale also featured as legal counsels to four of the fraud suspects – Chioma Ekeh, Chris Eze Ozims, Folashade Oyebode, and Charles Adigwe, in their fundamental human rights applications before the Federal High Court in Lagos presided by Justice Tijjani Garba Ringim, when they sought to shield themselves from police prosecution for the fraud.
Eremionkhale filed separate applications for the quartet asking the court to restrain the police from inviting them for interrogation and prosecution over their roles in the alleged conspiracy, forgery, and fraud leveled against them.
But on October 4, 2021, the court dismissed the applications by the suspects for lack of merit, on the ground that the court cannot be used to stop the police from performing its lawful duty of investigating, arresting and prosecuting suspects named in a criminal case.
EFCC picks & chooses suspects for trial
Despite that its findings found all the suspects culpable of the crime, Joseph said the EFCC, in February 2021, opted to arraign and charge only two of the suspects – Igbokwe and Kama.
Besides, Joseph said the prosecution of the two suspects was based on strange charges not derived from the facts contained in his petition to the IGP.
Joseph said while his petition said the fraud was based on the forgery of his company’s Board Resolution dated December 18, 2012, the EFCC in charging the suspects claimed the fraud was based on a non-existent document dated December 14, 2012.
He said all efforts to get the EFCC prosecutor, Jude Obozuwa, to correct the conflicting information failed on deaf ears.
As a result of the apparent deliberate contradictions and non-diligent prosecution by the EFCC, the suspects were discharged and acquitted by the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Jabi, Abuja, presided by Justice Danlami Senchi, while Joseph, who was not given the chance to testify during the proceedings, was fined N20 million, allegedly for refusing to appear during the hearings.
Regardless, Joseph again petitioned AGF Malami, to seek his intervention in what he called “unjustified persecution”.
On November 15, 2021, the DPP, on the orders of the AGF, through a letter No. DPP/ADV/1009/14, by Abdulrahim Opotu Shuaibu, an Assistant Director of Public Prosecution in the Ministry, announced his decision to take over the case for the second time since December 7, 2016.