Nigeria: Petitioner Opens Defence in N170m FIRS Contract Fraud

27 November 2020

The petitioner opens his defence in the case for the first time since 2016.

More than four years after the Nigerian Police charged and arraigned him for "false petitioning" over the controversial N170 million contract fraud, a petitioner, on Thursday opened his defence in the case for the first time.

The petitioner-turned accused, Benjamin Joseph, is the Managing Director of an Ibadan-based IT retail firm, Citadel Oracle Concept Limited.

Backstory

In October 2013, Mr Joseph petitioned then Deputy Inspector General (DIG) in charge of Force Criminal Investigation Bureau (FCIB), Solomon Arase, accusing some top officials of Zinox Technologies Limited and its subsidiary, Technology Distributions Limited (TD), of conspiring with their allies to commit fraud.

In the petition, Mr Joseph accused Messrs Onny Igbokwe and Princess Kama of conspiring with the Company Secretary/Legal Adviser, Zinox Group and Technology Distributions Limited (TD), Chris Ozims, and other officials to hijack and illegally execute the contract awarded to his company by the FIRS in 2012.

Mr Joseph also accused a director of TD, Folashade Oyebode, and two staff of Access Bank Plc, Obilo Onuoha and Deborah Ijeabu, of involvement in the alleged crime.

He said the suspects committed the fraud by using a fake account they opened at Access Bank with his company's forged documents, including a fake board resolution that appointed them "managers of the account."

To facilitate payment of the proceeds from the contract fraud by the FIRS, Mr Joseph said the suspects approached officials of the Awolowo Road, Ikoyi branch of Access Bank (Messrs Onuoha and Ijeabu) to release to them the original copies of documents used by Citadel Oracle to open its corporate account.

To open the controversial account, Mr Joseph said a fake board resolution purportedly issued by Citadel Oracle management was procured, with Messrs Ozims, Oyebode and Igbokwe conferred the power of attorney to act as "directors" of the company and authorised signatories to the account.

Although the Special Fraud Unit (SFU) of the police in Lagos said its investigations since 2014 confirmed the accused were culpable of the offence, their prosecution was stalled as the police refused to release the original case file.

Petitioner turns accused

On May 8, 2015, Mr Joseph again petitioned Mr. Arase shortly after he was named the new Inspector General of Police, to complain about his frustration to get the suspects prosecuted.

On June 16, 2016, three days before the end of IGP Arase's tenure, the police charged Mr Joseph to court, accusing him of "providing false information in his petition against the suspects."

The former IGP said Mr Joseph's allegations in his July 3, 2014 petition about a fictitious board resolution of his company used by the suspects in the fraud to open a fake account, No. 0059202675, in Access bank, through which the FIRS paid the proceeds from the contract fraud, were false.

On July 2, 2016, Mr Joseph was arraigned before the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Apo, Abuja on a one-count charge of "false petitioning" with the intention of misleading the police over a case of identity theft, impersonation and criminal conversion of contracts against the accused.

The case was later transferred to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court, Nyanyan presided by Justice Peter Kekemeke.

Although the suspects in the fraud, which the police prosecution counsel, Simon Lough, an Assistant Commissioner of Police, used as prosecution witnesses in the police case, have since concluded their case at the court, Mr Joseph was not so lucky due to several adjournments.

Petitioner opens defence

At the opening of his defence on Thursday, Mr Joseph named the Chief Executive of Zinox Computers, Leonard Ekeh, as being involved in the scam.

Mr Ekeh has always denied his involvement in the fraud. In May 2017, Mr Ekeh sued PREMIUM TIMES for libel, claiming N2 billion in damages.

This newspaper has since filed a counter-motion insisting on its story and demanding compensation for the sum of N10 billion. The case is currently ongoing at the Federal High Court, Apo.

Besides, PREMIUM TIMES recently obtained the certified true copy of the report by the Special Enquiry Bureau, Criminal Intelligence & Investigation Department of the Nigeria Police Force CID, Abuja which investigated the allegations contained Mr Joseph's petition of July 3, 2014.

In the report, No. 3000X//FHQABJSEB/Vol.41 of April 7, 2015, Mr Ekeh was listed among the suspects recommended for prosecution for various roles in the fraud.

In his statement, Mr Joseph said his company had responded to newspaper advertisements by the FIRS in 2012 inviting tenders from qualified contractors for the contract to supply computer systems.

Considering that his company possessed the requisite qualifications including certification from Hewlett Packard (HP), the original equipment manufacturers (OEM), he said bid documents were packaged for submission to FIRS.

But, since the FIRS wanted the bid to be submitted by hand in Abuja, Mr Joseph said he sent the sealed bid envelope to a trusted family friend and co-church chorister, Princess Kama, who was resident in Abuja, to help submit to the FIRS on behalf of the company.

Weeks later, Mr Joseph told the court, Ms Kama called to inform him of a confidential information she got from her source in FIRS that suggested his company was one of those selected as preferred bidders expected to submit financial bids for three out of the 10 contract lots available.

However, a few days' later, he said Ms Kama again called to inform him that her managing director, Mr Igbokwe, said the contracts would be executed solely by TD and Zinox Technologies Limited, both owned by Leonard Stanley Ekeh.

Mr Joseph said Ms Kama told him that Mr Igbokwe, who described Mr Ekeh as one with wide contacts within the top hierarchy of FIRS, had used same to seal the deal for the award of all the contracts.

Therefore, he said he was told that it was only those who would accept Mr Ekeh's conditions who would be allowed to execute the contracts.

Rather than execute the contract his company submitted bids for, Mr Joseph said Ms Kama informed him that N15 million would be given to him "to walk away without any idea of the full contract sum".

Mr Joseph said he immediately rejected the offer and terminated further relations with Ms Kama, as he was not ready to sacrifice his personal integrity and that of the company over the offer.

A week later, he said Ms Kama again called to inform him that the contract offer was transferred to another company that accepted the conditions.

Controversial testimony

Since then, Mr Joseph said he has had no contact with Ms Kama again, until April 2013 when they both attended the annual camp meeting of the Redeemed Christian Church of God where she was invited to testify about the "N300 million contract she said God gave to her."

On hearing her testimony, Mr Joseph said he and his wife joined in congratulating Ms Kama and never suspected the contract she gave a testimony to the church congregants had anything to do with the one his company rejected a few months earlier.

But, in July 2013, Mr Joseph said his company's auditor went to FIRS Ibadan to submit its annual audited account and was confronted with allegations that Citadel Oracle under-declared its annual tax on turnover.

On enquiry, Mr Joseph said he was informed that his company did not report in the audited statement the tax on three contracts valued for N165 million, N59 million and N41 million awarded by FIRS in Abuja.

On being confronted with the allegation, Mr Joseph said he immediately wrote to Messrs Igbokwe and Kama to inquire if they knew anything about the said contracts.

He said they both denied, adding that since Citadel Oracle rejected the offer made to it, they had moved on.

On gathering the details of the allegation from FIRS, which confirmed that the contracts executed in Citadel Oracles' name, Mr Joseph said he contacted Ms Kama again to persuade her to put her denial in writing in response to the letter sent to her earlier.

Rather than write, Mr Joseph said Ms Kama insisted on him attending a meeting with her, with Messrs Igbokwe and Ekeh over the matter.

He said he turned down the proposal, as he had already concluded plans to travel out of the country with his family on holiday.

Meanwhile, the case has been adjourned by the judge till March 2 and 3, 2021 for continuation of defence.

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