The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on Wednesday arraigned a former Minister of Power and Steel, Olu Agunloye, on corruption charges concerning a failed multi-billion-dollar Mambilla Hydropower project.
Mr Agunloye, 75, was arraigned on seven counts of fraudulent award of contract and official corruption at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court, Apo, Abuja.
He pleaded not guilty to all the seven counts preferred against him.
Mr Agunloye entered his plea when the counts were read to him before the trial judge, J.O. Onwuegbuzie, on Wednesday.
The judge ordered his remand in a correction centre pending the hearing of his bail application scheduled to take place Thursday.
In one of the seven counts filed by the EFCC, the commission accused him of awarding a contract in May 2003 for the construction of 3,960 megawatts (mw) Mambilla Hydroelectric Power Station on a ‘Build, Operate and Transfer basis’ “without any budgetary provision, approval and cash backing”.
EFCC said the award of the contract to Sunrise Power and Transmission Company Limited (SPTCL) constituted an offence contrary to and punishable under Section 22(4) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000.
It also charged Mr Agunloye with corruptly receiving N3.6 million from Sunrise Power company in August 2019, years after leaving office, for the purported approval of the federal government for the award of the contract to the company.
EFCC said this act is also contrary to and punishable under Section 8(1)(a) and (b) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000.
The prosecuting counsel, Abba Muhammed, prayed the court for a trial date and Mr Agunloye’s remand in a correctional centre after the defendant entered his plea, a statement by EFCC’s spokesperson, Dele Oyewale, said in a statement issued after the proceedings on Wednesday.
But defence counsel, Adeola Adedipe, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), informed the court that he had filed a bail application for the defendant. He urged the court to remand the former minister to EFCC, instead of a correctional centre, pending the hearing of his bail application.
Ruling on the issue, the judge ordered that the defendant be remanded in Kuje Correctional Centre and set Thursday for the hearing of the bail application.
EFCC, in December 2023, declared Mr Agunloye wanted over a case of alleged corruption and forgery.
Mr Agunloye surrendered himself for interrogation on 13 December, a day after he was declared wanted by the commission over corruption allegations regarding a failed multi-billion-dollar Mambilla Hydropower project.
While he was still in detention, it was reported that the EFCC was set to file charges against the former minister in court.
An associate of the former minister, Oluwafisan Bankale, also wrote in a statement at the time that Mr Agunloye was “neither in hiding nor on the run.”
Assuring friends and members of the general public who might be worried about Mr Agunloye’s whereabouts and his safety, Mr Bankale said “he is in the custody of the EFCC and cooperating with them.”
He also vouched for the integrity of the former minister.
Mr Agunloye, last year, spoke about his investigation by the EFCC, denying wrongdoing concerning the award and the execution of the contract for the stalled multi-billion-dollar Mambilla Hydropower project.
He confirmed in his statement then that he had been detained and interrogated by the EFCC over the case.
His comments last September on the issue were in response to a fraud allegation former President Olusegun Obasanjo, under whom he served as minister, levelled against him in an interview with TheCable newspaper concerning the project.
Mr Obasanjo, in the interview, accused the erstwhile minister of fraudulently awarding the contract for the multi-billion-naira Mambilla Hydropower Project without the approval of the Federal Executive Council.
The project, first awarded in 2003 to Sunrise Power and Transmission Limited by the Obasanjo administration, is the subject of decades of a legal dispute that is now under international arbitration between the company and the Nigerian government.
Mr Obasanjo, in distancing himself from the mess that the project has become, claimed that he was not aware that the contract was awarded by his then-minister, Mr Agunloye.
Alleging fraud in the contract award, Mr Obasanjo insisted that no minister in his administration had the power to award a contract beyond N25 million.
But in his reply, Mr Agunloye refuted Mr Obasanjo’s claim and denied any wrongdoing.
He said he was being picked on as the fall guy for the government’s mishandling of the project, while those who were responsible for it were left off the hook.
According to Mr Agunloye, the contract for the project was duly awarded in 2003 by the Obasanjo administration on a Build, Operate and Transfer basis to deliver Nigeria’s biggest power plant with over 3,000 megawatts capacity at no cost to the Nigerian government.
The project was expected to significantly boost electricity to address the shortage of energy in the country.
“The former president was not correct when he referred to the award to Sunrise simply as a $6 billion contract (that is, N800 billion in 2003) under his watch. In truth, it was a Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) contract in which the FGN did not need to pay any amount to the contractor, Messrs Sunrise Power and Transmission Company Limited (Sunrise).
Mr Agunloye said following the termination of the contract, the company sued the Nigerian government before an international arbitration court where it is claiming that the termination of the contract was illegal.