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[OPINION] OLISA METUH: Facts as they are

 

Politician Olisa Metuh will on Tuesday know his fate in the anti-graft EFCC’s multi-million naira corruption case against him.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission arrested Mr Metuh, a member of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), on January 5, 2016, accusing him of receiving N400 million from the Office of the National Security Adviser.

The money was paid in the run-up to the 2015 general elections when the PDP was still in power, and formed a part of about $2.1 billion allegedly plundered after being earmarked for defence procurement.

Federal authorities accused Mr Metuh, then a chief spokesperson for the PDP, of receiving the N400 million through his private firm, Dextra Investments Limited. They said he should have known that the money came from proceeds of loot by Sambo Dasuki, the then national security adviser.

But Mr Metuh denied the allegation, saying his firm was paid for a legitimate commerce it entered with the ONSA, which did not complain that service was not rendered.

The politician’s lawyers, led by Onyechi Ikpeazu, said it was preposterous for the prosecution to premise its case heavily on the notion that Mr Metuh should have known that the money paid by the ONSA to his company was part of a defence procurement budget allegedly diverted by the ONSA.

Away from their first argument that Mr Metuh “reasonably ought to have known” that his company was paid from ill-gotten proceeds, according to court documents reviewed by PREMIUM TIMES, the prosecutors also tackled Mr Metuh for receiving N400 million for a contract he knew was worth well below that amount.

Mr Metuh also rejected the argument that he took part in a conspiracy to inflate the value of a contract in contravention of public procurement regulations.

Okon Abang, the presiding judge, who has been a part of the drama that ensued throughout the case, would now determine on February 25 whether or not the prosecution has a case.

A long, dramatic trial

For those who followed it from the beginning, Mr Metuh’s case has been a basket of comic treats. Barely a week after he was arrested, as prosecutors prepared their case again him, Mr Metuh was accused of tearing his written statement to anti-graft detectives in an attempt to swallow them — thereby suppressing a major evidence.

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Although he denied the allegation, the prosecution nonetheless added the claim to its charges as an obstruction of justice.

When the matter opened for trial, Mr Metuh fell ill repeatedly, sometimes appearing in court in wheelchair or even sickbed. He repeatedly sought the judge’s approval to travel for medical treatment, but this was denied as many times as he asked.

Even though the ruling All Progressives Congress said Mr Metuh had no genuine ground to travel abroad to see a neurosurgeon, a claim furthered by Mr Abang’s refusal to grant him travel permission, a PREMIUM TIMES investigation showed the politician had a note to be treated for spinal cord injuries from a London doctor.

Mr Abang’s refusal to grant Mr Metuh permission to travel abroad despite evidence of his doctor’s readiness to treat him for spinal cord complications reignited allegations that the judge was biased against the defendant.

At the early stages of the trial in 2016, Mr Metuh had said he was classmates with Mr Abang at law school. But the judge denied the assertion, saying he did not recall the politician’s identity and rejecting defence’s motion for him to stand down from the case.

But several independent sources, including an investigation by PREMIUM TIMES and the submission of legal and rights expert Chidi Odinkalu, revealed that both the judge and the politician were classmates.

In defending himself, Mr Metuh tried to call two key witnesses: Goodluck Jonathan and Mr Dasuki. His legal team believed the statement of either or both witnesses would go a long way towards exonerating him.

He said Mr Jonathan was the one who, as president, authorised the NSA to give out the contract, although this was when Mr Jonathan himself was running for reelection.

Mr Dasuki, as the NSA, was supposed to testify in favour of Mr Metuh by confirming that the contract was legally awarded and payment made. He was to also confirm that the contract was executed based on its terms.

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But Mr Dasuki was himself enmeshed in a matter with the State Security Service, the domestic intelligence outfit whose agents arrested the former NSA in December 2015 and kept him in custody for several years until December 2019.

Mr Dasuki had been facing charges of illegal possession of arms with the SSS. But despite several court orders, the agency declined to release Mr Dasuki, citing national security implications.

In a case of civil disobedience to force compliance with his fundamental rights, Mr Dasuki withdrew his participation in the trial until SSS had complied with the court order to free him on bail.

The stalemate made it difficult for Mr Dasuki to stand as a witness for Mr Metuh for nearly two years. When he eventually testified in November 2017, while still in custody of the SSS, Mr Dasuki said he would not be able to confirm or deny anything relating to Mr Metuh’s case unless he has access to his own records.

On the same day, Mr Abang scoffed at the defence team’s attempt to persuade the court to adjourn hearing in his matter until Mr Dasuki regained freedom from the SSS and laid hands on his records.

Earlier in October 2017, the trial had dominated headlines after Mr Metuh tried to get the court to compel Mr Jonathan to testify in the matter, insisting the former president’s appearance in the witness box was essential for his extrication.

On October 27, Mr Abang ordered Mr Jonathan to appear before the court for his testimony, signing a subpoena to be served on the former president.

For several months, however, efforts to get the former president to appear in court proved impossible. Mr Jonathan did not appear in court throughout the trial.

In December 2019, both prosecution and defence teams concluded their filings before the court, prompting the judge to fix February 25 for ruling.

Far-reaching consequences

If the argument against Mr Metuh is sustained, it could introduce a change so fundamental in how Nigerians participate in commerce that it would be almost impossible to for anyone not to get caught up in a similar case in their lifetime, said anti-corruption and legal analyst Yomi Ogunsanya.

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“It is not the duty of a retailer or a contractor to know the source of a payment for a service rendered,” Mr Ogunsanya said. “Even if where there is a duty to do so, it is practically impossible to achieve.”

Mr Ogunsanya said even though he is an anti-corruption campaigner, he found the EFCC’s case against Mr Metuh too weak to be taken seriously by any liberal mind, much less a federal judge.

“It is a matter that could cripple a country’s economy because a retailer would spend so much time trying to find out the source of payment from a customer,” he said. “When his duty should actually stop at ensuring that adequate service is rendered for free-flow and sustainability of business.”

The analyst said the EFCC’s argument was analogous to asking a roadside pepper seller in a remote settlement to be asking for the source of fund of a traveller who stops by to patronise.

“Even for us as lawyers, we do not ask clients where they would get money to pay for a brief. Our duty is to execute the brief to the best of our ability,” he said.

“I do not even see the EFCC argument coming through in court, notwithstanding whether the judge sitting on the matter is biased or not,” he said.

But Lanre Suraj, another anti-corruption campaigner, sharply disagreed, saying Mr Metuh should have known that the payment was fraudulent on the basis of the contract itself.

“Money for election or campaign should only come from the political party and not from the purse of the government,” Mr Suraj said, arguing that the contract was only a ruse to obscure political intent of the contract.

“It is indefensible for money to be paid from ONSA to a private company for campaign purpose and the beneficiary would claim ignorance of the fact that such fund could have contained inherent misappropriation,” Mr Suraj said.

Yet, both experts agreed that the case has been a complex one and a conviction could introduce even more complications into the Nigerian criminal jurisprudence.

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