Sunday, November 28, 2010

Trial of 4 NGA chiefs billed to resume today

Joe Musa, 3 other NGA chiefs’ trial resumes today
One trial, many bizarre twists and turns

‘Justice is a two-way traffic: the same way the prosecution is entitled to look out for their security, is the same way the accused person is entitled to their speedy trial’ – defense counsel

The trial of four chieftains of the National Gallery of Art (NGA) is billed to resume today, 30 November, from 8.30am at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court near FCDA Resettlement Centre, Apo; with His Lordship, Hon. Justice Olukayode Adeniyi presiding. The hearing is slated to continue tomorrow, Tuesday, 1 December.
Chief Joe Musa, one of the accused persons, was in 2006 appointed Director General of the NGA; Nigeria’s apex agency responsible for the regulation of the nation’s visual arts sub-sector. Aside Musa; Mr. Olusegun Ogunba, Dr. Kweku Tandoh and Mrs. Oparagu Elizabeth; NGA’s Director of Finance, Director of Research and Education, and Deputy Director Administration respectively; are also co-defendants. All the accused persons are on suspension from work pending the outcome of Suit No. FCT/HC/CR/49/09.
The above named quartet, alongside a fifth accused, Mr. Chinedu Obi; were arraigned on 20 July, 2009. However, following amendment of Charge No CR/49/09 preferred against the five accused persons by the prosecution counsel, Sir Steve Ehi Odiase Esq. of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC); Obi’s name was expunged from the list of defendants. Seven, out of eight witnesses, have already testified; but, taking the last witness seems to have turned into a tool for foot-dragging.
Initially, the quintet was collectively arraigned on a 12-count charge, which includes alleged diversion of N1billion of public funds between August 2006 and April 2009; but, the charges’ number dropped to 8, sequel to its amendment. Charges preferred against the four still standing trial include “Criminal Misappropriation” and “Falsification of Accounts”. But, this trial; whenever it is eventually concluded will be remembered as one that threw up many curious twists and turns.

Catalogue of curios
Consider this confounding curio: On 20 July, this year, during one of the hearings; the prosecution counsel, while seeking another adjournment, had alleged; inter alia: “I have also received strange phone calls on this matter, which makes me very uncomfortable...”. It is worth noting that this rendition made to the hearing of everyone in attendance; is also documented in the court’s Record of Proceedings. Strangely, however, the misinformation deliberately fed the public the following day by some media had it that one of the prosecution witnesses failed to show up in court over mystery calls to his phone threatening his life; whereas it was Sir Steve who claimed to have received allegedly menacing calls.
Moreover, the prosecution counsel had the previous day, 19 July; secured adjournment on the ground, among others; that one of the witnesses could not come to court due to illness. But, that witness particular was physically present in the courtroom on the date in question and some defense counsels had actually seen him and consequently prayed the court to order the man’s cross-examination.
More excerpts from the same Record of Proceedings: On 20 July, the court had hardly settled down to resume hearing when the prosecution counsel “required an adjournment to enable us investigate whether or not it is true that the 1st accused person has been interfering with the investigation and prosecution of this case”. EFCC counsel, Sir Steve Odiase (Esq.), was referring to what he called “intelligent report”, which he got; “that David Ajiboye, one of the prosecutors’ witnesses, was seen in the residence of Chief Joe Musa the previous day (19 July). According to Sir Steve, this particular witness also failed to turn up for pre-trial conferencing scheduled for 3pm that day; therefore, he needed time to find out what was really going on.
Interestingly, this prosecution’s request was countered by counsel to Dr. Kweku Tandoh (3rd accused person), who said “I urge the court to refuse the application for adjournment”. As preamble, the learned counsel had earlier submitted; “I sympathize with the PC (Prosecution Counsel), but he has not stated that he received any of such calls from any of the accused persons. He (PC) is prosecuting many cases. He (PC) declined to call the same David Ajiboye yesterday, when asked to do so. The PC should be compelled to continue with the other witnesses. Justice is a two-way traffic: The same way the prosecution is entitled to look out for their security, is the same way the accused person is entitled to their speedy trial”.
In the same vein, counsel to the 4th accused person had urged “the court to refuse the application of the prosecution counsel (for adjournment) on the grounds that the investigation the Commission (EFCC) will carry out, can run ‘pari-pasu’ with trial”. Continuing, this lawyer had added; “Adjournment again here will cause unnecessary delay. We urge the court to order that the trial should go on today as ordered by the court yesterday”.
However, the case was stood down till 11am. Immediately after resumption, counsel to the 3rd accused person had submitted: “I want to place on the records of the Court that the same David Ajiboye that was said to have run away by the learned prosecution counsel is present in this Court as I speak”.
Consequently, “The Court confirmed from the said Mr. David Ajiboye whether he was present when the matter was first called in the morning and he answered in the affirmative”; according to official Record of Proceedings. Albeit, the PC had immediately taken a different witness; and, after cross-examination and re-examination of prosecution witness 7, the court had set the matter down to 18 October “for confirmation of hearing”, even as it enjoined “the prosecution to produce all their remaining witnesses on that day”. However, that day’s sitting was overtaken by events; the date fell within the vacation period of the presiding adjudicator.

