By Obinna Ezugwu
Tuesday’s arrest of Dr Innocent Chukwuma, CEO of Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Limited by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has continued to ignite storm in Nigeria’s social media and political space. It is a development that many say, has not only defied reason, but also called to serious question the conduct of EFCC as an anti crime agency which has no business with civil matters.
Dr. Chukwuma who was later released on Wednesday, was arrested over claims by the anti graft agency that he jumped administrative bail. A claim that has not gone down well with many.
In a strong worded reaction, Evang. Elliot Ugochukwu-Uko, founder of Igbo Youth Movement and Secretary, Eastern Consultative Assembly described it as “endless humiliation of a conquered people.”
He wondered if such treatment could possibly be meted out to a person like Alhaji Aliko Dangote, while insisting that it was a clear reminder to the people of Eastern Region that they remained second class citizens in Nigeria.
“The power-show displayed on Tuesday in Enugu by EFCC’s Magu is a loud statement to the Igbo Nation that we are perceived as slaves in Nigeria,” he said.
“Sources close to Innoson confirmed there was no earlier invitation or notice by the EFCC before Tuesday’s Invasion. The raw display of brute force by the EFCC, the empty shells of expended bullets thrown all over the compound, is a sad reminder that in Nigeria, Easterners remain second class citizens.
“Will Magu abduct Aliko Dangote that way?” he queried. “The total disregard for the ongoing court actions and a resort to military era abductions confirm to all, that Ndigbo remain endangered species in Nigeria.
“The greatest employer of labour in Igbo land and a genius who has transformed the economic landscape of this clime, in the area of automobile manufacturing, is abducted in a humiliating manner at his residence in Enugu, ostensibly over issues with a bank, issues which lawyers are handling. This is a loud message to the people of Eastern Nigeria of our status in Nigeria. Everybody knows, Aliko Dangote cannot be abducted that way over issues wish a commercial bank.”
The arrest of Dr Chukwuma, apparently, is a fallout of his protracted legal dispute with Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB) which he had accused of illegally deducting his money to the tune of N786million. It is a dispute for which he had won four court cases against the bank in different high and appeal courts, and which has now proceeded to the Supreme Court but the apex court is yet to decide.
The case between the car manufacturer and the bank has its roots from when the Nigerian Customs Service seized and auctioned some goods imported by him in 2003 despite his providing evidence that he duly paid all necessary import duties and taxes. The series of back and forth with the Customs Service caused him to incur huge costs for which he sought redress in a Federal High Court sitting in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital and presided over by Justice Shakarho, J.
The court would eventually, in 2011, order GTB, his bank, to pay him a sum of N2billion from Customs account. But it was a judgement the bank was not willing to obey, so it appealed before a Court of Appeal sitting in the same Ibadan. Yet, the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of the Federal High Court.
In his judgement, Justice Chidi Nwaoma Uwa of the Court of Appeal noted: “I cannot see any reason to fault the order of the learned trial judge. In the final analysis, the order absolute is hereby affirmed. The appeal is without merit; I dismiss same. The Ruling of the trial judge Shakarho, J. of the Federal High Court, delivered on 29th July, 2011 in Suit FHC/L/CS/603/2006 is hereby affirmed.”
In a similar submission, Justice Monica Bolna’an Dongban-Mensem stated: “I have nothing useful to add to the lead judgment prepared by my learned brother Chidi Nwaoma Uwa JCA. The decision of the Federal High Court holden in Ibadan pronounced by Hon Justice J. E. Shakarho (J) on the 29th day of July, 2011 is hereby affirmed and the consequential orders are as made in the lead judgment.”
A third judge, Justice Obietonbara Daniel-Kalio toed same line, noting that: “I have had the privilege of reading, in draft, the lead judgment delivered by my Lord Chidi Nwaoma Uwa J.C.A. My Lord covered all the salient questions that arose under the issue for the determination and came to a conclusion that I entirely agree with. I am also of the view that the appeal lacks merit. It is accordingly dismissed.”
