The Federal Government is set to close N168.5m theft case involving Chukwuemka Ekwunife and managing director of Nepal oil and gas, Mrs. Ngozi Ekeoma.
After three years of rigorous trial and criminal proceedings, an Ikeja Special offences Court, Lagos has ordered the closure of the case of a former banker, Chukwuemka Ekwunife, accused of stealing the sum of N168.5m from several companies belonging to an oil marketer and businesswoman, Mrs Ngozi Ekeoma.
The trial which started since February 2018 would soon be decided upon by the court after the adoption of final written addresses by both prosecution and Defence Counsels scheduled in March, 15 2022.
Hence, after the adoption of a final written address, a case is fixed for a judgement.
The former banker was accused of fraudulently diverting funds from the sales of petroleum products, meant for Nepal Oil and Gas Limited, a company owned by Mrs Ekeoma, into his private account and private company, Structured Energy.
Mrs Ekeoma, according to a petition to the EFCC by her attorney, M.A Banire and Partners, claimed that the defendant wrote an overriding letter to the companies, who bought petroleum products from Nepal oil at several times, instructing them to pay monies into both his private and company’s account after the sales.
The businesswoman insisted that Ekwunife’s letter sought to override her earlier instructions to these companies namely: M.R.S oil and Gas, Globin oil and Gas limited, Bond Energy, and Greenage Energy Limited.
This led to the arrest and arraignment of the former banker and Structured Energy Limited on an 8 count charge on February 19, 2018 by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, (EFCC)
The EFCC alleged that Ekwunife, at different times in 2014, stole the said sum of N168.5m from, M.R.S oil and Gas, Exit Energy limited, Globin oil and Gas limited, Bond Energy, Greenage Energy Limited – all properties of Nepal Oil and Gas Limited owned by Mrs Ngozi Ekeoma.
The anti graft agency further alleged that the defendant stole the money in tranches of N19m, N9m, N85m, N25m and N6.5m sometimes in August, October and November, 2014 from the complainant, Nepal Oil and Gas limited.
The case of the prosecution:
The five companies belonging to the businesswoman, Mrs Ekeoma, told the court, that they paid the alleged sums to the defendant based on the initial instruction stated on the contract of sales signed by Nepal oil and Gas.
According to Ude Umanta, the first prosecution witness (PW1) who testified on behalf of Nepal oil and Gas, the defendant wrote an overriding letter to the companies, using Nepal’s letterhead paper, instructing them to pay the sums due to Nepal oil into his company’s account, Structured Energy.
Umanta said that the letter sought to override an earlier letter of instruction written and signed by the Managing Director of Nepal, Mrs Ekeoma to the companies.
Umanta, while led in evidence by EFCC Counsel, S.O Daji, told the court that the defendant was a salary earner, who was employed in 2012 and worked as the Group Head of Business Development and Strategy at Nepal oil and Gas.
Umanta, a company Secretary and legal advisor to Nepal oil and Gas limited, said that the defendant was senior member of the Management and was therefore paid the sum of N400, 000 per month as salary, including other entitled bonuses (but at the sole discretion of the Managing Director) like every other staff.
According to him, “bonuses were paid at the beginning of the year against the previous year. And the defendants schedule of duties included writing business proposals to companies, generating businesses, and managing customer relationship with other companies.
“Ekwunife followed up with transactions and could literarily been seen as the face of the company. But On June 14, 2016, a petition bothering on diversion of company’s (Nepal Oil and Gas) funds was written to the EFCC by M.A Banire and Partners.
“Sometime in 2014, Nepal Oil and Gas supplied petroleum products to three companies namely Bond Energy, Greenage Energy Limited and Globin Energy Ltd. Bond Energy received products to the tune of N139m and paid the sum of N120m, while N19.4m remained outstanding.
“Greenage Energy received products too with N9m still outstanding. And, Globin Energy received products worth N39.2m and nothing was paid in return.