High wire distortions
Interestingly, it is not only inside the court you get to encounter twists like this; outside, the manoeuvre assumes gymnastic, even acrobatic, dimensions. For instance; a respected national daily had, probably without the knowledge of its editor; carried a report purportedly emanating from the court’s sitting on 18 October; whereas no hearing took place on that day. Also, some news media had reported that it was a witness that expressed fear for his life over threatening calls; whereas it was Sir Steve, the prosecution counsel, who claimed to have received allegedly menacing calls.
In deed, there are many other points to ponder as far as this trial is concerned. For example, Charge 8 reads: “That you Chief Joe Musa being Director General of the National Gallery of Art, and Olusegun Ogunba being Director of Finance on or about the 1st day of August 2006 to April 2009 in Abuja within the Jurisdiction of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, willfully and with intent to defraud, made false entries in your employer’s books of accounts by inflating the monthly overhead cost of National Gallery of Art from N15million to about N19,257,116 and thereby committed an offence punishable under section 371 of the Penal Code Act Cap 532 of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (Abuja) 1990”
However, one of the witnesses; Mr. Henry Uche Achugbu, who is a Deputy Director in NGA’s Finance and Accounts Department, in a sworn statement to the EFCC; stated inter alia: “On salaries paid to staff; in 2006 we were paying about N16million monthly; in 2007 we were paying about N18million monthly; in 2008 we were paying N19.2million monthly; and, presently (around June 2009) we are paying around N21million monthly”. Record of the Court’s Proceedings on 19 July 2010 reveals that one of the Prosecution Witnesses, Eyioluse Solomon, a Senior Accountant with the NGA; practically corroborated Mr. Achugbu’s averments.
Mr. Solomon had re-echoed in the court, what he told EFCC operatives, while he was their guest following his invitation by the anti-graft agency in early March 2009. In Solomon’s words: “I was asked questions on petition against personnel cash, in 2008; I told them (EFCC) that before the era (of) consolidated salaries, we prepared salary to the tune of about N16million and that when we started paying consolidated salaries, we prepared salaries to the tune of about N19.5million on the average monthly basis. Consolidated salaries mean salaries which came before after (sic) the introductory (sic) of the monetization schemes for MDAs. The average monthly releases for the period 2008 was (sic) about N24.270million. Sometimes there could be stoppage of salaries of some staff due to one offence or the other. I could not therefore give an accurate figures (sic) of the salary expenditure”.
Months after the accused persons’ arraignment and after following the case based on exchanges inside the court; a hitherto little-known arts activists’ body with the acronym of AHEAD (Arts for Human Empowerment and Development) had jumped into the fray by calling a press conference, where it alleged a “Plot to kill the Arts and its symbols”. “The framing of Joe Musa and the destruction of the Art Community in Nigeria”, a statement issued by Ahead, signed by the association’s President, Mr. Dan Nwokoji-aku; reads: “That the sum of N2.2billion said to have been misappropriated by Joe Musa is totally false and a callous misrepresentation of the facts. When the DG (Musa) and other officials of the NGA were arraigned on 20 July 2009, the initial amount they were charged is N1.2billion. These much can also be found on EFCC website”.
Additionally, Ahead also reminded that “On 20 July 2010, the prosecutor alleged that he received several telephone calls that morning threatening him over the case and for that reason he wanted the case to be adjoined. He (the prosecutor) also claimed that one of the witnesses, Henry Achugbu, could not come (to court) because he was sick. (However), all the defense lawyers argued that Henry Achugbu was seen in court the previous day 19 July, 2009 and prayed the court that he should be cross examined.
Culling from documents in the public domain, the arts activist’s statement recalled that in 2008; the budget for NGA was N2,163,229,278. However, total amount remitted to the Gallery was N1,178,362,054; leaving a shortfall to the tune of N984,867,224. Apparently referring to accusations of embezzlement, Ahead queried: “Is it possible to embezzle an amount that was never released”?
In the arts activist’s words: “The testimonies or statements credited to all the witnesses were all misrepresented: They were all made up for the purpose of media bashing of Joe Musa…” and that “The court record of proceedings of this trial is available to the public to verify all the witnesses’ statements”.
Ahead had, among others, further pointed out that; “The counts were 12 and not 14 as widely reported. As at date, these counts have been reduced to 8 after 4 counts were quashed on December 17, 2009 and this has further reduced the amounts charged from N1.2billion to only about N800million”.
To be sincere, misappropriation is defined more by the deed than the sum involved; therefore, one could not attempt to exculpate the suspects because the money allegedly missing is less than N2.2billion. As things stand, the revered adjudicator, Hon. Justice Olukayode Adeniyi; is the only person that can declare any of the suspects guilty or otherwise based on proven evidence.

