Strong indications emerged at the weekend that Nigeria’s first female chartered accountant, former Minister of Commerce and Tourism and boardroom guru, Chief Bola Kuforiji-Olubi, is currently in a United Kingdom prison where she is serving out a one-month jail term for contempt, according to findings by SHIPS & PORTS DAILY.
Investigation revealed that Kuforiji-Olubi was convicted on February 18 by Justice Michael Burton of the Commercial Division of the High Court of Justice Queens Branch Division for disobeying the orders of the court.
The former minister, who was ordered to be remanded at Her Majesty Prison Holloway, got herself into jail when she attempted to repeat the levity with which high profile individuals usually treat court orders in Nigeria in London.
Her son, Olutokunbo Afolabi Kuforiji, who is said to be allegedly on the run, was equally sentenced to four months imprisonment, and ordered to be remanded at the Her Majesty Prison Pentonbiville from the day of apprehension.
The duo and their firm, Phoenixtide Offshore Nigeria Limited, were equally ordered to pay the plaintiff, Tidewater Marine International Inc., an accumulated sum of 300,000 British Pounds as cost for the litigation and indemnity before March 23.
SHIPS & PORTS DAILY gathered that trouble started for Kuforiji-Olubi when 10 years ago, Tidewater Marine International Inc., began a relationship with Phoenix Oceanlines Nigeria Limited, a business owned by the former minister, to form a company called Phoenixtide Offshore Nigeria Limited, also owned by her and her family.
By the terms of the non-exclusive agreement it was gathered, Phoenixtide was expected to provide some local support services, while Tidewater provided the most costly elements including, technical services, the vessels and access to International Oil Companies (IOCs).
Key aspects of the agreement included a marketing commission payable to Phoenixtide on all transactions carried out by the collaboration, while all payments due from the services rendered were to be made to Tidewater, after which the commission due to Phoenixtide would be paid.
The parties also agreed that any disputes that might arise between them would be submitted to the High Court in England for determination under English law, especially since both Kuforiji-Olubi and her son, Olutokunbo, the Managing Director of Phoenixtide are British citizens.
Further findings revealed that between 2008 and 2012, there were attempts to restructure the relationship in an effort to make it more mutually beneficial and in line with Nigerian extant laws.
However, these efforts were unsuccessful as Phoenixtide insisted on getting more from the deal.
This ultimately ended up in a severed business relationship between Tidewater and Phoenixtide in the fall of 2012.
However, during the period leading to the breakdown in the business relationship, Tidewater continued to provide full operational services to all of Phoenixtide’s clients for which it expected full remuneration in accordance with the terms of the agreements between the parties with a concurrent responsibility to disburse the agreed marketing fee to Phoenixtide.
A particular IOC from whom payment had become due then requested for a letter from Phoenixtide being the operator of the service contract, authorising payment to Tidewater in line with the agreements.
Phoenixtide, contrary to the terms of its contracts with Tidewater refused to provide the letter, and even further implied that the outstanding sum of circa $19 million be paid to it directly.
Despite entreaties, Phoenixtide was said to have refused to provide the required letter authorising the release of the outstanding sum of circa $19 million from the IOC.
Rather, Kuforiji-Olubi’s firm then was said to have demanded a disengagement package valued at between $80 million and $100 million from Tidewater as a precondition to issuing the letter and facilitating release of the funds held by the IOC.
Tidewater responded to this by filing a suit for breach of contract in a London High Court in line with the agreements between the parties and sought orders compelling Phoenixtide to issue the letter required, amongst other things.
Phoenixtide appeared in the matter before the High Court in London and sought to convince the English court that it was not the appropriate place for the hearing of the dispute despite its formal agreement that any dispute between the parties would be resolved before that court.
This attempt, it was gathered, failed and the High Court in London assumed jurisdiction in the matter.
Subsequent to Tidewater commencing suit before the High Court in London and while the action was still pending, the transacting IOC commenced proceedings against Tidewater and Phoenixtide before the Federal High Court in Nigeria seeking an order of the court determining who, between Tidewater and Phoenixtide, was entitled to the outstanding payments due from it.