“However, the defendant resigned his employment in July 8, 2015. Upon his resignation, the accounts and relationships that were managed by him were also handed over to a new set of people, who later discovered that the sum of N19.4m by Bond Energy, N9m by Greenage and N39.2m by Globin were all diverted by the defendant into his own company’s account, Structured Energy.
“The cumulative amount was N67, 598, 000. The company continued to investigate some of the accounts and discovered again that in June 2016, the sum of N85m from a total sum of N178m due from MRS Oil and Gas LTD to Nepal was also diverted.
“The defendant wrote a letter with Nepal’s letterhead to MRS Oil and Gas to the pay the said amount into Structured
Energy. The letter sought to override an earlier letter written and signed by MD of Nepal. It was this discovery that triggered the petition written by Banire Partners and the defendant was arrested and detained.
“Also, in the course of investigation, the EFCC found out that a further sum of N6, 500, 000 due from Exit Energy to Nepal Oil and Gas was diverted. The diversion was made in three trenches: N3m, N2m and N1.5m”.
However during cross examination by the defence Counsel, Eubena Amedie Esq, the witness said he wasn’t sure if any money has been paid back to Nepal after the alleged diversion was discovered.
“The value of the PMS sold to Bond Energy is N139.4m and they paid about N120. I don’t know if the outstanding of N19.4m has been paid back. I am more concerned with the diversion than if any money had been paid after recovery,” he said.
When asked to look at page 286 of the proof of evidence containing the letter date January 20, 2017 written by him (Umanta) to the EFCC requesting for repatriation of funds paid by Bond Energy in connection with the case, the witness replied: “Bond Energy refunded some money of the alleged diverted fund through the EFCC and informed us and we met to access the money.
“And Yes the document emanated from us. After the matter was reported, the EFCC called Bond Energy who had aided in parting with money belonging to Nepal Oil Service Ltd to Structured Energy”.
When asked if his company wrote a letter to Globin demanding for payment, the witness said, “we wrote to Globin demanding the sum of N39.2m but nothing was paid”.
When asked how Nepal sourced for the products it supplied to Globin and Bond Energy, Umanta replied, ” I am not in the operations department so I cannot tell the court how they are sourced. But they are legally sourced”.
The defence Counsel further asked, “did you submit any such document to the prosecution showing source of the products?”
The witness replied, “a lot of documents were supplied and I can’t remember which is which”.
“Are you aware your company was selling illegal products,” the defence Counsel asked and the witness replied that he wasn’t aware.
When asked how much Nepal has recovered from these companies, Umanta replied, ” I don’t know how much we have received. I have not taken time to calculate the sum paid”.
A representative from MRS Oil and Gas:
Another prosecution witness, one Moyosola Kuku, an employee of MRS Oil and Gas, testified that he met the defendant in March 2013 when his company consummated a transaction for the supply of 30,000 metric tons of gasoline.
Kuku evidence revealed that he has worked in MRS Oil and Gas for 11 years in different capacities such as; Head of Retail Sales, Head of Marketing and Sales, Supply and Trading department.
While led in evidence by the prosecution, Kuku said: “the defendant was introduced to MRS Oil as a representative of Nepal oil and Gas to handle the sales of gasoline to MRS oil. On March 11, 2013 Nepal sent a sales contract for the supply of 30,000 tonnes of gasoline while we accepted it on March 13.
“The delivery of the gasoline was done and in April, 2013 we paid for the gasoline under the terms of contract. We paid as per depot price. The PPPRA element of the price which is the differential between the landed price of the product and the sale price which Nepal had sold to us which is the ex-depot price was paid to Nepal on October 11, 2013 as per their instruction.
“The product payment was done in April 26, 2013. Later, we received an instruction from Nepal on June 2, 2015 to pay the Forex differentials and interest in late payment. That amount was paid on June 3, 2015.
“But on May 11, 2016, I received two emails from Nepal asking for their balance on the Forex differentials and interest. I went to the finance department to find out the status of the payment. I did that because Mrs Ngozi Ekeoma, the MD of Nepal had been calling and seeking my assistance.
