The criminal trial of Orji Kalu, a former governor of Abia State, stalled on Monday as he challenged the competence of the first prosecution witness, defence lawyers Mike Ozekhome and Solo Akuma leading the strong charge against witness Onovoe Oghenovo.
The witness was called into the box by Rotimi Jacobs, the prosecutor of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Akuma responded by telling the judge that although Oghenovo's name was listed as number 12 in the proof of evidence, his statement was not frontloaded.
He contended that allowing Oghenovo to testify while the defense had no idea of what he came to court to say would violate the defendant's right to fair hearing.
"The witness is listed; we have gone through the proof of evidence served on us. We do not see the witness' statement. By virtue of Section 36 (c) Paragraph B of the 1999 Constitution, service of witness' statement is a mandatory requirement, a constitutional right and a facility that should be provided to the accused person," Akuma argued.
He also drew the judge's attention to Section 379(1)(a) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, which, he stressed, made it mandatory for the prosecution to frontload the statement of any witness it intends to call.
"To do otherwise will amount to a great infraction of the fundamental rights of the defendants under Section 36(c) of the Constitution," he added.
Ozekhome, who is representing Kalu, reaffirmed his colleagues' argument.
"Going by the doctrine of fair hearing, we ought to know and not be taken by surprise through a booby trap what he (Oghenovo) is going to say,” he insisted.
Responding, Mr. Jacobs stated that there was no need to frontload the witness' statement because the witness was subpoenaed by the court.
He added that what the witness came to say in court was already part of the proof of evidence served on the defendants since 2007 when the charges were filed.
"The role played by the witness is at page 121 of the proof of evidence. Your Lordship will see the correspondence by this witness. That qualifies as a statement," Jacobs said.
In that regard, he pointed out that having served the proof of evidence on the defense team since 2007, the issue of catching them by surprise did not arise, and he urged Justice Idris to allow Oghenovo to testify.
The judged adjourned until Tuesday for a ruling.
Former Governor Orji Kalu faces a 34-count charge of fraud of N2.9bn. He was re-arraigned alongside Udeh Udeogu and Slok Nigeria Limited before Justice Mohammed Idris of the Federal High Court in Ikoyi, Lagos.
They pleaded not guilty to the charges and were allowed to continue on the bail granted by Justice Adamu Bello in April 2008.
The anti-corruption agency alleges that Kalu siphoned the funds running from the state's treasury during his tenure as governor and diverting the money in various tranches into the account of Slok Nigeria Limited, a company the EFCC said was owned by Kalu and members of his family.
The offence, EFCC said, contravened Section 17 (c) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2003 and punishable under Section 16 of the same Act.
EFCC accused Slok Nigeria Limited of conniving with one Emeka Abone, said to be at large, to help Kalu retain the allegedly stolen funds in its accounts when Slok Nigeria Limited "knew or at least suspected the said Orji Uzor Kalu to have engaged in a criminal conduct."