Buhari, Emefiele, Boss Mustapha approved N2.9bn cash payment for ‘election observation’ – Witness

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Buhari, Emefiele and Mustafa
Buhari, Emefiele and Mustafa

A prosecution witness on Monday told the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court in Maitama, Abuja, how the immediate-past administration of President Muhammadu Buhari approved a cash payment of a whopping N2.9 billion for observance of the 2023 general elections.

Onyeka Ogau, a former Branch Controller of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), said this while testifying as the first prosecution witness in the trial of former CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele, who faces charges of corruption and fraud that he allegedly perpetrated in office.

Ogau said he received the request to give his layer of approval to the $6.23 million cash request on January 8, 2023, according to a statement by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) providing highlights of the witness’ testimony on Monday.

The witness was led in evidence by EFCC’s prosecuting counsel, Oyedepo Rotimi, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, when the case came up before the trial judge, Hamza Muazu.

According to Ogau, the memo on the request was accompanied by the approvals of then President Muhammadu Buhari, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, and Emefiele.

One of the approvals accompanying the memo, the witness said, requested that the naira equivalent of $6.23 million be paid to a staff member of the SGF office.

At N461 to a dollar at the time in January 2023, the amount approved for the election observance came down to N2.9 billion.

Ogau did not give the name of the official from the SGF office that was asked to receive the money, but sheds more light on the allegation earlier referenced in a special investigator’s report as part of the heists that took place under Emefiele’s CBN.

Unlike the special investigator’s report, Ogau said pointedly that he received the written approval given by then President Buhari, the SGF, Mustapha, and Emefiele for the money to be paid.

“My Lord, all requests for payments are usually channelled to the branch controller, and that is my office. And on that day, my Lord, the request to my office was $6,230,000 and my attention was drawn towards it by my office assistant. It came from the banking services department, and the memo carried the signature of the Director, Banking Services, with an instruction to the branch controller to pay the sum of $6,230,000 to a staff member of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, bearing the name and identity card of the person,” he said.

Continuing, Michael explained that the memo “stated that the payment was for election observance and be paid cash in a naira equivalent of the said amount.”

The witness said the memo added that “the money should be refunded in the second quarter of 2023 by the Federal Ministry of Finance.”

“Also, the memo had the attached approval of the then Secretary to the Government of the Federation and that of the then President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“My Lord, the document also stated that, ‘find attached the approval of the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria for the payment’.

Election observance money paid after elections

Michael’s testimony piqued curiosity when he said the money was only paid on April 8, 2023, more than a month and a half after the presidential and National Assembly elections, which attracted the most interest in the election cycle, had been held on February 25, 2023. The second phase of the election, the governorship and state assembly elections in different states, was held mostly on March 18.

Ogau, during his testimony on Monday, identified the approval of the then SGF, Mustapaha, and then President, Buhari, attached to the memo on the $6.23 million request.

He said he gave his approval, and the money was subsequently disbursed on April 8, 2018.

“Having gone through the document and satisfied that it met the requirement, I then minuted it to the head of the banking services unit for processing and subsequent payment. Mr. Williams, head of banking services, compiled and made the payment on April 8, 2023, and the payment was in cash. I can identify the document because it also carries my signature,” he said.

Emefiele is charged with amended 20 counts of criminal conspiracy, conferring undue advantage, and breach of trust, among other allegations that also featured in the report of a special investigators engaged by President Bola Tinubu to probe the activities of CBN during his tenure as the governor of the bank.

The special investigator, Jim Obazee, referenced the $6.23 million payment in his report, which received wide media attention last December.

He wrote of a “fraudulent cash withdrawal of $6.23 million”—about N2.9 billion at the then official exchange rate of N461 to a dollar.

Obaeze said the $6.23 million was removed from the vault of the CBN between February 7 and 8, 2023, about two weeks before the presidential and National Assembly polls, under the purported approval of the president for the release of money to pay foreign election observers.

