By Declan Emelumba
Any true son or daughter of Imo State who is not in a celebratory mood following this week’s landmark judgment that ordered a permanent forfeiture of more than 500 properties to Imo State government from Senator Rochas Okorocha needs to be investigated to ascertain his/her paternity. From May 29, 2019, when Owelle Okorocha left office as governor, the wish of the majority of Imo people has been for him to be held accountable for the despoliation and looting of Imo State, ranging from land to cash, for eight long years.
The former governor’s desperation to foist his son-in-law as his successor, with a view to covering up his myriad misdeeds for eight years, not only infuriated the people but also emboldened them to ask further questions concerning their assets appropriated by the former First Family.
It was not surprising that the people took to the streets this week to celebrate the judgment of an Owerri High Court presided over by Justice Fred Njemanze ordering the final forfeiture of those properties illegally held by Okorocha to the rightful owner, Imo State government. The judge had, on February 24, 2021, ordered the temporary forfeiture of the said properties, pending a proof of ownership by Okorocha. However, Justice Njemanze regretted that the former governor failed to give “concrete and verifiable reasons why a final and absolute forfeiture order should not be given in favour of Imo State government.”
As if to put the final nail in the coffin of Okorocha’s rapacious but lame effort to claim what did not belong to him, the judge declared that the White Paper Gazette by the Imo State government that had earlier ordered the recovery of those properties remained a “legal and binding document.” Consequently, the court ordered that the mentioned properties contained in pages 226-272 of the Government White Paper, based on the report by the Judicial Commission of Enquiry on Recovery of Lands and other Related Matters, be permanently forfeited by Okorocha and family to Imo State government. The judgment followed suit No. HOW/M1191/2021 between Imo State Attorney-General and Mrs. Nkechi Rochas Okorocha, Incorporated Trustees of Rochas Foundation.
Expectedly, Okorocha, smarting from the devastating blow from the judgment, has gone after the judge for attacks, instead of the judgment and its substance. In what clearly is a non sequitur argumentation and argumentum adhomenim, which is attacking the person instead of the substance, Okorocha, through his media office, claimed that the judge delivered the judgment because he was retiring in two days’ time and needed to please the government of the day. He also claimed that the judge failed to communicate the parties accordingly relating to the actual date of the judgment. While this is now a clearly academic exercise, what roused my interest was the claim by Okorocha that the judge delivered a judgment on a “substantive case he never heard for the first time.”
Interestingly, Okorocha, in the same breath, admitted that the judge had indeed ordered interim forfeiture of “some property” on February 24, 2021. His contention is that the interim forfeiture involved or covered only “Eastern Palm University and Royal Spring Palm Hotel, among other properties” and not the gamut of the properties listed in pages 226 – 272 of the White Paper. The question, therefore, is: how come the judge gave an interim order on the matter, if indeed he had not heard the substantive suit? Is Okorocha now angry because he hoped to lose only Eastern Palm University and Royal Spring Palm Hotel and not the entire 500 properties? Could he have rubbished the judgment, if it had gone his way and not the other way?
The truth of the matter is that Okorocha has been living in denial concerning the ownership of those properties, which he had failed to give “concrete and verifiable reasons why a final and absolute forfeiture order should not be given in favour of Imo State government.”
From the time that the short-lived administration of Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha set up the Judicial Commission of Enquiry on Recovery of Lands and other Related Matters, Okorocha knew he was living on borrowed time as far as his holding on to those properties was concerned. He knew he didn’t have a “concrete and verifiable proof of ownership,” hence his attempt to use the judiciary to stop the sitting of the commission. Like in the instant case that he approached an Abuja High Court to restrain the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and Imo State government from seizing his properties, the judiciary refused to accede to his request to stop the commission of inquiry.
It is instructive that when Senator Hope Uzodinma assumed office as governor early last year, the same Okorocha asked him to disband the commission set up by Ihedioha. This was after he failed in his attempt to use the court to stop the same commission. The governor, who inherited the commission, had not only urged them to continue sitting but also asked all relevant personnel to assist it in the discharge of the mandate. He found it strange that a man who claimed that he was being hounded by a vengeful government, in his acclaimed innocence, would want the commission to be disbanded! Of course, Uzodinma declined that request, citing the mood of Imo people and the need to uphold the sanctity of governance. Both Uzodinma and Okorocha have admitted in different fora that such a request was made and refused.
Unfortunately, that singular refusal by the governor to obstruct the course of justice led to the parting of ways by the two chieftains of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
It turned out that the support Okorocha promised Uzodinma on the day of his inauguration was just a Greek gift. Subsequent events in the state, including the contrived security crisis, could be traced to the principled stance of a man who vowed to stand by Imo people in their efforts to recover their filched property from a fallen emperor.
The entire blackmail and intimidation through sponsored strikes and demonstrations by renegade pensioners have their root in Uzodinma’s bold stance to implement the Government’s White Paper on recovery of looted assets of Imo State. It is still fresh in the minds of Nigerians that, when Imo State government, empowered by the gazetted white paper, sealed Royal Spring Palm Hotel, one of the now forfeited properties, Okorocha took thugs to the place and forcefully unsealed it. Even after his arrest by the police for criminal conduct, the former governor refused to acknowledge that he was on the wrong.
He said it was only a court of competent jurisdiction that could seal the property. Imo State government kept its cool and, as usual, took the legal route, instead of resorting to brute force and brigandage, which characterized the reign of Okorocha as governor. Today, the court has vindicated the government and people of Imo State that the gazette is indeed a “legal and binding document.”
But the state government is not gloating over this judicial victory, which actually is a triumph for Imo people. While the judgment is indeed a victory for justice and rule of law, it has more than strengthened the resolve of government to ensure a holistic implementation of the white paper in line with its Prosperity Agenda anchored on the principles of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Recovery.
What the judgment has also done is that it has served notice to all officials of government that a day will surely come for them to render account of their stewardship. The wheel of justice at times may appear to be slow, but it would surely come around. Those whose hands are clean need not embark on endless but fruitless litigations in a satanic bid to escape justice and deprive the people of what rightly belongs to them.
As for Gov. Uzodinma, he has made it abundantly clear that he is prepared to submit himself to any kind of probe when he leaves office. In his address to Imo people at the last stakeholders’ meeting in Owerri, he declared: “I want to reiterate before you that I did not become governor to become richer than the state after my tenure but to serve you in truth and with the fear of God. This being so, I will leave no stone unturned in my efforts to recover all Imo people’s stolen wealth. I assure you that God is with us in that direction.”
Indeed, God being with Imo people and using the judiciary, has dealt a fatal blow on those who raped the state and its citizens for eight years and even attempted to force them not to cry out. Many days for the thief and one day for the owner of the house is what has just played out with this judgment. The road to this day had been tortuous and fraught with challenges, but the will of the people eventually triumphed and prevailed.
•Emelumba is commissioner for information and strategy, Imo state