Pressure by former Benue State Governor Gabriel Suswam, his associates and his lawyer, Joseph Daudu (SAN), was the cause of the contradictory evidence prosecution witness Abubakar Umar gave to the Federal High Court in Abuja on May 5, 2016 in the N3bn fraud trial of Suswam, the witness explained to the court on Wednesday.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is prosecuting Suswam and thn Commissioner of Finance in his administration, Omodachi Okolobia, on money laundering charges involving the diversion of over N3.1bn, allegedly stolen from the sale of shares owned by the state government.
Daudu, a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, is a member of the committee set up recently by the National Judicial Council to monitor high-profile corruption cases.
The anti-corruption agency had fielded Umar, operator of a Bureau de Change called Fanffash Resources, as its fourth prosecution witness.
The agency alleged that Umar was the one who helped Suswam to convert the money, being proceeds of the alleged crime, to $15.8m. On 5 May 2016, Umar told the court how the then Governor Suswam instructed the transfer of sums of money totaling over N3.1bn into his company’s account between August and October 2014.
According to the witness, Suswam instructed that the money be converted to dollars, and the sum of N3.1bn was transferred to his firm’s account in six tranches and converted to dollars at the exchange rate of N197 to a dollar with the cumulative sum of $15.8m allegedly handed over to the former governor.
During his testimony, however, the witness curiously said he took the total of $15.8m to the Government House in Makurdi, the Benue State capital, in contradiction of his previous statement that he had taken the money to Suswam's residence in Maitama, Abuja, and given the money to the governor there.
Based on that contradiction, the EFCC invited Umar for interrogation on 12 August 2016, during which he revealed how Suswam and his associates had been mounting pressure on him to change his previous statement made in court.
Thereafter, on November 22, 2017, the EFCC declared Umar to be a hostile witness. Following an application by the agency, the court, presided over by Justice Ahmed Mohammed, on December 11 2017 pronounced Umar to be a hostile witness to the prosecution.
Yesterday, Umar's statement made to the EFCC on August 12, 2016, was read in the open court, and the witness confirmed that the statement was made by him and had been penned on his behalf by Yakubu Idris, his "brother-in-law."
In it, he stated that shortly after he began testifying in the case, he started receiving calls from Suswam and his associates offering him money to change the previous written statement he made to the EFCC.
They included a phone call from Suswam before he testified on May 5, 2016, the proceedings in which the contradiction in his evidence surfaced. During the phone conversation, Umar said, Suswam expressed concerns about the statement earlier made to the EFCC and asked him to meet with Daudu. He said he eventually visited Daudu's office in Jabi, Abuja, where he met with the former NBA President.
He further stated that his oral evidence in which he claimed to have taken the sum of $15.8m to the Government House in Makurdi was wrong, the truth being that he took the money to Suswam's residence and handed it over to the former governor.
The unedited statement of the witness as read in court on Wednesday stated partly as follows:
"My last day in court (in) the statement evidence I gave to court was not the right statement in Gabriel Suswam case of N3.1bn for the purchase of dollars. I gave him in his house in Maitama, Abuja.
I gave a wrong statement in court due to pressure on me from people around Suswam. I have been receiving calls, always telling that they will offer me some money (before the case in court).
I started testifying, Suswam said I should go and see his lawyer, J.B Daudu. I went to see him in his office in Jabi and he asks me why is my statement like this in EFCC. I said he (Sho) is aware of all my statement. And the first statement I gave to EFCC is the truth and nothing but the truth. Now I am ready to tell the truth in the court. And the people that normally calling me I don't have their phone numbers. J.B Daudu have never called me on phone and I don't have his number."
Responding yesterday to questions from Jacobs, Umar affirmed that he handed the $15.8m to Suswam in Maitama and not in Makurdi, stressing that he has never been to Makurdi.
Regarding why he had described Suswam's residence in Abuja as Government House, Umar said he considered any house in which the governor lived as "Government House".
His statements to the EFCC on August 31, and on October 19, 21 and 29, 2015, were tendered by the prosecution and admitted by the court as exhibits.
Daudu and F. Onoja, the second defendant's counsel, however, objected when Jacobs attempted to tendered on August 12, 2017, statement of the witness in which Umar narrated how he was pressured by the defence to contradict his previous statement to the EFCC. Daudu described the statement as "trash," stressing that it was inadmissible under the Evidence Act.
The lawyer said he had predicted on May 5, 2016, when the prosecution sought an adjournment after the contradiction in Umar's testimony arose, that the EFCC was likely to subject him to torture in order to extract a favourable statement from him.
Drawing attention to the statement being sought to be tendered, and which was purportedly made on August 12, 2016, the defence lawyers claimed that Umar was not the maker of the statement but Idris (Umar's brother-in-law) who penned down the statement.
But Jacobs asked the court to dismiss the objection which he argued had no legal backing.
Justice Mohammed adjourned hearing on March 14, for his ruling on the admissibility of the statement and continuation of trial.