Lawyers, social critics, Aba residents and civil society groups on Thursday lauded the 12-year prison sentence handed down to ex-Governor Orji Kalu of Abia by a Federal High Court in Lagos.
Justice Mohammed Idris convicted Kalu on 39 counts of N7.2 billion fraud and money laundering preferred against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Kalu is currently the senate chief whip.
Malachy Ugwummadu, a lawyer and National President of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), noted the role the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) played in the speedy trial of the case.
Ugwummadu hailed the provisions of ACJA which prevented the trial from starting de novo (from the beginning) when the trial judge was elevated to the Court of Appeal.
“The speed with which this case was adjudicated has everything to do with the ACJA that now allows that a trial judge, though elevated, can return to conclude an ongoing criminal proceeding.
“The ACJA is explicit, it is proactive, it is definitive, it allows a judge, who started a trial and got elevated to a superior court, to return to conclude proceedings.
“This is exactly what happened here. Orji Uzor Kalu was arraigned before Justice Mohammed Idris, who within the period of the trial, was elevated to the Court of Appeal. Today, he delivered that judgment.
“To that extent, it is remarkable because it touches on the speedy dispensation of justice. What obtained before now, was the matter starting de novo with the transfer or elevation of the judge,” he said.
According to the CDHR president, the judgment proved that no individual is above the law.
“The law remains the law. The fact that Senator Orji Uzor Kalu defected to the All Progressives Congress (APC) from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) did not provide a cover for him.
“This judgment has established a precedent; but giving the caliber of the defendant, we are likely going to see an appeal against the judgment,” Ugwummadu said.
The Executive Director of Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Mr. Tokunbo Mumuni, while reacting to the judgment said it will hopefully serve as a deterrent to looters in the country.
He said, “Judgment has been passed and the trial judge would have properly gone through the evidence before the court but he has the right to appeal.
“Let’s hope that those who have constituted themselves into a group of looters in the country are warned as a result of this judgment.”
Also former NBA vice-president, Mr. Monday Ubani, said though Kalu has been convicted, he will still remain a senator.
Ubani added that Senator Uzor Kalu can only be removed from office if he was recalled.
“He still remains a senator despite the fact that he has been convicted and he may possibly still be collecting salary just as Dariye was being paid.
“He is going to appeal the judgment and may possibly apply for bail which may not be granted except on special circumstances like health issues.”
He, however, added that Kalu’s conviction will send a signal to other people in the society.
A Lagos-based lawyer, Debo Adeleke, said the judgment was a well-deserved one, saying it will serve as a lesson to other politicians who are found wanting in the area of corruption. “Especially those of them that have served as governors and because they don’t want to be answerable to what they have done as a sitting governor, they run to the Senate.
“Many of them refused to pay pensioners and workers in the state but they pay themselves heavily and still embezzle. They think the hands of the law cannot catch up with them.
“In my own opinion, I think the judgment is even lesser. Kalu’s conviction will send a warning to other public officers who are fraudulent and think they are immune. It also means we are experiencing the kind of judicial system we ought to have in this country”, he said.
Mr. Ezenwa Nwagwu, Chairman, Partners for Electoral Reforms (PEF), said the jailing of Kalu was a proof that joining the ruling party with criminal case was not a guarantee against justice.
Nwagwu said on Thursday in Abuja that the jailing has faulted the notion that once people with criminal record join the ruling party they were covered.
“The judgment is a good boost for the anti-corruption fight, especially against the background of all the noise about once somebody is in the All Progressives Congress (APC) the person cannot be brought to justice.
“It is a good signal that even if you join the ruling party you will not clog the will of justice.
“It also signals the fact that no matter how long it lasts, once there is the determination by the court to bring justice, justice would be done”, he said.
The conviction and sentencing of Uzor Kalu is further proof that the war against corruption is in full swing, the Buhari Media Organisation (BMO) has said.
The group also said it showed that being a member of the APC is not a shield from prosecution, contrary to what opposition elements had been saying about the ruling party.
In a statement signed by its chairman, Niyi Akinsiju, and Secretary, Cassidy Madueke, BMO argued that the conviction of a high ranking APC chieftain proved that the courts are indeed independent in this dispensation.
“For some time, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its supporters had been casting aspersion on the anti-corruption crusade, especially in the run-up to the 2019 elections.
“The claim then was that all a politician seeking protection from trial needed to do was to join APC. And this was even after two former governors who are also members of the ruling party, had been convicted and sent to jail.
“This speaks to the focus and uncompromising nature of the administration, and if a high ranking senator is in jail, then clearly a message has been sent out on the rule of law.
“So if there was any doubt about President Muhammadu Buhari’s sincerity, then the fact that a ranking member of his party has been sentenced to a 12-year jail term is proof that such doubts had been unfounded.
“We hope that the judgment delivered by Justice Muhammad Idris of the Federal High Court in Ikoyi, Lagos, would clear all doubts about the seriousness of the anti-graft crusade,” it said.
Justice Uhuegbu, lawyer and activist, and Chuks Nwachukwu, presidential candidate of All Grassroots Alliance (AGA), have said that it has not come as a surprise that Kalu was jailed 12 years, pointing out that the assets of Slok Group should be forfeited to Abia government.