The removal of the money from the vault of the Foreign Payment Office, Abuja Branch, of the CBN, which was captured on CCTV footage, followed a trail of letters that began with one dated January 23, 2023.

The alleged heist was completed when an official in the office, Uzero Oghenefego, “took steps, procured the dollar cash, and released the same to persons yet to be fully identified.”

But according to the EFCC witness in his testimony on Monday, the naira equivalent of the money was not paid to the unidentified person purportedly from the SGF office until April 2023.

President, SGF approval exhibits

The lead prosecuting counsel, Oyedepo, while trying to tender all the six documents as exhibits, told the court that two of the documents that had the former SGF and the President’s approval were photocopies.

He, therefore, sought to tender the remaining four, which were original, praying that the remaining two would be tendered later in the course of the trial.

He also asked the court for a 30-minute stand-down to go to the CBN complex and secure the original copies.

Defence counsel, Mathew Bukka, a SAN, objected to Oyedepo’s prayers, and instead urged the court to adjourn the case until February 13, as earlier slated.

He said the 30 minutes sought by Oyedepo would not be enough for the prosecution to secure the original documents from the CBN.

After listening to their arguments, Muazu adjourned the matter until Tuesday for the continuation of the trial.

Emefiele’s denial

Emefiele, who was removed from office by President Tinubu in June last year, denied all charges during his arraignment last January.

He pleaded not guilty to the amended 20 counts.

In some of the counts, the EFCC alleged that Mr Emefiele, in January 2023, forged a document titled ‘Re: Presidential Directive on Foreign Election Observer Missions,’ dated January 2023, with reference number SGF.43/L.01/201.

The EFCC alleged that Emefiele made the claim knowing the same to be false.

In the case marked CR/577/2023, the prosecution alleged Emefiele, on 8 February 2023, connived with one Odoh Ocheme, said to be on the run, to obtain $6.2 million from the CBN, claiming that it was requested by the office of the Secretary to the Governor of the Federation (SGF) “vide a letter dated January 26 2023 with Ref No. SGF.43/L.01/201.”

The anti-graft agency also alleged that “the contract for the renovation of the CBN Governor’s lodge, located at No. 2 Glover Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, was awarded to a company named Messrs. Architekon Nigeria Ltd, “wherein the duo are directors and majority shareholders.”

The offences, according to the EFCC, contravene the provisions of sections 17 and 19 of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000, as well as sections 315, 363 and 364 of the Penal Code.

According to Ogau, the memo on the request was accompanied by the approvals of then President Muhammadu Buhari, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, and Emefiele.

One of the approvals accompanying the memo, the witness said, requested that the naira equivalent of $6.23 million be paid to a staff member of the SGF office.

At N461 to a dollar at the time in January 2023, the amount approved for the election observance came down to N2.9 billion.

Ogau did not give the name of the official from the SGF office that was asked to receive the money, but sheds more light on the allegation earlier referenced in a special investigator’s report as part of the heists that took place under Emefiele’s CBN.

Unlike the special investigator’s report, Ogau said pointedly that he received the written approval given by then President Buhari, the SGF, Mustapha, and Emefiele for the money to be paid.

“My Lord, all requests for payments are usually channelled to the branch controller, and that is my office. And on that day, my Lord, the request to my office was $6,230,000 and my attention was drawn towards it by my office assistant. It came from the banking services department, and the memo carried the signature of the Director, Banking Services, with an instruction to the branch controller to pay the sum of $6,230,000 to a staff member of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, bearing the name and identity card of the person,” he said.

Continuing, Michael explained that the memo “stated that the payment was for election observance and would be paid cash in the naira equivalent of the said amount.”

The witness said the memo added that “the money should be refunded in the second quarter of 2023 by the Federal Ministry of Finance.”

“Also, the memo had the attached approval of the then Secretary to the Government of the Federation and that of the then President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“My Lord, the document also stated that, ‘find attached the approval of the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria for the payment’.”

