One of Nigeria’s richest men, Oba Otudeko who is chairman of Honeywell Group on Wednesday, appeared in court shielded by stern looking security men who wrapped themselves around him to prevent journalists from taking his pictures.
Mr. Otudeko had been summoned by the Federal High Court In Ikoyi, Lagos to testify in a N5.5 billion debt lawsuit involving Honeywell Flour Mills Plc and its sister companies – Anchorage Leisures Ltd and Siloam Global Ltd.
But after leaving the witness box, Mr. Otudeko, could not leave immediately the courtroom as journalists besieged him making efforts to interview him or take photos and videos.
As his aides marched alongside him out of the courtroom, the sight of a TV camera sent them scurrying back to the rear of the building to exit through the back gate but the cameraman had raced just in time to meet them there. The Honeywell boss and his group beat a quick retreat and stood at a safe distance from cameramen. At some point during the drama, some of the personal guards who followed him kept asking photojournalists; “Why are you doing this?” as they frantically tried to move him out of the building.
A mild scuffle was averted after one of the aides lunged at a cameraman in a bid to force the cameraman to stop recording the scene.
An earlier overture to the court’s security guards to allow Mr. Otudeko’s driver pull up inside the court compound was turned down. While standing in the witness box and making his opening statement before the judge, the business mogul said it was a “first experience for me and I’m delighted to be here, to see all you in professional practice.” Mr. Otudeko’s companies and Ecobank Nigeria Ltd are embroiled in a N5.5billion debt allegedly owed the bank.
On Wednesday, O.A Divine, counsel to Ecobank, told Justice Mohammed Idris that Mr. Otudeko had repeatedly ignored court summons to appear and testify before the court. Addressing the court on Thursday, Mr. Otudeko denied receiving any court summons.
Counsel to Mr. Otudeko, Mr. Olabode Olanipekun, said the witness, had adopted his statement and that they were ready to proceed. However, when Mr. Divine asked the witness to introduce himself and state his occupation and qualifications, Mr. Olanipekun objected to “that line of questioning.” He said the defendant’s counsel’s right during his examination-in-chief is limited to adoption of the witness’s statement. “In objecting, I refer Your Lordship to the subpoena issued by this court on the application of the defendant. That subpoena was issued by the defendant and it requested the witness to give evidence on behalf of the defendant,” Mr. Olanipekun said.
“If I may backtrack a little bit, the precursor was an application filed in April 2017 praying the court for an additional witness. So the witness is the witness of the defendant.” But Mr. Divine argued that in normal cases where witnesses are not subpoenaed, the party calling the witness has the unfettered right to question the witness. He said he was served the witness’s written statement on oath on Thursday morning and had not been afforded the opportunity to look at it. “The witness in question is our witness. The question I put to the witness being an introductory question is allowed under the law, where he lives, works, his qualifications” Mr. Divine said. “To that extent, I submit that the objection to my line of questioning is preemptory.”
But the judge sustained the plaintiff’s objection and told the defendant’s lawyer to lead the witness to adopt his statement after which he would undergo cross-examination and re-examination.
Following the judge’s ruling, Mr. Divine insisted he would not lead Mr. Otudeko to adopt his statement and objected to a move by his lawyer to cross-examine him. “We have gotten what we want and we do not want to lead the witness anymore. We hereby apply for his discharge,” Mr. Divine said. But Mr. Olanipekun made repeated efforts at cross-examining Mr. Otudeko to prove that Ecobank’s managing director was present at a meeting where it was agreed that his client’s company would pay N3.5 billion out of the N5.5 billion debt allegedly owed the bank as “full and final payment of the indebtedness.” But the lawyer continued to insist that a witness whose statement was not adopted in court could not be cross-examined.
The judge adjourned further hearing of the matter till February 14.