By Bassey Udo
The Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) on Tuesday formally took over the prosecution from the police of a businessman accused of “false petitioning” over an N170.3 million contract fraud.
In 2016, the police arraigned in controversial circumstances the Managing Director of an Ibadan-based IT retail firm, Citadel Oracle Concept Limited, Benjamin Joseph, after he petitioned the Inspector General of Police (IGP) over the fraud.
Joseph said the fraud involved a contract awarded to his company by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) in 2012, which was illegally hijacked by a fraud syndicate, executed, and the proceeds shared, without remitting the tax to the government.
Although police investigations found the suspects culpable of the alleged crime, the businessman was not only arraigned on a one-count charge of “false petitioning”, he has been on trial, while the suspects are yet to be apprehended.
Considering his travails, Joseph petitioned the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, to seek his intervention.
On November 15, 2021, the DPP, on the orders of the AGF, announced through a letter No. DPP/ADV/1009/14, signed by Abdulrahim Opotu Shuaibu, an Assistant Director of Public Prosecution in the Ministry, his decision to take over the case.
Last Tuesday, at the resumed sitting of the FCT High Court, Maitama, Abuja presided by Hon. Justice Peter Kekemeke, Shuaibu showed up to give effect to the decision.
Two previous attempts to carry out the order by the AGF last year failed. On the adjourned date of November 16 for the continuation of the hearing in the case, the court could not sit, as it coincided with the annual conference for Judges.
Again, last December, the DPP was unable to take over the case, because the police prosecution counsel, Simon Lough, was absent on official assignment.
But on Tuesday, at the resumed sitting, Lough who had already braced up to continue his prosecution of the accused was ordered by Justice Kekemeke to stop, to allow the representative of the DPP to address the court on his mission.
In his brief address, Shuaibu said he was in court to carry out the official directive of AGF for the immediate take over from the police further prosecution of the case to “ensure diligent prosecution and avoid a miscarriage of justice.”
Both Lough and counsel to Joseph, Bob James, raised no objections to the decision, after both conceded to the powers of the AGF to intervene and take over any criminal prosecution before judgment in the public interest, justice, and the need to prevent abuse of the legal process.
Following Shuaibu’s announcement, Justice Kekemeke announced that henceforth further prosecution of the matter would be taken over from the police by the representative of the AGF. He adjourned the matter to April 14, 2022, for the continuation of the trial.
Since 2016, when the case began, Tuesday’s takeover of the prosecution by the DPP would be the second to be ordered by the AGF.
On December 7, 2016, the then DPP, Mohammad Umar, pursuant to the AGF’s directive, detailed a senior counsel from the Federal Ministry of Justice, Aniekan Ekong, to appear in court to also take over the same case.
Ekong, in announcing the decision, asked the police to hands-off further prosecution, and transfer the case file to the DPP, as directed by the AGF.
However, at the resumed hearing in the case on February 28, 2017, Lough ignored the AGF’s directives and continued with the prosecution, citing a letter approving a reversal of the AGF’s directives.
The letter reinstating the police to continue with the trial was purportedly signed by DPP Umar, who incidentally was the same official who gave the earlier directive for the takeover.
Lough told the court that the AGF relied on misinformation about the status of the case to issue the directive to DPP Umar to take over the prosecution of the case.
He said the AGF was unaware of a petition by the police counsel, Innocent Eremionkhale of Integrity Law Firm, claiming the police had a case pending against Joseph.
In October 2013, Joseph petitioned the then Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police in charge of the Force Criminal Investigation Bureau (FCIB), Solomon Arase.
In the petition, he accused some senior officials of Zinox Technologies Limited and its subsidiary, Technology Distributions Limited (TD) of conspiring with their allies to fraudulently hijack and illegally execute an N170.3million contract awarded to his company by the FIRS in 2012, using his company’s profile.
The businessman named the suspects of the fraud to include the Chairman of Zinox Group, Leonard Stanley Ekeh, and wife, Chioma; Company Secretary/Legal Adviser, Zinox Group and TD, Chris Eze Ozims, and a director of TD, Folashade Oyebode.
He alleged the suspects connived 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, to commit the fraud.
Oyebode and Ozims, he further alleged, appointed themselves signatories of a fake account opened in his company’s name at Access Bank 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 alleged a review of the controversial transaction documents also showed Chioma Ekeh was the official who issued the instructions to the accountant at TD, Charles Adigwe, for the disbursement of funds from the fictitious account at Access Bank to various benefiting parties in the fraud.
Stalled Prosecution of suspects
Although the Special Fraud Unit (SFU) of the police in Lagos concluded investigations into the allegations in the petition in 2014 and found the suspects culpable of the crime, the police refused to release the original case file to the DPP for their prosecution.
Despite several requests to then DIG Arase by the then DPP, Muhammad Diri, to demand the transfer of the case file to his office for the prosecution of the suspects, the police refused.
On July 3, 2014, Joseph sent a reminder to Arase, who ignored his request for his intervention.
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 him 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 turns accused
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, said Joseph provided false information to the IGP through his petition of July 3, 2014, which accused the suspects of using a fictitious Board resolution of his company to open a fake account with Access Bank PLC used in committing fraud.
AGF takes over prosecution
Following his arraignment in court by the police, Joseph petitioned then acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, who directed the AGF, Abubakar Malami, along with the then Solicitor General of the Federation, Taiwo Abidogun, to intervene.
Also, Osinbajo directed the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to wade in and investigate the matter.
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.
The DPP took over the case on December 7, 2016. But the decision was reversed following a petition from the Integrity Law Firm against Joseph on behalf of the police.
Acting on Osinbajo’s directive, the anti-graft agency invited and quizzed all the suspects in the matter.
Findings from the interrogation of the suspects contained in a report by the agency corroborated all the allegations against the suspects. Yet, the police remained adamant in refusing 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, by using her position to obstruct justice against the suspects in the fraud against his company.
Joseph said his findings showed Anukam was the official in the Ministry who was actually behind the petition that misled the AGF to reverse himself on the earlier directive to the police to further handling of the prosecution of his matter.
Apart from being the lead partner in Integrity Law Firm that wrote the petition on behalf of the police, Joseph said Innocent Eremionkhale, the signatory to the petition, who claimed to be counsel to the police was Anukam’s junior brother, and doubled the lawyer to the suspects in the fraud.
In 2017, when the EFCC quizzed the suspects over their roles in the fraud, documents seen by MEDIATRACNET showed that Anukam stood as 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, as 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 the court on Monday, October 4, 2021, dismissed the applications 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.
In February 2021, the EFCC, at the end of its investigations into the allegations by Joseph against the suspects found all seven of them culpable of the crime.
But the anti-graft agency opted to arraign and charge only two of them – Igbokwe and Kama based on strange charges not based on the allegations submitted in the petition by Joseph.
Although Joseph alleged in his petition that 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.
As a result of the 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 a party to the case, was fined N20 million, for allegedly refusing to appear to testify during the hearing.
Joseph’s lawyer, Bob James, told our reporter that with the take over of the prosecution of the matter from the police, the DPP was would review the available details of the fraud and ensure diligent prosecution of those found culpable in the crime.