Uhuegbu told newsmen on Thursday that the lawmaker and others were deceived by the comment of the national chairman of APC that anyone who joined the party would have his sins forgiven.
The lawyer said that history would always repeat itself, stressing that if Nigerians would do the right thing, justice must have been done.
“The former governor did not acquire the assets as a senator or official of the Federal Government. Since he acquired them while he was governor of Abia State, why should court rule that they be forfeited to the Federal Government”, he said.
Similarly, some Aba residents in Abia State have lauded the 12-year jail term handed down to ex-Gov. Orji Kalu.
Aba is the main base of Kalu and some of the residents said that the judgment was a warning to political office holders to be careful.
A lawyer and social critic, Chief Ukpai Ukairo said: “The judgment is momentous and shows that you can run but cannot hide.
“The judgment shows that though the wheel of justice grinds slowly, it will surely grind very well.
“This is the time for Abia to recover money stolen by that regime and use it meaningfully.
“It is also a warning to all those in positions of authority that abuse the trust of the people.”
He urged that assets of Slok Nig. Ltd. – Kalu’s company – should be forfeited to Abia government and not Federal Government.
A chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Abia, Chief Okey Nwagbara, also lauded the judgment, saying that it demonstrated the commitment of the Federal Government to fight corruption.
He added that the judgment showed that the APC-led Federal Government was not selective in its crusade against corruption.
“It is a very straight-forward judgment against corruption.
“The judgment shows that the judiciary is independent and actually the hope of the common man.
“I learnt that the court ruled that the property of Slok, Orji Kalu’s company, should be forfeited to the Federal Government.
“I want the Federal Government to do justice by converting the property of Slok to Abia government property, because the money he was accused of stealing is Abia State government’s,” he said.
Uche Emeku of the Easy Life Initiative for Rural Youths (ELIRY) said that the judgment showed that the judiciary could act independently.
“It is not about Orji Kalu but sanity in our polity as long as it is not done with prejudice.
“I believe everybody who commits a crime should be punished for the crime he committed.
“Everybody should be very careful because it is about dispensing justice by those in the temple of justice,” he said.
Equally, Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN), chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), said those accusing the ruling APC of protecting corrupt politicians from being prosecuted are guilty of speech.
Speaking with newsmen on the conviction of Orji Uzor Kalu, Sagay also asked those making the claim to apologise to President Buhari and the APC for spreading lies about the Federal Government’s anti-corruption war.
According to him, by making such statements, they are creating anger against APC and giving the world an erroneous impression that it is a party that harbours corrupt politicians.
“All those who have been saying that if you should join APC, you are covered by some immunity for any corruption or wrongdoing and nobody can touch you have been proven wrong.
“From what has happened in the case of Orji Kalu, we can consider what those people are saying as hate speech. By saying that, what they are doing is creating prejudice, anger and displeasure against the APC government for no just cause.
“I think they should apologise to this government and to the party for their unbridled and irresponsible opinion on this matter”, he said.
Justice Muhammed Idris convicted Kalu on all the 39 counts preferred against him by the EFCC and sentenced him to a concurrent jail term of 12 years.
The EFCC prosecuted Kalu for 12 years together with Jones Udeogo, the state Commissioner for Finance during his tenure as the governor.
Kalu’s company, Slok Nig. Ltd., was charged along with Kalu and Udeogo.
In a 288-page judgment, Idris also found Udeogo guilty on 34 counts and sentenced him to a concurrent jail term of 10 years.
The judge also found Slok Nig. Ltd. guilty on all the 39 counts.
On counts one, two, three and four, Idris sentenced Kalu to five years’ imprisonment each, while on counts six to 11, he sentenced the former governor to three years’ imprisonment each.
On counts 23 to 33, he sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment each, while on counts 34 to 38, he sentenced him to 12 years jail term each.
On the last count, the judge sentenced Kalu to five years’ imprisonment.
The court sentenced Udeogo to three years’ imprisonment on counts 23 to 33, and sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment on counts 34 to 38.
He sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment on count 39. The judge held that the sentences should run concurrently.
The court ordered that Slok Nig. Ltd. should be wound up and all its assets forfeited to the Federal Government.
Idris warned public officers to eschew corruption as they were trustees of public funds.
“Officers swear to uphold the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policies as contained in the constitution.
“The defendant pledged that in the exercise of his tenure as governor, he would not allow his personal interest to influence his official conduct.
“He pledged to devote himself to the service and wellbeing of his people in accordance with the provisions of the law and not to endanger the continuance of his country.
“With due respect, I hold the view that the first defendant has failed in his obligation under the constitution; with due respect, I hold that the defendant has acted contrary to his oath of office and he shall be held responsible.”
He said that those who aided and abated Kalu would also be brought to book.
“Let me remind those who hold positions of authority in this country that they shall all be held responsible for their conducts; when they act contrary to the law, the same law shall be applied.
“Let me also borrow from the words of the late Dele Giwa when he stated: `No evil deed shall go unpunished, any evil done by man shall be accounted for if not now, later’.
“It is in this light and for the forgoing, that I find the defendants guilty.”