“So the finance department checked on SAP and the payment details showed that we have paid the sum of N177m to Nepal. I thereafter requested for evidence of payment from finance and on June 8, 2018 I replied Nepal attaching their instruction and advising them that payment has been made to them, as per attached instruction.
“But they replied attaching an instruction dated March 18, 2015 stating that the had only received N85m and that we owe them a balance of N89m. At this point, I spoke to Mrs Ekeoma and advised her that we had paid.
“Our legal department thereafter asked for the file to review the case from inception and highlighted that the payment made to Nepal in October 11, 2013 reads: N2.7 billion to Nepal Oil and Gas, and N25m to Structured Energy”.
The employee further added that, “Nepal’s legal team later wrote us demanding a balance of N89m and our legal advised them that MRS had simply followed the instructions of Nepal letter dated June 2, 2015 and October 11, 2013”.
Also, another prosecution witness, a compliance officer with Zenith bank, Eyiwoyo Mogbeyiterem, testified that he does not know the defendant but came to court sequel to a letter to the bank by the EFCC requesting account information of two of its customers: Chukwuemeka Ekwunife and Structured Energy.
The two account statements of the both the defendant and Structured Energy were tendered in evidence, while witness identified the different transactions in the accounts as highlighted by the prosecution.
But, however, during cross examination by the defence lawyer, Amedie, the witness was asked if there was any reason tagged or given for the transactions and he replied, “No purpose was attached”.
MD of Bond Global Energy:
Another witness who testified for the prosecution, one Olatunde Docemo, told the court that he doesn’t know the defendant but came to testify as a witness in a transaction that transpired between his company and Nepal in 2014 which became a problem.
Docemo, an accountant and MD of Bond Global Energy, testified that” in 2016, when Nepal took the case to EFCC, I was not there when it happened but I was invited because of my current position as Managing Director.
“The case relates to sales of Jet A1 Aviation turbine kero. The defendant approached our company for sale of the product sometime in 2014 and gave instructions on the payment and collections of products.
“From our records, we had finished paying but there was a contentious amount in the sum of N19.8m which the defendant instructed us at the beginning of the transaction to pay into a nominated account.
“That was the same amount Nepal claimed that we had not paid them. The N19.8m was, incidentally, the 1st payment of the transaction and it was paid to the account nominated by the defendant.
“The transaction of the N19.8m was paid by Bond’s sister company called Broogham Oil and Gas. We instructed our sister company to make the payment as per the instruction of the defendant towards the transaction”.
During cross examination, the witness said that the instruction to pay the said amount was made via a telephone communications.
When asked how he knew the defendant gave the instructions, he said “I was invited to EFCC, I had no knowledge and I told them. But I promised to investigate the matter. I had to go through the records and was briefed by the schedule officer, Miss Ezinne Obioha, who left the company in 2018”.
When asked by the defence, “Do you have any letter or note or anything showing order to Bond Energy to pay into any account?
Docemo replied, “I am not sure of the records before the court. The information I had, as in practice, is that a supplier could nominate a payee and what the customer looks for is receiving value for whatever payment he made. This is the practice in the industry”.
The witness was further asked if he had any proof that Broogham paid the money on behalf of Bond Energy and he replied, “I don’t have it here but I assume there are records”.
MD of Greenage Energy:
The MD of Greenage, Henry Alakhume, who also testified for the prosecution, said that he knows the defendant in respect to the transaction between his company and Nepal.
According to him, “Sometime in 2014, my company needed to buy 3million litres of aviation fuel and we were informed by Daniel Oniko, that we could buy from Nepal. That was when I met Mr Emeka. We had discussions and agreed at the price of N130/litre at the time, which came to N390m.
“Before complete payment, we were informed by Emeka to make payment of N9m to his account. Thereafter we made payment to the account of Nepal Oil and Gas in the tune of N381m. After that, everything was completed until in 2016 when we were invited by the EFCC based on a petition by Nepal that we had underpaid them.