However, before the whole legal tussle began, Dr. Chukwuma had in 2010, through his company, Innoson Nigeria Limited, obtained a N1.3 billion loan facility from GTB to partly finance the importation of motorcycle spare parts, agricultural equipment plastic manufacturing equipment as well as new motorcycles for a period of one year. Nonetheless, In 2011 the loan was said to have been restructured to a three-year-term, and was said to have stood at N1.5 billion as at July 31, 2011.
Interestingly however, in 2012 after he had completed payment of the loan, Dr Chukwuma, it was said, noticed that there had been illegal deductions from his account with GTB. To ascertain the authenticity of the discovery, both himself and GTB agreed to engage an independent auditor, Multi-Wings Consulting to audit the account. The auditing firm would eventually discover that a sum of N786 million was illegally deducted from the account as charges.
Nonetheless, GTB insisted on having its own in house auditors audit the account. The bank’s auditors came up with N559 million as the amount deducted instead of N786 million. Dr Chukwuma agreed, but insisted that the bank must pay 22 percent interest rate which was the rate it charged him on the loan he took. GTB however, refused and instead offered to pay seven percent.
This caused another round of disagreement and Chukwuma sued the bank at a Federal High Court sitting in Awka, the Anambra State capital.
The court in its judgement, asked the bank to pay 22 percent interest on the admitted sum of N559 million, to be paid from March 1, 2004 and at the same rate of 22 percent till satisfaction of the judgment debt.
The court further held that the bank is to pay a penalty of 100 percent of the amount as provided by the Central Bank of Nigeria Monetary, Credit, Foreign Trade and Exchange Policy Guideline for Fiscal Year 2012/2013, as well as granted an order of garnishee nisi of N4.7 billion against GTB to be paid to Innoson.
GTB proceeded to appeal the judgment at the Court of Appeal, Enugu Division, but the Appeal Court in a ruling ordered GTB to pay the Judgement debt of N6 billion, inclusive of the accrued interest and any interest that would subsequently accrue thereon into an interest yielding account in the Name of the Chief Registrar of the Court .
However, the bank, in various affidavits, at the Court of Appeal in suit no: CA/E/288/2013, deposed that if it pays the outstanding Judgement debt of N6billion, much more the N8.5billion , it could go bankrupt and be out of business .
Seeking a way out, the bank proceeded to secure an ex parte order through Justice Okon Abang then of Federal High Court in Lagos on Innoson Nigeria Limited, dated September 1, 2014 with suit number FHC/L/CS/1119/2014, ordering that “pending the hearing and the determination of the substantive suit, all commercial banks in Nigeria were restrained from accepting, honouring, or giving effect in any manner whatsoever to any mandate or instruction presented to them by Innoson companies or any of its agents or nominees for withdrawal of any sum of money standing to the credit of any account maintained by the company in all the banks.”
Nonetheless, on June 10, 2015, Justice Salihu Saidu of the Lagos Federal High Court struck out the ex parte order freezing the bank accounts of the companies in Innoson Group.
In response, Chukwuma filed N30 billion suit at the Federal High Court against the bank for damages it suffered in monetary terms and reputational terms during the months when the accounts of its companies in all Nigerian banks were frozen.
Before the court could decide, GTB had proceeded to the Supreme Court, having lost two cases at the High Court and same two cases at the Appeal Court. The bank claimed in a motion in suit no: Sc /694/2014, that the Court of Appeal Judgement in Ibadan (CA/I/258/2011) was procured by suspicious means.
Notwithstanding, On May 12, 2017, the Supreme Court dismissed as unfounded and exasperating the bank’s claim against Chukwuma.
Meanwhile, while the case dragged in court, GTB said it discovered that Dr. Chukwuma had cooked the books, giving wrong information on his imports. The bank consequently filed a petition against him, alleging forgery which led to the suit No: FHC /L/565C/2015 by Police .
But on February 17, 2016, the Police withdraw the charges against him, saying it needed to properly investigate the bank’s complaints first and see if they had merits.
It was perhaps, based on this premise that the EFCC in justifying its invasion of Chukwuma’s home in Enugu on Monday, claimed that he jumped an administrative bail given to him and failed to honour invitation.
