N170m FIRS contract fraud: Zinox, affiliates abandon libel suit against PREMIUM TIMES; opt for out-of-court settlement

MEDIATRACNET

Zinox Technologies Limited and its subsidiary, Technology Distributions Limited, have abandoned their multi-billion Naira libel suit against PREMIUM TIMES, its publisher and editors, opting to pursue an out-of-court settlement.
Counsel to Zinox Group, Patrick Ikwueto, a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), communicated the decision of his clients to the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Apo, Abuja, on Wednesday.
At the resumed court sitting on the case against the online newspaper, a lawyer from the Chamber of Patrick Ikwueto & Co., reported to the court presided by Justice S.C. Oriji that their clients have decided to explore other means of resolving the over four years dispute.
“My Lord, our clients have decided not to pursue the case in court any further. It is the wish of our clients to explore other conflict resolution mechanisms towards resolving the dispute.
“Our clients have already commenced the process of an out-of-court settlement with PREMIUM TIMES,” the lawyer told the court.
In granting the request by Zinox, Justice Oriji noted that he believed it was always good for parties in dispute to do everything within their powers to seek alternative conflict resolution mechanisms, consenting to an out-of-court settlement.
Consequently, the judge adjourned further hearing in the case till September 21, 2021, for the outcome of the terms of an out-of-court settlement between the two parties.

Backstory
On May 15, 2017, Zinox Technologies Limited and TD sued PREMIUM TIMES before the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Apo, Abuja, claiming N2billion for alleged libelous and defamatory publication in its edition of September 15, 2016.
In the suit, Zinox Technologies accused PREMIUM TIMES’ Publisher/Chief Executive Officer, Dapo Olorunyomi; Editor-in-Chief, Musikilu Mojeed, and Business Editor, Bassey Udo, of libeling and defaming the Chairman/Chief Executive of Zinox Group, Stanley Leonard Ekeh, with the publication.
In its statement of claims before the court, counsel to Zinox Technologies, Chukwuma Ekomaru of Patrick Ikwueto Chambers said Ekeh was never involved in the alleged contract fraud in which an Ibadan-based ICT retailer alleged his company was swindled of over N170 million.
Apart from N2 billion in damages and N10 billion in cost of litigation, Zinox Technologies asked the court to impose an order of perpetual injunction restraining PREMIUM TIMES from further publication of stories about the alleged fraud.
However, PREMIUM TIMES stood by its report.
In a counter-motion, No. M/1003/18, the newspaper demanded N10billion compensation from Zinox Technologies for questioning the facts of its reporting and attempting to bring its integrity to disrepute.
PREMIUM TIMES had argued that the libel suit by Zinox Technologies disregarded the ruling of the Lagos State High Court, Igbosere on May 2, 2017, which said its top officials and those of TD accused of complicity in the fraud had a case to answer.

Suspects culpable, court rules
In November 2014, an Ibadan-based computer retail firm, Citadel Oracle Concept Limited, and its managing director, Benjamin Joseph, filed a civil application before Lagos State High Court, Igbosere.
The application No. LD/4335/14 was against Onny Igbokwe, Princess Kama, Chris Eze Ozims, Folashade Oyebode, Ad’mas Digital Technologies Limited, Pirovics Engineering Services Limited, Technology Distributions Limited, Zinox Technologies Limited and Access Bank PLC.
Igbokwe is the chief executive officer of both Ad’mas and Pirovics. He was accused by Joseph of conniving with Kama, Ozims and Oyebode to illegally hijack and execute a contract awarded to his company by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) in 2012.
Oyebode is the executive director (Operations) at TD, while Ozims is the Company Secretary/Legal Adviser, Zinox Group and TD.
Joseph accused both of forging his company’s documents, including a board resolution purportedly signed by him, which appointed them “directors of the company.” He said the forged document was used by them to open a fake account at Access Bank, Lagos to enable them use in receiving the proceeds from the fraud.
To facilitate the opening of the fake account, Joseph said the suspects approached two staff of Access Bank Plc, Obilo Onuoha and Deborah Ijeabu to procure the original copies of his company’s documents used previously to open his corporate account with the bank.
Following PREMIUM TIMES’ publication on September 15, 2016, Zinox filed an application on October 4, 2016 urging the court to dismiss the allegations against them for lack of evidence.
Ozims, in a supporting affidavit on behalf of Zinox and other suspects, asked the court to commence contempt proceedings against Joseph and PREMIUM TIMES “for engaging in acts of media trial”, by publishing and discussing facts and issues before the court for determination.
The suspects accused PREMIUM TIMES of distorting the facts “deliberately to mislead the public to defame the defendants and put the integrity of the court into disrepute.”
However, the judge, Justice Femi Adeniyi, dismissed all the preliminary objections by the suspects, with a N100,000 cost. The application by Access Bank was equally dismissed with a N50,000 cost.
In his judgment, Justice Adeniyi said the objections by Zinox and other suspects to the case of “impersonation, forgery and contract scam” against them did not only lack merit, but also “incompetent, and did not deserve any serious consideration by the court.”
Hearing on the substantive case is still pending before the court more than six and half years since it was filed by Joseph.
Curiously, two other cases lawyers to Joseph say were contrived by the suspects through the police and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) have either progressed to the end, or close to the end.