“Thereafter we told the EFCC we had paid in full with the sum of N381m to Nepal and N9m to Mr Emeka based on the instruction. But as peace loving citizens, we still made a draft of N9m to Nepal for the short fall; which was tantamount to paying N9m twice. These were the facts as at August 2014.
“The request was compiled with the letter headed paper of Nepal Oil and Gas and I believe it was signed by Mr Emeka and the Chief Finance Officer, one Mr Ugochukuwu”.
When asked, during cross examination, by the Defence Counsel, if he had the offer letter for the said transaction, the witness said he could not remember.
The witness further added that there was a fire incident in their office in 2015 and they could no longer find any letter regarding the transaction.
The testimony of the defence:
But the former banker, in his defence, told the court that the alleged monies were paid by these companies as commissions and bonuses for the said transactions.
The defendant, while led in evidence by his Counsel, Amedie, said “All the funds they alleged I stole were bonuses and commission paid into my account at the verbal instruction of the MD of Nepal; and written instruction signed by the company Chief Finance Officer (CFO)”.
The defendant insisted that the company CFO was not called as a witness to deny his signature on the instruction to MRS Oil & Gas Limited for payment neither was his statement presented to the court.
“The EFCC did not arrest the Chief Finance Officer or charge him for issuing such instruction clearly showing that it is WITCH-HUNT.
“From the petition of Nepal to EFCC through a law firm, they clearly stated that payment instructions are signed by the Managing Director and the Chief Finance Officer in the absence of the MD. The Chief Finance Officer signed the instruction for payment to MRS Oil & Gas Limited in addition to the verbal instruction of the MD.
“Principal officers of Greenage Energy and Bond Energy were brought to Prosecution Witnesses. Nepal sold Dual Purpose Kerosene from NNPC as Jet-fuel to these companies with all documentation including Bill of lading, Certificate of quality arranged by me.
“Monies were paid by the companies to my account for the documentation and commission. Other trade documents were involved including sale and offer letter. The Prosecution witnesses did not present any document to support the trade between them and Nepal on Jetfuel.
“They did not present operational document to show how the petroleum product was loaded out of the depot. I was not in charge of operations and how products are released but none of Nepal’s operational personnel was called upon to give testimony on how petroleum products were loaded at the depot upon payment.
“I could not have issued sole instruction and loaded product on my own when I am not in charge of operation. Operations department of Nepal is responsible for marine and depot receipt and loading of petroleum products with release instruction from finance department. I am not in charge of any the department mentioned. Greenage Energy and Bond Energy paid money into my account for commission and documentation of conversion and sale of Dual Purpose Kerosene from NNPC as Jetfuel.
“The Prosecution Witnesses could not present documents when cross examined by my lawyer. They claimed the documents were cut in a fire outbreak in their respective offices,” he said.
In his further evidence before the court, the defendant narrated how he met the business woman, Mrs Ekeoma.
According to his testimony, ” I met the MD of Nepal Oil & Gas, Mrs. Ngozi Ekeoma through a mutual friend, Mr. Abdullahi Alao. Mrs. Ekeoma had heard about me in Sterling Bank, then I was a credit relationship manager with Sterling Bank. She wanted me to package a loan for her company Nepal Oil & Gas Services Limited.
“I structured several credit facilities for her companies including Nepal Oil, Carnival Energy Oil & Gas Limited. I helped her company a lot in the area of petroleum product trading under the Federal Government Subsidy Scheme in documentation and relationship with other key players in the downstream sector of the oil and gas industry.
“At some point I informed her about my resignation from Sterling Bank and starting my own business. She pleaded with me to join her company which at that time had a lot of issues on documentation for all trades carried out under the Petroleum Subsidy Scheme. Mrs. Ekeoma and her husband Elder Eme Ekeoma introduced me to one Mr. Anthony Abraham (who was a subpoenad witness in court). Mr Anthony Abraham was then a General Manager Operations with FiBank Liberia.
“I travelled to Liberia to establish three companies namely Dexter Oil Limited, Ritrak Supply and Trading Limited and Gulf Trading and Supply Limited for the sole purpose of documentation and round-tripping of US Dollars from the CBN.
