Investigations - Special Focus - November 23, 2021

You can’t stop police investigation of crime suspects, court tells Zinox top officials accused in N170m FIRS contract fraud

By Bassey Udo

Four top officials of Zinox Technologies Limited and its affiliate, Technology Distributions (TD) Limited have again lost another attempt to shield themselves from police investigation and prosecution over their roles in an N170.3 million contract fraud they are named as suspects.

The top officials are Chioma Ekeh, a director of TD and wife of the Chairman, Zinox Group, Stan Leo Ekeh; Chris Eze Ozims, the Company Secretary/Legal Adviser, Zinox Group and TD; Folashade Oyebode, a director of TD, and Charles Adigwe, an accountant with TD.

The Federal High Court in Lagos presided by Justice Tijjani Garba Ringim on Monday, October 4, 2021, in separate applications filed by the quartet, ruled that the court cannot stop the police from performing its lawful duty of investigating, arresting and prosecuting suspects named in a criminal case.

On October 30, 2020, the police had invited the four officials for interrogation over alleged conspiracy, forgery, and fraud leveled against them in a petition to the Inspector General of Police (IGP).

Apparently, to circumvent the invitation and avoid being investigated for the crimes, they filed four different legal processes before the Federal High Court in Lagos for the enforcement of their fundamental rights to stop the police from investigating and prosecuting them over the matter.

The certified true copies of the rulings delivered, were obtained by MEDIATRACNET on Friday.

Details of applications
The applications filed on November 20, 2020, in suits Nos. FHC/L/CS/1644/2020 by Adigwe; FHC/L/CS/1646/2020 by Ozims; FHC/L/CS/1650/2020 by Oyebode, and FHC/L/CS/1651/2020 by Ekeh.

Their originating motions filed on their behalf by Innocent Eremionkhale of Integrity Law Firm were pursuant to Sections 34, 35, and 36 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended); Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights Rules; Order 2 Rules 1, 2, 3 4 and 5, and Order 11 of the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure Rules, 2009.

They asked the court to declare that their invitation by the police for the purpose of investigation based on the contents of a fresh petition over a case of fraud they were named as suspects was subjudice to ongoing civil and criminal cases in court, unlawful, and unconstitutional.

Also, they asked the court to declare that the Police Interim Report dated October 19, 2020, as well as the decisions and recommendations against them allegedly without hearing from them, were in breach of their fundamental human rights.

Besides, they claimed the police had no authority to invite, investigate, arrest, detain and harass them based on the fresh evidence in the petition against them.

Again, they were of the opinion that the police investigation team lacked the constitutional and administrative powers to override the legal advice of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice based on the recommendation of the Director of Public Prosecution to the Inspector General of Police for the prosecution of the petitioner to run to its logical conclusion for alleged false petitioning.

In asking for a perpetual injunction restraining the petitioner from further petitioning the police against them and order setting aside the Police Interim Report that indicted them, the four officials each asked the court to order the petitioner and his company to pay them N500 million each as damages for continuous instigation of the police to arrest them over the matter.

Their applications were based on 43 grounds, supported with a statement seeking 11 reliefs, in addition to a 63 paragraphs affidavit and 19-page written address by their counsel, who also filed a 10 paragraph Further Better Affidavit and 8-page written address in reaction to a response to a counter affidavit by the counsel to the petitioner.

Counter affidavit
In a counter-affidavit by Kolade Olutekunbi, Counsel to the petitioners, Citadel Oracle Concept Limited and its Managing Director, Joseph Benjamin, asked the court to determine whether or not the reliefs sought by the four officials deserved to be granted.

Olutekunbi’s argument was that the Police Interim Report they were referring to was not a product of judicial or administrative bodies, but that of a non-judicial body not bound to observe the rules of natural justice and fairness in their decisions, as it affects the rights and obligations of a citizen.

In addition, the lawyer argued that the investigatory powers of the police, by virtue of Sections 31 of the Nigeria Police Force Act, and Section 214(1) of the Nigerian Constitution, 1999, cannot be stopped by the court, or directed by the court or suspect on how the police should investigate a matter.

In upholding the arguments by the counsel to the respondents, the court said the applicants failed to show where they may be gagged if the police discharged its constitutional duties of investigating and prosecuting the matter as many times as they would desire.

“Unless good and exceptional reasons are preferred, the courts are quite hesitant in preventing the police from performing their lawful and constitutional roles of investigation under Section 214 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 and Section 4 of the Police Act, Cap P.19 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004,” Justice Ringim said in his ruling.