Alleged police conspiracy
In October 2013, Joseph petitioned the then Deputy Inspector General (DIG) in charge of Force Criminal Investigation Bureau (FCIB), Solomon Arase, accusing Igbokwe and Kama of conspiring with other suspects to commit the fraud.
Based on the petition, the Serious Fraud Unit (SFU) of the police in Lagos investigated the allegations.
The certified true copy (CTC) of the Police Investigation Report No. CR:3000/X/FHQ/ABJ/SEB/Vol.41 dated April 7, 2015, and signed by Olayinka Ajeigbe, then a Chief Superintendent of Police (CSP), Team ‘A’ Leader, Special Enquiry Bureau, Force Criminal Intelligence & Investigation Department (FCIID), Abuja, found the suspects culpable of the crime.
The report titled: ‘Re: Case of Identity theft, Impersonation and Criminal Conversion of Contract worth over N170 million committed against Citadel Oracle Concept Limited’ was addressed to the Commissioner of Police (Administration), Special Enquiry Bureau, FCIID, Nigeria Police, Abuja.
The report No. CR: 3000/X/FHQ/ABJ/SEB/Vol.41 dated April 7, 2015, was signed by Olayinka Ajeigbe, then a Chief Superintendent of Police (CSP), Team ‘A’ Leader, Special Enquiry Bureau, Force Criminal Intelligence & Investigation Department (FCIID), Abuja.
In the report, Ajeigbe said investigations conducted by his department, including the invitation for questioning all the parties named in the petition as well as the forensic analyses of the transaction documents and signatures, confirmed the involvement of the suspects, including Ekeh, and his wife, Chioma.
Based on the recommendation of the Bureau, Olufemi Oyeleye, a Commissioner of Police in charge of Administration, FCIID on April 16, 2015, forwarded the report with cover letter No. CR: 3000/X/FHQABJ/SEB/Vol.4/106 to the then DIG of Police, Solomon Arase, for action.
Oyeleye forwarded the report in response to an earlier request in letter No. DPP/ADV:1009/14 dated March 9, 2015, by the then Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Mohammad Diri, for the case file. No action was taken by Arase on the matter.
On May 8, 2015, Joseph wrote to Arase, now promoted Inspector General of Police (IGP), to remind him about the pending request by DPP Diri. Joseph complained about his frustration in getting the police to prosecute the suspects.
On May 14, 2015, Arase advised Joseph to “allow the matter to run its full course with a view to preventing a miscarriage of justice.”
Not satisfied, on December 2, 2015, Joseph petitioned the then Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo on the matter.
On December 21, 2015, Osinbajo directed the EFCC to wade in, with a view to resolving the matter.
But, on June 16, 2016, three days before the end of IGP Arase’s tenure, the police charged Joseph to court.
The former IGP said Joseph’s allegations in his July 3, 2014 petition about a fictitious board resolution of his company used by the suspects in the fraud to open a fake account, No. 0059202675, in Access Bank, were false.
On July 2, 2016, Joseph, a petitioner-turned-accused, was arraigned before the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Apo, Abuja on a one-count charge of “false petitioning with the intention of misleading the police over a case of identity theft, impersonation and criminal conversion of contracts against the accused.”
Ironically, the suspects mentioned by Joseph in his petition for alleged involvement in the fraud were the ones used by the police prosecution counsel, Simon Lough, an Assistant Commissioner of Police, as prosecution witnesses against Joseph.
The case by the police against Joseph is currently ongoing before the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Apo, Abuja presided by Justice Peter Kekemeke.