In for a long haul
Currently, the summary of observers’ views across the land regarding the ongoing prosecution of the suspects seems to be; “if this trial’s antecedents are anything to go by, those involved are in for a marathon”. This perception derives from the surprises that have dogged this trial since it began on 20 July 2009. Therefore, skepticism shrouds the possibility that Monday’s planned sitting would be fruitful. “The 30 November scheduled resumption of trial may well turn out another motion without movement”, mused one of many observers, who on arrival at Lugbe High Court in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) on 18 October, when the case had earlier been slated for continuation; learnt that the sitting had been postponed.
Expectedly, the suspects and their defense counsels as well as numerous watchers had turned up at Lugbe Federal High Court only to hear that the sitting had been put off. The reason, we gathered, was that the trial judge had just begun his vacation. The man deserved the rest after sitting to hear urgent cases throughout the period, when his counterparts and colleagues had their annual break.
However, the decision to postpone the resumption seemed not to have been communicated to both sides of the interested parties; otherwise, the prosecution team would have been seen at the court premises on 18 October, 2010.

It could be recalled that the memo that sent Musa on suspension, reference number FMCT/25/S.3/C1/54, dated 10 September, 2009; was allegedly delivered within 30 minutes after Justice Sylvester Orji of Federal High Court Wuse struck out motions filed by Chief Joe Musa seeking preservation of the status quo pending the court’s verdict after his trial. Many respondents had, at that time, observed that the haste behind that suspension letter; given that Musa had 30 days within which to appeal against the judgment, hint at disregard for the rule of law and due process.
Such watchers see the current situation, where some media reports sequel to the sitting of a court are grotesque distortions of what transpired during the trial in question as continuation of an agenda, they described as “unwholesome”. Money, many followers of this case believe, is the suspected hallucinogen that inspires wild creativity on the part of some reporters, who jettison ethical principles with reckless abandon.
This situation; where proceedings in the court end up in the media with bizarre tweaks must be tracked and their perpetrators sanctioned. The scenario is the more disturbing because of its spread; from the sober to literally inebriate media, few are exempt; and, it is also worth noting that the writer’s identity or by-line is conveniently missing against some of these warped reports.
Evidently, editors, media proprietors and activists et cetera need to keep a close watch on this unfolding saga. Move over Nollywood; for, none can afford any distraction from the thriller unfolding in the trial of NGA chieftains! This is why for countless observers; all roads will lead to High Court on Monday, 30 November; 2010.


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