Orji Kalu and the road to prison: Implications for Southeast APC
Since former Abia State governor, Orji Uzo Kalu left Government House, Umuahia 12 years ago, his attempts at regaining political relevance in the state have been accompanied by severe battles.
Ordinarily, this should not be so for a man who rode on power for eight years, calling the shots as he deemed fit, ‘making and unmaking’ people as he wished, while his administration lasted. People have always alluded to his efforts at installing his successor, Theodore Orji in 2007, who was then in prison.
But since leaving office in 2007, Kalu has had to struggle at every election he contested. On two occasions, he lost the bid to represent Abia North senatorial zone in the National Assembly. And it was not until he switched to the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the 2019 general elections that fortune smiled on him. Energised by the Court of Appeal’s ruling, he was able to regain the election he won to represent Abia North senatorial zone.
A tribunal had actually quashed his election and declared a fresh one in the area. An appeal he filed over the tribunal’s judgment led to the restoration of the election in his favour. That was the mandate he had enjoyed in the last few months.
Last Thursday, that mandate was again challenged. This time, however, it was not based on the electoral contest, but on the alleged atrocities, he committed 12 years ago while serving as governor. The case had been in court since he left the office.
On Thursday, the Federal High Court in Lagos found him guilty of the charges; convicted and sentenced him to 12 years imprisonment over N7.2bn fraud. The money was said to belong to Abia people, but which he allegedly cornered for himself, while serving as their governor.
Justice Muhammed Idris convicted Kalu alongside his firm, Slok Nigeria Limited and Jones Udeogu, who served under him as Director of Finance and Accounts.
While Udeogu was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, the judge ordered that Slok Nigeria Limited be wound up, and its assets forfeited to the Federal Government.
The High Court’s judgment, which Kalu has vowed to appeal, marked the climax of a petition that emanated from some concerned citizens of the state years back, which detailed the sleaze committed during the former governor’s administration.
It was gathered that enamoured by some of the former Governor’s political opponents, some groups had sent petitions to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) about how funds that accrued to the state during the period went into private pockets. They were said to have maintained that the under-development suffered by the state was created by his administration’s inability to judiciously utilise funds, and implored EFCC to help recover the money and prosecute those involved.
Apparently to thwart investigations and delay the course of justice, Kalu, on several occasions, distanced himself from the court under the guise of ill health and other technicalities employed by his lawyers, while the trial lasted.
Sources indicated that his poor handling of the state’s affairs pushed several stakeholders into objecting to anything that could enable him re-launch himself back to political relevance in the state.
Although the politician had assumed the flamboyant posture of an Igbo leader and statesman, having been in politics for a long time and forming a political party, Peoples Progressive Alliance (PPA) on which he vied for presidential election and lost, the same oligarchy ensured that his return to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which gave him the platform to become governor in 1999 was unsuccessful.
It was gathered that the resistance against his return to the state PDP clearly proved to him that the battle to politically keep him out was no longer being treated with kid gloves. It then dawned on him that those who authored the petitions against him would stop at nothing in ensuring it was prosecuted to the last letter.
Apparently realising the damage it would do to him and his business, should they have their way, the former Governor was said to have moved to truncate and probably protect himself from prosecutions when he approached APC to become a member.
The source stated that he was ready to do anything to garner APC leadership’s confidence on why he should be accepted into its fold, and to achieve his aim, he made several promises on how he would single-handedly restore Southeast to APC in the 2019 elections.
Orji came close to confirming this much on November 16, 2016, during the formalisation of his APC membership, when he assured the then party leadership, under Chief John Oyegun that he would “deliver the entire Southeast to the party in 2019, ” as a way of giving it the real national spread it required in politics.
He had told the then party’s national working committee: “Today is a happy day, and I want APC to be all-inclusive. I want to thank the National Chairman for using this opportunity to personally welcome us. Between Sunday, when I registered at Igbere and now, there are 4,000 new members already registered with APC in Abia.
“Without making it open, there are two members of the House of Representatives who are joining APC. Our upright war is that the Southeast will be delivered to APC. The most potent thing is the ability to consult, discuss and move forward. Nobody is an embodiment of knowledge.