The Federal High Court declined to make this determination but acceded to the IOC’s alternative request that it be permitted to pay the funds into court pending this determination.
With these two actions pending, Phoenixtide also filed yet another suit in the Federal High Court in Lagos against Tidewater and the transacting IOC, seeking an order that it was entitled to receive the payments due from the IOC.
Once Phoenixtide failed in its attempt to dissuade the High Court in England from assuming jurisdiction in the case, it stopped participating in the matter and refused to respond to all further processes issued by the court.
After giving the former minister’s firm due notice and opportunity to be heard, the High Court in London entered judgment against it clearly mandating its Managing Director, Olutokunbo Kuforiji, or any other official to issue the letter requested by the transacting IOC to enable it make payment of the outstanding due to Tidewater.
Because the High Court in London was made aware that the transacting IOC had obtained an order from the Federal High Court in Lagos directing that the funds due from it be paid into court, the letter Phoenixtide was directed to write made it clear that the IOC would need to obtain leave of the Federal High Court in Nigeria before making the payment to be authorised by it (Phoenixtide).
Despite this safeguard and the clear directives issued by the High Court in London, Kuforiji-Olubi and her son, Olutokunbo, both refused to comply with the court’s orders and proceedings for contempt of court were commenced against both of them.
Neither she nor her son were present for the initial hearing for their contempt, however through their lawyers, they claimed to have been unaware of the action until recently, and were apologetic and asked for more time to respond.
The judge allowed them more time but also required that they pay the unpaid and outstanding legal costs orders, which they also owed from the previous litigation.
Kuforiji-Olubi and Olutokunbo then took every step they could to postpone and delay and/or prevent the next hearing and did not pay the costs.
Approximately six months later, the contempt proceedings began, the former minister and Olutokunbo were required to be at this hearing, but neither came.
It was gathered that the reason they gave the court was that Kuforiji-Olubi was ill in Lagos and that Olutokunbo had to remain at her side 24 hours a day.
The arguments their lawyers made were unpersuasive and Justice Burton found both Kuforiji-Olubi and Olutokunbo to be in contempt.
He consequently ordered a warrant for their arrest and sentenced Kuforiji-Olubi to one month in prison and Olutokunbo to four months in prison.
However, the judge set a condition that if arrested they should be brought to court immediately and be given an opportunity to explain themselves and purge their contempt, and hopefully avoid prison.
Checks further revealed that approximately one month later, information reached the authorities that Kuforiji-Olubi was in the United Kingdom.
They visited her home in London and found her there but she was not arrested based on her claim to be quite ill. The judge then held a hearing to determine her ability to stand trial before him.
Kuforiji-Olubi had through statements made by her lawyers to the court, claimed she was essentially bed-ridden, used a wheelchair, and could only leave her residence for doctors’ appointments.
However, contrary to this claim, she had been spotted shopping and walking in London on the same day of this hearing.
Further evidence and admission from her lawyers showed that she was actually in the United Kingdom during the earlier court hearings contrary to her claim of being sick and bedridden in Lagos.
Believing that it had been deliberately misled, the court ordered her immediate arrest and appearance in person.
During the hearing, the judge invited her to simply comply with the court order and issue the letter. In response, she claimed to no longer have the power to do such as she had since resigned her chairmanship of the board of Phoenixtide and distributed her shares to members of her family.
Despite all the foregoing, the judge still wanted to avoid having to send her to prison, and he asked if her son, Olutokunbo would sign the letter and if she would ask him to.
The judge gave some time for this to happen but unfortunately she returned, stating that Olutokunbo had indicated that he would not, and Kuforiji-Olubi gave no indication that she objected to Olutokunbo’s decision.
Despite the exhaustive patience demonstrated by the judge up till this point, the court had no other option than to commit her to jail to serve her sentence.
However the court still left the door open for Olutokunbo to resolve this issue by issuing the letter directed by the court, but till date, he has not taken any steps to comply with the court’s order and secure his mother’s release from prison and remains a fugitive from the law as far as the United Kingdom is concerned.
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