EFCC conspiracy
Meanwhile, pursuant to VP Osinbajo’s directive, the EFCC, between September 2017 and May 2018 investigated the allegations in the petition by Joseph.
Although its investigations confirmed Joseph’s allegations against all the suspects, the anti-graft agency selected only two of the suspects (Igbokwe and Kama) for arraignment and trial for the crime.
Despite protests by Joseph’s legal team in several letters to the then acting Chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Magu, the other seven key suspects were shielded from trial in controversial circumstances.
Meanwhile, the two suspects were arraigned before Justice D. Senchi of the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Abuja on what Joseph’s lawyers described as a “strange four-count charge deliberately constructed to fail in court.”
Joseph’s legal team said the charge against the suspects by EFCC prosecutors led by Jude Obozuwa were drafted based on a non-existing document dated December 14, 2012 and not the one dated December 18, 2012 contained in the petition by Joseph to the VP, which was admitted in evidence and used in conducting forensic analysis and investigations by the agency.
Despite drawing attention to the discrepancy in the document used in framing the charge, Joseph said he was ignored by the EFCC prosecutor, whom he also accused of denying him the opportunity to defend himself throughout the trial.
Despite not being a party in the case, or being allowed by the prosecutor to defend himself, Joseph said the final judgment of February 24, 2021, not only acquitted and discharged the two suspects based on the flaws his lawyers earlier pointed out, a fine of N20 million was imposed on him for allegedly failing to appear in court to defend himself.
Joseph said his lawyers have already filed an appeal against the N20 million fine imposed on him, while a petition has also been sent to the Chairman of EFCC, Abdulrasheed Bawa, to investigate the prosecutors in the case for alleged non-diligent prosecution and corruption.

Citadel Oracle reacts
In his reaction to the proposal in court by Zinox Technologies to settle out of court with PREMIUM TIMES, Joseph said it did not matter much what either he or his company, Citadel Oracle would say about the situation, rather what the proposal means to PREMIUM TIMES, vis-a-vis its conviction as a media house committed to defending the truth at all times, particularly truth involving an obvious oppressor against the oppressed.
“Neither I, nor our company, Citadel Oracle, is in a position to influence PREMIUM TIMES’ decision on the matter. As a defender of truth, PREMIUM TIMES has always stood for the oppressed. Its reporting of the fraud has not been faulted so far either in and out of court.
“We must sincerely thank PREMIUM TIMES for resisting all manner of pressures, inducements and blackmail to stand by the truth.
We have availed PREMIUM TIMES and its legal team all necessary documents required to defend the truth, including the Certified True Copy of the Police report on the fraud and the DPP’s legal advice from the Office of Attorney General of the Federation that indicted and recommended the suspects for prosecution, including Leo Stan Ekeh.
“The out-of-court settlement is another tactical gambit to frustrate the truth.
“So, we are not in any position to determine the outcome of the proposed out-of-court settlement. Everything depends on PREMIUM TIMES, its conscience and conviction about what it stands for.
“They tried before to gag PREMIUM TIMES through a restraining injunction in the libel case. The court resisted it and they failed.
“If PREMIUM TIMES decides to abandon the truth for whatever reason, which I believe it will not, it will only be a sad day for the media and a temporary setback to weaken our quest for justice. It will not change our firm resolve to pursue our case till justice is done. We have gone to far to look back.
“We believe the eclipse of falsehood over truth, and evil over good, in this matter can only be partial and temporary and never permanent. With time, truth will unravel and ultimately prevail,” Joseph said.

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