JUSTICE GONE AWRY? The Confounding Case of Petro Union Limited

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Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed

Ebenezer Johnson

As with recent cases before the Supreme Court, all eyes are once again on the nation’s Apex Court to execute substantial and impartial justice in a case between the Central Bank of Nigeria (“CBN”), Union Bank of Nigeria (“Union Bank”) and a company known as Petro Union Oil and Gas Limited (“Petro Union”) involving an alleged £2.550bn fraud.

Already, salient facts are before the Supreme Court regarding how the oil company and its directors allegedly plotted and conspired to defraud the Central Bank of Nigeria and Union Bank Plc. of the stated sum.

Although in some quarters, the confidence reposed in the judiciary is said to be waning following what is seen as baffling decisions by the court in recent times, this case may serve as a litmus test of the capacity of the apex Court to entrench its reputation as the standard for justice and equity in the land. Indeed, parallels have already been drawn between the case in question, and the brazen attempt by the P&ID directors to defraud the Federal Republic of Nigeria of the sum of $9bn in a case which sparked outrage from many quarters even beyond Nigeria. Many have also questioned the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in the recent case involving the Imo State gubernatorial elections.

Nevertheless, it is imperative to note that the salutary role of the judiciary in the anti-corruption agenda of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration is evident in various sectors where the war against corruption has been intensified. Many corruption cases have been won and dispensed within the courts, as scores of perpetrators are already languishing in jail following their convictions.

The nation’s anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is also living up to expectations in this regard just as the courts are delivering justice without fear or favour. Between January and October 2019 alone, the EFCC secured 890 convictions and recovered billions of naira in looted funds. In one of its briefings, the Federal Government of Nigeria commended the EFCC’s anti -corruption crusade. Recall that in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, the EFCC was able to secure 103, 189, 190 and 202 convictions respectively.

This precedent reinforces hope in the judiciary, and bolsters the assurance that in the case of Petro Union vs the CBN and Union Bank, justice will be substantially served. This is so especially as the EFCC is currently prosecuting the oil company in a Federal High Court in Lagos, where the company, three of its directors and an alleged Financial Consultant, who was the linchpin of the fraud, Abayomi Kukoyi of Gladstone Kukoyi & Associates were arraigned for alleged criminal procurement of the fraud against the Federal Republif of Nigeria through the CBN and Union Bank. A fourth director of the company, Gladys Okpalla, is said to be on the run and suspected to be harboured by one of the lawyers allegedly masterminding the fraud.

While it is expedient for the Supreme Court to execute substantial justice in the case before it, the facts and the genesis of how the £2,159, 221, 313.54 billion fraud was allegedly perpetrated must be stated here.
Petro Union’s troubles began in 1994 when the company allegedly fraudulently procured a cheque from a branch of Barclays Bank in the UK with a value of £2.556 billion and presented it at one of Union Bank’s branches in Lagos, under the pretext that it was meant to construct three petrochemical refinery complexes in Nigeria and establish a bank. While the required due diligence investigations were being carried out, one Mr. Okpala, the Managing Director of PU, inundated the Bank and the CBN with visits and demands for the release of the cheque.

Eventually, both the CBN and Union Bank advised Petro Union that Barclays Bank in the UK had been contacted and it confirmed that it never accepted the bill of exchange for clearing. The response similarly affirmed that the account on which the cheque was drawn was closed on 21st September 1989 whereas the cheque was issued on 29th December 1994 – five years after the account was closed!
Despite the foregoing startling discovery and decisive response, Petro Union and Isaac Okpala persisted with their demands and this culminated in a petition by the company to the Lagos office of the EFCC, for alleged offences of stealing and criminal conversion against the CBN and Union Bank.

Following the petition, the EFCC investigated the allegation by interrogating the CBN through a letter dated 12th January 2005. In a letter dated 27th January 2005, The CBN responded to the query by the EFCC wherein it denied the allegations of Petro Union. The EFCC also made other efforts to investigate the allegations including corresponding with Barclays Bank in the UK. Having concluded its investigation, the EFCC issued a letter dated 10th May 2005 addressed to the Managing Director of Union Bank exonerating the Bank from any wrong doing.

However, in its desperation to use the allegedly forged cheque to perpetrate the fraud on CBN and Union Bank, Petro Union in February 2012 instituted an action at a Federal High Court, Abuja in Suit No. FHC/ABJ/M/104/2012: PETRO UNION OIL & GAS CO. LTD .V. CENTRAL BANK OF NIGERIA AND ORS., seeking sundry reliefs against (1) CBN, (2) Union Bank, (3) Hon. Minister of Finance and (4) The Attorney-General of the Federation following the allegation that Union Bank of Nigeria received the sum of £2,556,000,000.00 on behalf of Petro Union and transferred the sum of £2,159,221,318.54 to the CBN while retaining the sum of £396,778,681.46. In support of this startling claim, Petro Union alleged that the money is kept in an account in the name of a company called Glodmatic Limited at the CBN and tendered a purported CBN Statement of Account of Goldmatic.

The Federal High Court, Abuja Judge before whom the claim was filed accepted the purported CBN Statement of Account as conclusive evidence that CBN had retained the money alleged to belong to Petro Union, ignoring the elementary fact that globally a central bank cannot open an account for a private entity. The CBN is statutorily empowered to act as bankers to government and bankers to banks. This is perhaps the first time since the discipline of economics and finance began that a central bank was adjudged by a court as a banker to a private entity- perhaps a novel Nigerian contribution to the study of economics!
Although Petro Union and its directors allegedly knew these facts to be false from the onset, yet they pursued the so-called fraud up to the Court of Appeal where they obtained judgement to establish that the £2,159, 221, 313.54 billion was lodged in the coffers of the Central Bank of Nigeria.

It is said that he who must come to equity must come with clean hands. And this is apt in the case before the Supreme Court, as the company which had, through apparently dubious means, secured judgements both at the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal, is facing prosecution for the same criminal offence it claimed it did not perpetrate.

Petro Union Oil and Gas Limited and its directors are to defend charges of fraudulently procuring a Barclays Bank cheque dated 29th December, 1994 in the sum of £2, 556,000,000.00 allegedly made payable to Gladstone Kukoyi and Associates with full knowledge that the cheque was false. The offence is punishable under Section 1 (2)(a) of the Miscellaneous Offences Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria.
A careful perusal of the facts of this case clearly shows that Petro Union obtained the two judgments at the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal based on facts which are not only false but have criminal implications.

Both the CBN and Union Bank have therefore appealed to higher courts to set the case aside, urging the courts to execute justice especially when the truth of the alleged fraud has been uncovered following the arrest, detention and ongoing criminal prosecution of Petro Union and its officers at the Federal High Court, Lagos.
––Johnson, an analyst, writes from Port Harcourt