“When you look at my face, you will see the genuine face of an Igbo man and the genuine face of a Nigerian. I understand the country very well, and I hope the party will continue to grow from strength to strength.
“I hope the good work that President Muhammadu Buhari is doing will continue to enjoy the party’s support. It is a difficult time and many Nigerians are crying. But I believe we will get to a better destination.
“I know we are going through hard times and there is recession everywhere in the world, but we have to help the President to formulate policies that will reduce the people’s suffering so that the party can become stronger.”
Kalu had pledged to work “day and night to ensure that APC wins the governorship and National Assembly positions in all the states of the zone”, adding “My ambition is to make sure that I bring the Southeast to sit where other Nigerians are sitting and we must achieve it in 2019.”
He boasted that APC would have a landslide victory in the zone in 2019 and would score at least 75 percent votes in Abia and 51 percent votes in other states of the zone.
When the elections were over, APC did not win with a landslide in the Southeast. Though his votes improved in the zone, compared to what he got in 2015, the credit did not go to Kalu, but to an alleged pact between Buhari and governors of the zone.
Kalu, however, turned round to accuse the party leadership in the zone of sabotaging the efforts of genuine members to win the 2019 elections, and called for probe and sanctioning of those whom he said: “plotted to deny the party victory.”
Implications Of The Court Ruling On APC In The Zone
ORDINARILY, Kalu would not have believed the fate that had befallen him. Not after all he had done to protect and defend the APC government since he joined the party. But now that the court has finally convicted him over an action he committed 12 years ago, what fate awaits his party, the APC in the zone, especially in Abia State, where he had severally boasted he would remove the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government and enthrone APC? Has Kalu been finally ‘conquered’ by forces and opponents that had trailed him since he left Government House? What if his appeal did not sail through? Will Kalu likely lose his seat at the Senate?
Kalu is not a political neophyte. It is believed that since joining APC, he has returned vibrancy to Abia State politics. Although the party’s governorship candidate in the 2019 general election in the state, Uche Ogar did not win the election, many insist that he (Kalu) chiefly helped the party in the election.
But what he did not achieve in the governorship, he achieved in his Abia North senatorial constituency, by wining the senatorial seat and the two House of Reps seats for Umunneoche/Isikwuato and Bende/Ohoafia federal constituencies.
Orji is adjudged one of the politicians that dared where others failed to tread. He has also not been found wanting in the area of speaking his mind on national issues, as well as those bordering on the Southeast.
A source said his kind of person was required to launch APC into prominence in the Southeast zone, and that “situations don’t cow him.”
Those in the know of Abia State politics would readily tell you that with his presence, 2023 would not be an easy kernel for the PDP to crack in the state, and that the signs had started emanating from the appeal he won against the PDP senatorial candidate, Mau Ohuabunwa for Abia North senatorial seat.
A Human rights lawyer, Olu Omotayo, said in a normal clime, Kalu would have been required to vacate his seat, due to his conviction. However, the nature of “selfish politics being played in Nigeria will not allow him to do so,” he said.
He added that section 66 (1, 2,3) of the Constitution disqualifies him from sitting in the Senate, being a prisoner, but recognises his appeal to the appellant court. So, he cannot be removed from office while his appeal was on.
He stated that the only option left for his constituency was to invoke section 68 (1) (f), which stated that, “ A member of the Senate or House of Representative shall vacate his seat in the House of which he is a member, if without just cause, he is absent from meetings of the House of which he is a member for a period amounting in the aggregate to more than one-third of the total number of days during which the House meets in any one year.”
He explained that if he is not granted bail, pending appeal before March 2020, he shall vacate office.
An APC chieftain, Jerry Onuoha, told The Guardian that the development was a big blow to the party in the zone.
“Anyhow you look at it, he has been convicted of corruption. So, the moral right to speak in the gathering of people again in favour of the party will no longer be there, even if he is acquitted now,” he said.
Onuoha was, however, happy that the ruling had nullified what he called “erroneous impression that APC houses corrupt politicians and cannot prosecute the corrupt people within its fold.”
“At least, the people can see that the fight against corruption is not targeted at the opposition, but on anyone with questionable deals,” he said.
He said it was a big lesson for those who toy with public funds. “It does not matter how long it takes, the law will definitely catch up with those found guilty,”he said.