Justice Ringim said the applicants failed to discharge the burden placed on them by Section 134 of the Evidence Act 2011 to prove the case of breach of their fundamental rights on the balance of probabilities.

Therefore, he dismissed the applications against the four officials, with an N25,000 cost each, while resolving the case in favour of the police, Citadel Oracle and Benjamin.

Second setback
The latest ruling was the second setback the suspects would be suffering in the last year in their quest to use the courts to shield themselves from prosecution over the case.

In December 2020, the Federal High Court in Lagos presided by Justice Chuka Obiozor similarly dismissed an ex-parte application by Chioma Ekeh who sought an order to stop the police from inviting her for questioning over her role in the contract fraud.

In his ruling on the application, Justice Obiozor told Ekeh that suspects cannot stop the police from investigating them over a criminal matter.

With the latest ruling, the police have now been handed the liberty to proceed with the prosecution of the suspects in the fraud, an exercise that has stalled since 2014.

When MEDIATRACNET contacted the Police Spokesperson, Frank Mba, to find out why the police were yet to take action more than one month after the legal roadblock was removed, he did not pick several calls to his telephone. He did also respond to the WhatApp message sent to him.

When contacted, Amechi Elumelu, the police officer who headed the investigation of the fraud and recommended the prosecution of the suspects, referred our reporter to another official he said was in charge of the case.

The official who requested that his name should not be revealed to avoid breaching the police media guidelines however confirmed he was directed to hand over the case file No.CR/3100/X-SQD/T.2/D.DEPT/FHQ/ABJ/Vol.3/176 to the police legal department on November 25, 2020.

Since then, the official said he was not in a position to comment any further on the matter, in view of the high level interest the case attracted.

Backstory
On July 3, 2014, Joseph Benjamin, the Managing Director of Citadel Oracle Concept Limited, an Ibadan-based ICT retail firm, petitioned the then Deputy Inspector-General (DIG) of police in charge of Force Criminal Investigation Bureau (FCIB), Solomon Arase, to accuse top officials of Zinox Group and its affiliate, TD, of hijacking an N170.3 million contract awarded to his company by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) in 2012.

In the petition, Benjamin said the officials conspired with the Onny Igbokwe, the managing director of a Port Harcourt-based IT company, Ad’mas Digital Technologies Limited, and Pirovics Engineering Services Limited, and his ally, Princess Kama, to commit the crime.

He accused Kama of facilitating the fraud by pretending to be representing Citadel Oracle during the bid for the contract.
Also, Benjamin named Folashade Oyebode, a director of TD, and two staff of Access Bank Plc, Obilo Onuoha and Deborah Ijeabu, as the other suspects in the crime.

The businessman alleged that the suspects forged his company’s documents, including a board resolution dated December 18, 2012, used in opening a fake account with Access Bank into which FIRS paid the contract money.

In addition, Charles Adigwe, TD’s accountant, was also accused of being a party to the fraud, for handling the disbursement of various sums from the fake Access Bank account to other parties linked with the fraud.

Although, the Special Fraud Unit (SFU) of the police in Lagos investigated the allegations in the petition, some interested parties within the police refused to release the original case file to the then Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Muhammad Diri, for the prosecution of the suspects.

Petition to IGP
On May 8, 2015, Benjamin wrote to Arase, who was just being promoted Inspector General of Police (IGP), to remind him of the pending request by then DPP, Diri, for the transfer of the case file to his office for the commencement of prosecution.

On May 14, 2015, Arase responded with an advice that the civil case, No. LD/4335/14, filed by Benjamin in a Lagos High Court against the suspects for alleged frustration of their prosecution over the fraud, should be allowed “to run its full course with a view to preventing a miscarriage of justice.”

On December 2, 2015, Benjamin petitioned Vice President Yemi Osinbajo who, on December 21, 2015, directed the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to investigate the matter.

However, on June 16, 2016, shortly before IGP Arase’s exit from office, the police in Abuja charged Benjamin to court for alleged false petitioning against the suspects.

On July 2, 2016, the police arraigned Benjamin at the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Apo in case No: FCT/HC/CR/216/16 on a one-count charge of “false petitioning.”

On June 18, 2016, Benjamin petitioned the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, to invite his intervention in the matter.

Although Malami responded with a directive to the then DPP, Mohammad Umar, to take over the prosecution of the case from the police on December 7, 2016, to avoid a miscarriage of justice, the police prosecuting lawyer, Simon Lough, resisted the directive.

