Former Director General, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Raymond Omatseye, in this interviewwith Shulammite ‘Foyeku, speaks on his acquittal in a case instituted against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). He also shares his experience while the case lasted, concluding that the dismissal of the case by Justice YargataNimpar of the Court of Appeal strengthens his belief in the judiciary.
There was a recent report in one of the national dailies, which suggested that you were convicted. What would you say to that since you have been discharged by the Court of Appeal?
Somebody was just trying to be mischievous about the report. The impression, which was created by the report, was that it just happened. It came out on March 1, 2018, but said my defence was on March 14, 2018. I believe it was a deliberate act. It created a lot of anxiety which was totally unnecessary. That is why I have to come out to tell the world that it was not what transpired. In 2017, the court of Appeal had already acquitted me. Of course, I am sure you are also aware that the people that were involved in my case, that is Ajumogobia and Obla have been charged to court for exchanging money to jail me.
Can you give a clear background into what led to your arrest and acquittal?
In 2010, I was arrested and charged to court for alleged splitting of contracts. I was charged before Justice BintaNyako. After two years, it dawned on them that the title of the contract award letter was the supply of office equipment. But they did not look at the body of the award letter. It was when they looked at the body of the letter that they realised that they were different items. After two years, they withdrew the charges and brought in a new set of charges, which was approval of contract above my threshold. Prior to that, they had also accused me of transferring $300, 000 to an account and accused me of money laundering. Nobody came to ask me that. It was during the case that I presented the approval of Mr. President to support Mrs. Mbanefo’s election. When they saw it, they quickly withdrew the charges. These were the people that said that five million was my approval limit. The next thing they did was to present a new set of charges, which claimed that my approval limit was N2.5 million. They also alleged that I bought a generator, which I never did. The generator was actually bought by my successor. The interesting part of it is that all the period the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) questioned me, nobody asked me about the approval of contracts. All they talked about were issues that did not relate to this matter. We went to court and, after two years, the learned trial judge in her wisdom found me guilty of approving contracts above my threshold and decided to sentence me to five years in prison. I was sent to Ikoyi(prison) at that time. After spending four weeks there, she granted me bail. I was not happy about what happened. I decided to go to the Court of Appeal and raised five grounds. After a well-considered opinion, the Court of Appeal accepted all the grounds and said there is no such offence as approving contracts above my threshold. The documents, which were brought by the prosecution at that time, had no commencement date and the court said a document that does not have a date could not be brought. In the judgment, the court said that the Act that created the Bureau of Public Procurement stated that only the National Council on Public Procurement can pass a threshold. It also said that there is nowhere they stated that the body, if it exists, ever passed the threshold. Therefore, the court declared the case null and void and of no effect. In February 2013, the then Director General of Bureau of Public Procurement, Mr. Eze, was subpoenaed to come and give evidence in a case. Because he reports to the President, he wrote a memo to Mr. President bringing to his attention that he had been subpoenaed. He said he had reviewed the charges, adding that there was no offence committed. That document was signed off by the President through the Chief of Staff to the then Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Bello Adoke. It was after he left office that we were able to trace that document and submitted it as part of our evidence. Unfortunately, the learned trial judge did not give it any judicial notice. She did not consider the certified document from the Ministry of Justice. It will be interesting to know that the Court of Appeal highlighted that the judge should have considered that opinion. The court said the refusal to consider the judgment was wrong, adding that the effect would have weighed in favour of the appellant. We felt that the case should have been over the moment that letter was brought as evidence. I was shocked when the conviction came. That is where we are. Justice Nimpar of the Court of Appeal said the prosecution should not ride roughshod over the Constitution because it wants to fight corruption. There was no evidence to show that I did anything.
At the moment are you under any prosecution?
I am no longer being prosecuted by any court for any case. They could decide to go to the apex court. But as things stand today, I am a free man. The only issue I have is that I was suspended from the Public Service on December 15, 2010. While my suspension was ending, the court case started. During that period, I was unable to resign my position as the Director General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration Agency (NIMASA) because the Public Service rule states that one cannot leave the service until whatever allegation against that person is cleared. Therefore, my suspension remains in place. I am in the process to get that lifted and also to smoothly exit the Public Service. I am working to get the government to clear me so I can do my asset declaration at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and come back to the private sector.
How has the arrest and trial affected you?
The case was something that took me aback. I am a lawyer and will say that we need to stand up for the right of whosoever we are fighting for. I know that I did not take any money from the government and I can say that I did not inflate any contract. What people failed to realise is that I was never accused of taking government money. All they said was that I approved contract against my threshold and they found out that there was no such offence. But when that happened, whether the person accused is a man or a lion, he would be taken aback. On my first night in Ikoyi Prisons, I cried unto God, saying that He knows that I did not do anything. I begged God to ensure justice because I didn’t know all the things that might have happened in the process of ensuring that I was prosecuted. That was why I was taken aback when I read that somebody was paid money to convict me. I thought it was not true, but those involved have now been charged to court. I heard that my case number was mentioned. It is 4A2C/FHC/LA/FA2C/2010. When I saw the charge sheets that said someone was charged for perversion of justice in case 4A2C/FHC/LA/FA2C/2010, I was surprised. A lot of people do not know that the ongoing case in the Lagos High Court between the EFCC and Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia and Godwin Obla relates to my case. The first five charges actually relate to my case. Because it is subjudice, I cannot say much about it. I have no interest in it. I just want to see what the outcome will be.
As a lawyer, what does your experience in the case tell you about our judicial system?
I will never give up on my profession. I believe in the court being the last hope of the common man. When it happens to someone that is when the person will realise certain things. I believe it was for a reason. It gave me the opportunity to be in Ikoyi Prisons, which I call Ikoyi camp. There are some people in the prison who don’t know why they are there and they have spent many years. There are others who have been there for seven years and their pleas have not even been taken. There are others who were dumped there with their people thinking that they are dead. I intend to do a prison ministry in future. Nigeria needs a lot of prison reforms. I don’t know why I went there. On the day the Court of Appeal gave its verdict, it further strengthened my confidence in the judiciary. The profession has learned people, who stand for the truth and I will continue to support the profession. As a lawyer, I will start doing pro bono services for people who are in prison. People are there who cannot pay for a bail of N10, 000.
How would you assess the development at NIMASA under its present management?
It is very difficult for me to comment on this. But we will still continue to watch them and advise them if they need our advice, which of course they do sometimes. You cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. For the fact that this has happened does not mean I am not a Nigerian. So we will need to continue to do what we need to do to sustain the maritime industry. The industry is big but we are not taking advantage of it. The problem is there is too much talk but no action and the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. People that own the cargo are very suspicious of all Nigerians, so they give all the cargo to foreigners and they are making all the money. If I don’t do the job, there is nothing wrong to bring a foreigner to come in and do the job and after five years, I believe I should have trained enough Nigerians to do it. We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different result.
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