Respite came the way of the embattled former governor of Abia State and Chief Whip of the Senate, Dr, Orji Uzor Kalu, on Friday, as the Supreme Court, quashed the judgement that convicted and sentenced him to 12 years imprisonment.
The apex, in a unanimous decision by a seven-man panel of Justices led by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, nullified the entire proceedings that led to Kalu’s conviction, even as it ordered the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to re-assign the money laundering charge the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, preferred against him and two others, to another judge for re-trial.
Meanwhile, ex-governor Kalu, in his prompt reaction to the judgement, lauded the apex court, saying he would henceforth dedicate his time to fight against injustice in the country.
The Supreme Court had in the lead verdict that was read by Justice Ejembi Eko, held that the trial High Court Judge, Justice Mohammed Idris, acted without jurisdiction when he convicted Kalu, his firm, Slok Nigeria Limited and a former Director of Finance in Abia State, Jones Udeogu.
It noted that Justice Idris was no longer a judge of the Federal High Court as at December 5, 2019, when he sat and delivered the judgement that convicted the defendants for allegedly stealing about N7.1billion from Abia state treasury.
According to the Supreme Court, Justice Liman, having been elevated to the Court of Appeal before then, lacked the powers to return to sit as a High Court Judge.
It held that the Fiat that was issued to him by the Court of Appeal President pursuant to section 396(7) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, was unconstitutional.
The apex court held that no statute in Nigeria empowered the Court of Appeal President to give vires to a Justice of the appellate court to return to the High Court to deliver judgement in a pending criminal trial, stressing that the Court of Appeal President, “acted ultra-vires his powers when she purportedly gave the authorization” with respect to Kalu’s case.
“The Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal are all courts that were set up and established by the Constitution. No head of either court perform the function or interfere in the internal activities of either court.
“Just as the Court of Appeal President has no power to assign the case to any Federal High Court Judge, so also does the Federal High Court Chief Judge lack the powers to interfere in the activities of the Court of Appeal”, Justice Eko held.
He held that the Court of Appeal President, by issuing a letter to Justice Idris to return to the Federal High Court to conclude the trial of Kalu and his co-defendants, usurped the power of President Muhammadu Buhari to appoint Judges for both superior courts, as well as the power of Chief Judge of the High Court to assign cases to Judges under him.
Consequently, the apex court held that since Justice Idris returned to the trial court based on an unconstitutional directive by the Court of Appeal President, the judgement and subsequent conviction of the defendants amounted to a nullity.
It, therefore, ordered that the charge in suit No. FHC/ABJ/CR/26/2017, which EFCC entered against Kalu and his co-defendants, should be remitted back to Chief Judge of the Federal High Court for re-assignment to any other judge for the trial to commence de-novo (afresh).
The judgement followed an appeal Kalu’s firm, Slok, lodged to challenge the jurisdiction of the high court that tried the matter and found the defendants guilty. It will be recalled that Kalu who is currently the federal lawmaker representing Abia North Senatorial District, Slok, and a former Director of Finance in Abia State, Jones Udeogu; were initially convicted for allegedly using the firm to defraud the Government of Abia State in the eight years Kalu held sway as governor of the state.
Whereas the trial court sentenced Kalu to 12 years imprisonment, Udeogu was handed a 10-year jail term. The court ordered that the firm should wound up with its assets forfeited to the government. Dissatisfied with the decision of the trial court, Kalu’s firm challenged it at the court of appeal, insisting that it was perverse and occasioned a miscarriage of justice.
However, the appellate court, in a unanimous verdict by a three-man panel of Justices, on March 26, dismissed the appeal and affirmed the decision of the trial court. The panel in the judgment that was read by Justice Olabisi Ige, held that the appeal lacked merit.
Though Kalu’s corruption case began in 2007, the trial however suffered a series of setback owing to various interlocutory objections the defendants raised up to the Supreme Court. EFCC eventually closed its case against them after it called a total of 19 witnesses that testified before the trial court.