By Michael Ojo
The ongoing criminal trial of a former governor of Abia State, Chief Orji Uzor Kalu, was stalled on Tuesday due to the inability of the prosecution to bring to court one of its major witnesses, one M.A. Udoh.
The prosecuting counsel, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), told the Federal High Court in Lagos, that Udoh had been evasive, adding that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission had been having difficulty bringing him to court.
“Our main witness that we intend to call, we have approached him for more than six months; we have noticed that each time the matter is coming up, he would just travel to Umuahia or Calabar or Cameroon. He always has the dates of the matter and I was forced to apply for a subpoena. Your Lordship signed one, which we took to the Abia State Government House, Umuahia because we found out that he was a civil servant, but on getting there, we were told that he had since left service.
“He was supposed to come today but he switched off his phone. EFCC operatives went to his house in Umuahia, yesterday (Monday) and this morning, they met his wife who said he had traveled to Calabar. Despite all the efforts we have not been able to bring him to court,” Jacobs lamented.
He alleged that some persons were behind Udoh’s evasiveness.
He urged the court to grant him a short adjournment to enable him to locate and bring Udoh, a retired employee of the Abia State Government House, Umuahia, to court to testify.
But the defence lawyers – Prof. Awa Kalu (SAN), Chief Solo Akoma (SAN) and Chief K.C.Nwofor (SAN) – vehemently opposed the application for an adjournment, describing it as frivolous.
They expressed disappointment at Jacob’s request for an adjournment, noting that they had abandoned every other thing and flown to Lagos from Abuja just to ensure that there was no further delay in the case that had lasted for over 10 years. “We are not going to agree to a request that will force Your Lordship to close for one week,” Prof Kalu fumed.
Akoma, while aligning himself with Kalu, condemned the approach taken by Jacobs to bring his witnesses to court. He recalled that on November 30 last year while the judge was adjourning the matter till Monday, Jacobs had told the court that he had four more witnesses to call, including Udoh. He wondered why any of the other three witnesses was also not produced in court, even if the prosecution had a difficulty bringing Udoh. “That shows the frivolity of the steps they have taken to bring their witnesses to court,” Akoma said.
He urged the court to either foreclose the prosecution’s case or if the request for an adjournment would be granted, the court should order the prosecution to bear the cost of the defence team transportation and hotel accommodation. This, he said, was in line with the provisions of Section 396(6) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015.
Toeing the same line of argument, Nwofor said it was regrettable that since the trial resumed, all the adjournments had been at the instance of the prosecution.
He said on account of the slow pace of the case his client, which is a company, had lost huge amount in foreign currency in terms of contracts. “We had 3,000 workers who have lost their jobs; we had 250 expatriates, they have lost their jobs and my friend is here asking for an adjournment,” he added.
Nwofor added that he had been unable to get his legal fee as his client was broke and was eagerly waiting for the trial to end. He urged the court to award a cost of N10m against the prosecution in favour of his client for the delay.
But the prosecutor, Jacobs, argued that the case was delayed for over 10 years at the instance of the defendants who pursued an interlocutory appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.
He said it was due to the time spent by the defendants pursuing interlocutory appeal that the prosecution was experiencing difficult in assembling its witnesses some of whom had died, retired or relocated out of jurisdiction.
“If they had allowed us to go on within two to three years of the case, all our witnesses would have been assembled in one day,” he said, urging the judge to grant his request for an adjournment and to reject the award of cost.
In his ruling, the presiding judge, Justice Mohammed Idris, described the development as unfortunate. He noted that the case had been adjourned on four different occasions at the request of the prosecution.
“Where a witness that ought to attend court, fails to attend court and summons has been issued and served on the same witness, then the prosecution would pursue the appropriate provisions of the ACJA to compel the attendance of the witness in court…This trial will no longer be adjourned on account of unavailability of witness to attend court… It is unfortunate that a trial, which has been adjourned for hearing from day to day could not proceed due to witness unavailability,” the judge said.
He, however, conceded to an adjournment, warning that it would be the last of its kind.
The matter was subsequently adjourned till January 22 and 23, 2018.
The ex-governor of Abia State, Kalu, is being tried on 34 charges alongside Udeh Udeogu and Slok Nigeria Limited. They were accused of conspiring among themselves to divert a total of N2.9bn from the coffers of the Abia State Government. But the defendants pleaded not guilty.