Lough cited a petition against Benjamin by Eremionkhale, the lawyer who represented Chioma Ekeh in 2020. The trial is still ongoing in the case before Justice Peter Kekemeke of the Federal High Court, Maitama.

Suspects have case to answer
Meanwhile, on May 2, 2017, Justice Femi Adeniyi of the Lagos High Court, Igbosere, Lagos in his ruling, said on the preliminary objections to the civil suit filed by Benjamin against the suspects for allegedly frustrating their criminal prosecution said the top officials of Zinox Group and TD had a case to answer.

Following the ruling, Benjamin petitioned the Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Itsay Sagay, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), who, on April 24, 2019, wrote to the then IGP, Mohammed Adamu, urging him to investigate the case.

On December 16, 2019, Benjamin wrote to the IGP, urging him to order the review of his trial by the police. On December 27, 2019, the IGP obliged and directed the DIG FCID to act on it.

A fresh investigation conducted by the DIG through the X-Squad Department of the Nigeria Police Force Investigation confirmed the fraud.

The certified true copy (CTC) of the Police Investigation Report based on the July 3, 2014 petition by Benjamin showed the Chairman of Zinox Group, Stan Leo Ekeh, as the fifth of eight suspects recommended for criminal prosecution.

The report, No. CR: 3000/X/FHQ/ABJ/SEB/Vol.41 of 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.

The report titled: “Re: Case of Identity theft, Impersonation and Criminal Conversion of Contract worth over N170million committed against Citadel Oracle Concept Limited” was addressed to the Commissioner of Police (Administration), Special Enquiry Bureau, FCIID, Nigeria Police, Abuja.

Other suspects listed in the report included “Princess Kama Onyeoma, Chief Onny S.O. Igbokwe, Mr. Chris Eze Ozims, Folashade Oyebode, Charles Adigwe, Obilo Onuoha, (and) Deborah Ojeabu.”

In the report, CSP Ajeigbe said based on the petition by Benjamin, his department invited all the suspects and conducted forensic analyses of the transaction documents and signatures.

At the end of investigations, the report confirmed all the allegations in the petition by Benjamin against the suspects.
On April 16, 2015, Olufemi Oyeleye, a Commissioner of Police in charge of Administration, FCIID, forwarded the report to the then IGP Arase for action. No action was taken till he left office.

On January 10, 2020, the DIG of Police, Force CID, based on another petition by Benjamin, ordered another investigation of the suspects by the X-Squad of the Police led by Chris Ushen, an Assistant Superintendent of Police.

Police Interim Report

In the police Interim Report No: CB:4099/X-SQD/D.DEPT/1.2/FHQ/ABJ/Vol.1/116 of October 19, 2020 obtained by MEDIATRACNET on Friday, confirmed the cases by the Police Serious Fraud Unit and SEB concluded the suspects have cases to answer with regards to their roles in the crime.

However, the report said the prosecution of the suspects has stalled as a result of the refusal of Simon Lough, an Assistant Commissioner of Police, to release the two case files in his custody to FCID legal department.

The report signed by Amechi Elumelu, a Commissioner of Police, in charge of the X-Squad Section, FCID, Force Headquarters, Abuja recommended that given the overwhelming evidence of culpability of the suspects, it was imperative that Simon Lough should immediately withdraw the case against Benjamin and transfer the case file to X-Squad for the suspects to be charged in accordance with the legal advice by the DPP.

Rather than abide by the recommendations, Lough opted to represent the police in the fundamental human rights application filed by the top officials of Zinox Telecommunications and TD against the police attempt to prosecute them as suspects in the crime.

EFCC arraigns two of seven suspects

Meanwhile, the EFCC, following its investigations of the allegations in the petition by Benjamin against the suspects, also confirmed their culpability in the crime.

However, the anti-graft agency decided to charge only two of the suspects, Igbokwe and Kama, to court with the crime.

Curiously, the charges filed against the duo were based on a petition its prosecutor, Jude Obozuwa, claimed suggested the suspects committed the fraud based on a fake Board resolution from Benjamin’s company dated December 14, 2012, and not the real one dated December 18, 2012 in the original petition, which was admitted in evidence in court and used in conducting forensic analysis of the signatories.

On February 24, 2021, Justice Danlami Zama Senchi of the Federal High Court, Jabi, based on the contradictory evidence by the EFCC prosecutor, had no difficulty dismissing the charges against the two suspects and setting them free. He proceeded to impose an N20 million fine on Benjamin, who was not even admitted by the EFCC as a party in the case.

 

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