Election observance money paid after elections

Michael’s testimony piqued curiosity when he said the money was only paid on 8 April 2023, more than a month and a half after the presidential and National Assembly elections, which attracted the most interest in the election cycle, had been held on February 25, 2023. The second phase of the election, the governorship and state assembly elections in different states, were mostly held on March 18.

Ogau, during his testimony on Monday, identified the approval of the then SGF, Mustapaha, and then President, Buhari, attached to the memo on the $6.23 million request.

He said he gave his approval, and the money was subsequently disbursed on April 8, 2018.

“Having gone through the document and satisfied that it met the requirement, I then minuted it to the head of the banking services unit for processing and subsequent payment. Williams, head of banking services, compiled and made the payment on April 8, 2023, and the payment was in cash. I can identify the document because it also carries my signature,” he said.

Emefiele is charged with amended 20 counts of criminal conspiracy, conferring undue advantage, and breach of trust, among other allegations that also featured in the report of a special investigators engaged by President Bola Tinubu to probe the activities of CBN during his tenure as the governor of the bank.

The special investigator, Jim Obazee, referenced the $6.23 million payment in his report, which received wide media attention last December.

He wrote of a “fraudulent cash withdrawal of $6.23 million”—about  N2.9 billion at the then official exchange rate of N461 to a dollar.

Obaeze said the $6.23 million was removed from the vault of the CBN between February 7 and 8, 2023, about two weeks before the presidential and National Assembly polls, under the purported approval of the president for the release of money to pay foreign election observers.

The removal of the money from the vault of the Foreign Payment Office, Abuja Branch, of the CBN, which was captured on CCTV footage, followed a trail of letters that began with one dated January 23, 2023.

The alleged heist was completed when an official in the office, Uzero Oghenefego, “took steps, procured the dollar cash, and released the same to persons yet to be fully identified.”

But according to the EFCC witness in his testimony on Monday, the naira equivalent of the money was not paid to the unidentified person purportedly from the SGF office until April 2023.

President, SGF approval exhibits

The lead prosecuting counsel, Oyedepo, while trying to tender all six documents as exhibits, told the court that two of the documents that had the former SGF and the President’s approval were photocopies.

He, therefore, sought to tender the remaining four, which were original, praying that the remaining two would be tendered later in the course of the trial.

He also asked the court for a 30-minute stand-down to go to the CBN complex and secure the original copies.

Defence counsel, Mathew Bukka, a SAN, objected to Oyedepo’s prayers and instead urged the court to adjourn the case until February 13, as earlier slated.

He said the 30 minutes sought by Oyedepo would not be enough for the prosecution to secure the original documents from the CBN.

After listening to their arguments, Muazu adjourned the matter until Tuesday for the continuation of the trial.

Emefiele’s denial

Emefiele, who was removed from office by President Tinubu in June last year, denied all charges during his arraignment last January.

He pleaded not guilty to the amended 20 counts.

In some of the counts, the EFCC alleged that Emefiele, in January 2023, forged a document titled ‘Re: Presidential Directive on Foreign Election Observer Missions,’ dated January 2023, with reference number SGF.43/L.01/201.

The EFCC alleged that Emefiele made the claim knowing that it was false.

In the case marked CR/577/2023, the prosecution alleged Emefiele, on February 8, 2023, connived with one Odoh Ocheme, said to be on the run, to obtain $6.2 million from the CBN, claiming that it was requested by the office of the Secretary to the Governor of the Federation (SGF) “vide a letter dated Jan. 26 2023 with Ref No. SGF.43/L.01/201.”

The anti-graft agency also alleged that “the contract for the renovation of the CBN Governor’s lodge, located at No. 2 Glover Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, was awarded to a company named Messrs. Architekon Nigeria Ltd, “wherein the duo are directors and majority shareholders.”

The offences, according to the EFCC, contravene the provisions of sections 17 and 19 of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000, as well as sections 315, 363 and 364 of the Penal Code.

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