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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Former BPE boss relieved of contempt conviction by court

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The Federal High Court in Abuja has relieved a former Director-General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), Alex Okoh, of a contempt conviction resulting from the agency’s disobedience to a Supreme Court order.

Donatus Okorowo, the judge, on 5 April, vacated the earlier order issued by Anwuli Chikere (now retired judge of the court) citing Mr Okoh for contempt in December 2019.

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Mr Okorowo’s decision reversing Mr Okoh’s conviction followed BPE making a U-turn by committing to comply with the Supreme Court order at the heart of the contempt case.

The Supreme Court had issued the order stopping the BPE and its leadership from further negotiating to sell, transfer or hand over the Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria (ALSCON) Ltd, Ikot-Abasi, Akwa Ibom State, to any person in violation of the contract it struck with BFI Group Corporation in the 2000s. But successive Directors-General of BPE had refused to comply with the order.

The disobedience to the Supreme Court order led to BFI Group initiating contempt proceedings against the BPE and Mr Okoh.

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In its ruling on the contempt charge in December 2019, the Federal High Court in Abuja cited Mr Okoh for contempt and sentenced him to one month in prison.

But following a recent agreement by parties on compliance with the Supreme Court order, Mr Okoh’s lawyer, J.O Adesina, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), on 12 March 2024, filed an application for the reversal of the contempt order against him.

The lawyer prayed the court to discharge the applicant; the BFI Group, represented at the proceedings by Patrick Ikwueto, also a SAN, opted not to object to the request.

In his ruling on 5 April, the judge, Mr Okorowo, said given the agreement between lawyers to the parties, he was inclined to vacate the court’s earlier order citing Mr Okoh for contempt and jailing him for one month.

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The judge, however, ordered that the contemnors – Mr Okoh and BPE – must abide by the Supreme Court judgement.

“It is further ordered that in the light of the submission of judgement creditor/respondent counsel and to uphold the majesty of the court in particular the decision of the apex court (Supreme Court) on the entire judgment that led to the contempt proceedings that BPE is duty bound to continue to fully abide by the order handed down by the Supreme Court in appeal number SC/12/2004 by satisfying the said judgment,” a copy of the enrolled order seen by PREMIUM TIMES on Wednesday, read in part.

Background

PREMIUM TIMES reported that a five-member panel of the Supreme Court had in January upheld the lower courts’ decisions citing Mr Okoh for contempt.

It said there was incontrovertible evidence that the BPE and Mr Okoh disobeyed an earlier order of the Supreme Court stopping the agency from selling the Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria (ALSCON) Ltd to any other person or group except the BFI Group Corporation that won the first bid advertised in 2004.

The court said BPE’s decision to further re-offer ALSCON for sale after the Supreme Court judgment was a flagrant disregard for the court, a contemptuous act.

However, Mr Okoh, who was sacked from office in January, had argued that he was not the Director-General of the bureau at the time the contract was struck between 2004 and 2006 with the BFI Group.

He was appointed CEO of BPE on 13 April 2017, five years after the said ruling of the Supreme Court, and was relieved of the position on 8 January 2024, three weeks before the contempt ruling of 26 January 2024.

In its determination to execute the Supreme Court judgment, the BFI Group filed a judgment enforcement suit before the Federal High Court in Abuja.

In a decision on 30 September 2014, the Federal High Court in Abuja handed down an enforcement order, which BPE objected to and appealed.

On its part, the appellate court varied the enforcement order issued by the Federal High Court, but insisted that the judgment of the Supreme Court must be enforced.

It ordered the BPE to provide the mutually agreed Share Purchase Agreement for execution.

However, the BPE and the BFI Group could not find a middle ground on how to execute the SPA, with the BPE objecting to some documents annexed to the SPA.

The BFI Group subsequently initiated contempt proceedings against the BPE and Mr Okoh at the Federal High Court in Abuja.

In December 2019, the Federal High Court found the BPE and Mr Okoh guilty of contempt of court and sentenced Mr Okoh to imprisonment for one month until he purged himself of the act of contempt.

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