“His arrest followed his refusal to honour invitation by the commission, having earlier jumped administrative bail granted him in a case being investigated by capital market and insurance fraud unit of the commission’s Lagos office,” EFCC’s spokesman, Wilson Uwujaren said on Tuesday.
“Chukwuma rather than honouring the invitation mobilized three truck loads of things pretending to be staff of his company to his residence where they manhandled EFCC operatives.”
However, Head of Corporate Communications, Innoson Group Mr. Cornel Osigwe in a statement same Tuesday, dismissed the EFCC’s claim as an attempt to mislead the public and bring the character of the car manufacturer to disrepute.
“This claim by the commission is not factual and it tends to mislead the public and bring the personality and character of Dr Innocent Chukwuma to disrepute,” Obigwe said.
“Hence we want to state the true position so as to inform the general public the truth about this matter.
“EFCC never at any time invited Dr Innocent Chukwuma either in writting or through any other means. We are aware that EFCC investigated GTB complaint against Innoson in 2012.
“During the investigation he was invited and he honoured the invitation. After the investigation EFCC filed a charge against him at Lagos State High Court.
“The charge was subsequently struck out. However Dr Innocent Chukwuma and Innoson Nigeria Ltd appealed against the order striking out the case on the basis that it ought to be dismissed and not struck out.
“The appeal – appeal no. Ca/l/1330cm/2017 Is till date still pending at the Court of Appeal Lagos division. Till date, EFCC never invited Dr Innocent Chukwuma again,” he concluded.
It is a case that has continued to generate reactions across the country At Wednesday’s plenary, the Senate roundly condemned EFCC’s action and promised to conduct investigation within 24 hours.
It mandated its committee on anti-corruption and financial crimes to investigate the matter and report back within 24 hours.
The lawmakers’ decision followed a point of order raised by Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu who narrated what Dr Chukwuma told him from where he was being detained. Ekweremadu maintained that if the EFCC could be reduced to a mere debt recovery agency, the country was doomed.
“Yesterday I got a number of messages indicating that Mr Innocent Chukwuma was arrested by the EFCC over a transaction between him and GTB. This morning I made an effort and I spoke with him, his story is straight forward, he said he was at his house at 5:00 am Tuesday morning when he heard gun shots and he thought they were assassins and so he went into hiding after about two hours he saw some police and he thought that help had come, so he came out of his hiding and ran to the police man who promptly arrested him,” the senator said.
“As he was trying to find out what was his offence, they told him when they get to the police station they will inform him of the offence. As at today nobody has told him what the offence is.
“Any person who is arrested and detained should be informed reason for his arrest. As I speak Mr Innoson Chukwuma is yet to be informed of what led to his arrest or detention but if you go through the media today, the story is that he is owing GTB. As a lawyer I’m at a loss how a transaction between someone and his bank will inform the EFCC.”
“The story he told me is that he is not owing the bank anything, he borrowed money from the bank which he has since repaid but the bank kept charging money and withdrawing it from his account. They set up an audit and the auditor came to a conclusion that they had deducted more than N500 million, he was insisting on 22 percent, the bank said they will pay 17 percent so that is where they had the disagreement and they now went to court and it gave judgement in its favour at the federal high court and the court of appeal and the matter is at the supreme court. The fact that matter is in court and it was a commercial transaction gives no room for the intervention of EFCC, I’d like to appeal to this Senate to ensure that Mr Innocent Chukuwma is released promptly.”
Other contributors, including Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe who claimed that an operative of the EFCC slapped Dr Chukwuma’s wife, as well as Sam Anyanwu and Bwacha Emmanuel, all of whom condemned the anti graft agency and maintained that someone had to be held accountable for its misconduct.
President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki in his own remarks, noted that the EFCC will drag the country into ridicule if the issue was not addressed promptly.
“As a society that we are all planning, that our country to be civilised, I think this does not speak well of the country,” he said.
“How a private commercial transaction has now become the focus of the EFCC. I think this area is the focus. Whether he is owing or not, I think we must be seen protecting the fundamental rights of citizens. I’ve never seen when FBI interferes between City Bank and Ford Motors, or the financial crime agency in UK intervenes. We are just making a mockery of ourselves and we really should be able to do the right thing.”