“The arrangement I had with Mrs. Ekeoma was that of consultancy handling Business Development in Nepal, Managing Director of Structured Energy Resources Limited, Dexter Oil Limited, Ritrak Trading and Supply Limited and Gulf Trading and Supply Limited among other things. Because of the nature of the job I was taking a lot of verbal instruction from Mrs. Ngozi Ekeoma.
“I ran transactions with the above companies on behalf of Mrs. Ekeoma totaling over USD 60million in Nigeria and Liberia”.
Speaking further in his defence, Ekwunife said, “I helped Mr and Mrs Ekeoma register several companies in Liberia to enable her carry out various importation of petroleum products particularly Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), under the petroleum scheme fund (subsidy scheme) with the FG.
“These companies were used at various times to carry out trading and documentations related to subsidy by the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“We produced supporting documents like Bill of Laden, the recertification of products, the certificate of quality and certificate of Origin.
“These documentation were done outside the shores of Nigeria and used for trades that never happened in Nigeria. The documentation were done in Liberia for trades that were not live (feasible).
“We (referring to himself and Mrs Ngozi Ekeoma) used these documentations to carry out fraudulent activities by using documents formulated outside the country to perform trade in Nigeria that were not suppose to happen
Also the defence called a witness, one Mr Anthony Abraham, who testified in their favour.
The witness, who is a Financial Consultant, told the court that there exist a relationship between the former banker, and Mrs Ngozi Ekeoma, in an alleged subsidy fraud that took place in Liberia and Nigeria in 2014.
Corroborating the earlier testimony of the defendant, Mr Abraham said that he met Ekwunife in Liberia when he came to open accounts and register some companies.
Mr Abraham told the court that he was introduced to Ekwunife by a former client and a friend, who he claimed not to remember his/her identity.
The Financial consultant said that had known Mrs Ekeoma Ngosi as a friend long before he knew Ekwunife, who he only met while he was working in Liberia with a bank, First International bank.
The witness, while being led in evidence by the defence counsel, Amedie, said, ” I was working in Liberia with a bank called First International Bank when I met the defendant, Chukwuemeka Ekwunife.
”He came to do business in Liberia with intentions of opening accounts and registering some companies. If I recall, He was introduced to me by a former client and friend of mine, who I can’t really remember”.
When asked if that friend was Mrs Ngozi Ekeoma, the witness said he can’t remember.
However, the defence Counsel showed a document, containing several emails of transactions which he sent to Ekwunife and copied Mr and Mrs Ekeoma, to the witness and asked him to identify it.
The witness identified the emails and said, “Yes I sent these mails to Tochukwu71@yahoo.com (belonging to Ekwunife) and I copied three others namely; Ekeoma_Eme@hotmail.com (belonging to Mr Ekeoma), Ibeyanma72@yahoo.co.uk. (belong to Mrs Ngozi Ekeoma) and U firstname.lastname@example.org (belonging to Mr Ugochukwu Onwuegbuna).
” The emails were sent as a result of transactions in an account, Dexter Oil Limited, which was opened by Mr Emeka in Liberia and the account was opened with the same name.
“After it was opened, I wasn’t the direct account officer but an officer was assigned. Though I had an overview of the transactions. The account received both inflows and outflows. Mr Emeka was the sole signatory of the account and instructions would normally come from him to run the account.
“I was asked to copy Mr Ugochukwu, who is also a Director in Dexter just as Ekwunife, and then copy both Mr and Mrs Ekeoma in each mail”.
When asked how he knew Mrs Ekeoma, he replied, ” I’ve known her for many years – long before I met Ekwunife. I’ve never had any business transactions with Ngozi before I met Ekwunife. But Mrs Ngozi Ekeoma has a relationship with the defendant, Ekwunife “.
When asked why he copied Mrs Ekeoma if there was no business relationship, the Consultant replied, “I was asked to copy these people and I literarily don’t know all of them”.