From Oluseye Ojo, Ibadan
The Court of Appeal in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, yesterday, discharged and acquitted a former governor of the state, Otunba Adebayo Alao-Akala, over N11.5 billion corruption charges levelled against him by the Economic and Financial crimes commission (EFCC).
The court of appellate jurisdiction also discharged and acquitted two other persons dragged to court with Alao-Akala by the anti-graft agency. They are former deputy Chief Whip of the senate, Senator Ayoola Agboola, who is currently the Chairman of the Advisory Council to Governor Seyi Makinde of Oyo State; and a business mogul, Mr. Femi Babalola.
The second defendant/appellant in the case, Ayoola Agboola, served as Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Matters, when Alao-Akala was the governor between 2007 and 2011, while the third defendant/appellant, Femi Babalola, owns an engineering firm, Pentagon Engineering Services, that executed some contracts during the administration.
The litigation, which started 11 years ago, was concluded by a three-man panel presided over by Justice Jimi Olukayode Bada and had Justices Abba Muhammed and Abdulazeez Waziri as members. The three defendants/appellants were also physically present at the Court of Appeal yesterday.
Alao-Akala and two others had been arraigned by EFCC before an Oyo State High Court, sitting in Ibadan, and preferred 11 count-charge of N11.5 billion fraud against the trio in 2012. The charges included conspiracy, awarding contract without budgetary provision, obtaining by false pretence, acquiring property with money derived from illegal acts and concealing the ownership of such property, among others.
The EFCC’s counsel, Dr. Benedict Ubi, had told the lower court that when Alao-Akala was the governor of Oyo State, he awarded a road contract worth N8.5 billion between 2007 and 2009 to Pentagon Engineering Services, alleging further that the firm handled the contract on behalf of the 33 local governments areas of the state without budgetary provision.
Alao-Akala, he contended, ordered the supply of drilling machines on behalf of the 33 local government areas worth N3.5 billion, saying Alao-Akala purportedly conspired with Ayoola to withdraw N2.9 billion from Oyo State Local Government Joint Account.
Ubi also told the court that Alao-Akala illegally acquired some property on Old Bodija Road, Off Rotimi Williams Road in Ibadan, when he was the governor, saying the alleged offences contravened Section 22 (4) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act and Section 1 (18) of the Advanced Fee Fraud Act. But Alao-Akala, Agboola and Babalola, filed a no-case submission after the EFCC closed its case before the high court.
However, the trial court, presided over by Justice Muniru Owolabi, struck out eight out of the 11 count-charge against Alao-Akala and two others. He then ordered him to enter defence for the remaining three counts, which are Counts one, two and five.l, which are conspiracy, obtaining money by false pretences and award of contract without budgetary provision.
Owolabi, however, discharged the former governor on the charges of acquiring property with money allegedly derived from an illegal act and concealing ownership of such property. The judge said the witnesses called by the prosecutor failed to link evidence to the acquired property, adding that EFCC also failed to prove genuine ownership of the property.
But the defendants, through their lead counsel, Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), appealed the ruling of the lower court that said they had a case to answer. The panel of the Court of Appeal, in their unanimous judgment on Thursday, set aside the ruling of the lower court, on the grounds that the trial court erred by ordering the defendants to enter defence for the three counts because the prosecution led by the EFCC failed to establish a prima facie case against them. Justice Jimi Bada read the judgment for Alao-Akala, while Justices Abba Muhammed and Abdulazeez Waziri read the judgments for Babalola and Agboola respectively.
The counsel to EFCC, Dr. Ubi, however, refused to grant interview to journalists, who wanted to find out if the anti-graft agency would go to the Supreme Court, saying enquiries should be made at the EFCC headquarters in Abuja.
The lead counsel to Alao-Akala and Babalola, Chief Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), represented by Abiodun Ogunjinmi, told journalists after the judgment: “We really appreciate and we thank God, the Almighty, for giving us a beautiful judgment today. The justice did a marvellous job. This case started in 2012, which was about 11 years ago. It came to an end today. It first started at the high court of justice in Ibadan. But thanks be to God that it ended well. The appellant, Alao-Akala and Babalola were all discharged and acquitted finally.”
The highly-related Alao-Akala, who wore white clothes to the court, also had a brief chat with journalists, saying: “We can always rely on the judiciary. They are the hope for the common man like me. So, we thank God for everything. God has settled everything, and so, let us forget about the number of years the case took.” In the same vein, Femi Babalola, stated: “The judiciary is the last hope of a common man like me. I thank God for today’s judgment and I give all the glory to God, irrespective of the number of years spent on the case.”