by Ben Ezeamalu
A former Nigerian Aviation Minister, Femi Fani-Kayode, arrived the premises of the Federal High Court in Lagos, Wednesday, accompanied by a contingent of armed police officers, despite being under prosecution by the federal government for money laundering.
The former minister is facing a two-count charge of money laundering before Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia.
He was recently appointed the Director of Media and Publicity of the Goodluck/Sambo Presidential Campaign Organization. Although he serves on the president’s campaign team, Mr. Fani-Kayode is currently not recognised as a public official by Nigerian laws.
Unlike in the past when, as a member of the opposition All Progressives Congress, APC, he made his court appearances virtually unaccompanied; Mr. Fani-Kayode now arrives the court premises accompanied by armed police officers and State Security Services, SSS, officers.
On Wednesday, half a dozen armed police officers leapt out of a trailing patrol van as Mr. Fani-Kayode arrived the court premises, with one hurrying to open his car door.
Kola Olapoju, a defence witness, told the court, during cross examination, that Mr. Fani-Kayode in 2006 requested for N1 million to “urgently” offset debts despite having over N8 million in his bank account.
Mr. Olapoju, the administrator of the Fani-Kayodes’ estate, said that he was instructed by the ex-minister to release the money for the payment of artisans who had renovated his property.
“That wasn’t the first time the accused (Mr. Fani-Kayode) will be calling (on the phone) for money,” Mr. Olapoju, the first defence witness, said during cross examination, noting that the transaction was “unusual and exceptional.”
“Most of the time monies were requested for projects or for relatives or other beneficiaries and those were to be disbursed directly. And the few instances where he had to use the money, I’d have to pay either into his account, give to a staff, or use as appropriately directed.”
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission had initially instituted a 47-count charge amounting to N230 million against the defendant, later pruning it down to 40 counts of N100 million.
Last November, the judge dismissed 38 out of the 40 counts – leaving the prosecution to dwell on why Mr. Fani-Kayode received about N2.2 million “without going through a financial institution.”
On Tuesday, the judge ordered the EFCC to release the former minister’s international passport seized by the commission following an order by Justice Ramat Mohammed when the trial started in December 2008.
Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia is the third judge to handle the matter since then.
Mr. Olapoju said that in 2005, when Mr. Fani-Kayode joined the government of then President Olusegun Obasanjo, regular communications with him was “no longer as easy as it used to be.”
He said that Mr. Fani-Kayode asked him to “urgently” provide funds from tenants of their estate to pay the artisans.
“He called me by phone for money to pay artisans renovating the building,” Mr. Olapoju, who said he had been managing the Fani-Kayodes’ account for 14 years, said.
“To avoid delay of the money, I went out of my way to demand a cheque be prepared in my name, to save more time.
“After the second payment, about two weeks after, the accused (Mr. Fani-Kayode) called to enquire if the money had been paid.”
According to the witness, he deposited the first tranche of money – N1 million – on September 21, 2006, and the second payment – N1.1 million – was made eight days later.
“I had the instructions of the accused’s Chief of Staff to remit the money. In fact, by the time I took the latter one he informed me the artisans had been paid,” said the witness who added that he had a “standing instruction” from Mr. Fani-Kayode.
“For two weeks, they did not tell the accused money had been paid into his account.”
But the witness said he was unaware his client’s bank account contained far more money that he was depositing for the payment of the artisans.
He also said that he gave the cash to one Supo Agbaje to pay into Mr. Fani-Kayode’s account but was not aware if Mr. Agbaje paid the money because he dropped him off outside the bank on his way to the airport.
The EFCC said Mr. Agbaje, then Personal Assistant to Mr. Fani-Kayode, is now at large.
Aderemi Ajidahun, the second defence witness, told the court that Mr. Olapoju had arrived at the accused’s office with cash for his boss.
Mr. Ajidahun, who was Mr. Fani-Kayode’s Chief of Staff during the latter’s tenure as a minister, said they were childhood friends.
“One day around that time (in 2006), he (Mr. Olapoju) walked into my office and said he wanted to see the accused. I told him he was not around, in fact, he was not in Nigeria. He told me he had some funds for the accused.
“The accused does not handle money. I told him to go deposit in the bank. He said he was in a rush. At that point I called Agbaje and asked him to follow him to the bank and pay the money into the bank.
On September 29, Mr. Ajidahun said he received another call from Mr. Olapoju informing him he was in their office with cash for the accused.
“Again, the accused, and myself, was not in the office. I asked him to call Agbaje who assisted him the other time to go pay the money into the bank.”
The judge adjourned the trial to March 26 for the defence’s third witness.