The chairman of Nigeria's ruling party has been arraigned on charges that he tried to defraud the federal government of more than $1 million. The party is already divided by calls for electoral reform ahead of next year's nationwide vote.
Ruling party chairman Vincent Ogbulafor was arraigned on a 16-count indictment by Nigeria's Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission alleging that he was part of a conspiracy to steal public funds through phony contracts in 2001.
Defense counsel Chris Uche told reporters outside Abuja's high court that the charges against Ogulafor and his co-defendants are politically motivated.
"We are expecting and waiting for the prosecution to bring their witnesses, tender [them] into court and then we will cross-examine them," he said. "So we are preparing. We have our own strategies because we have interviewed our clients, and we know that they did not commit the offenses as charged. So we are quite prepared to defend them."
Uche was pleased that the court granted a liberal bail without requiring defendants to produce any land titles or traditional rulers.
"So it is a simple thing that they sign and they will be allowed to go and prepare for their trial. We are happy because that is how it ought to be in a democracy," he said. "You can not use bail to punish an innocent person until he has been found guilty. We know as far as the law is concerned, all these things are mere allegations."
Prosecutors say Ogbulafor sought to use his position as a minister of economy in the presidency to pass more than $1 million worth of fraudulent contracts through a contract verification process controlled by the National Economic Intelligence Committee.
Ogbulafor did not speak to reporters following his arraignment. But when the charges were first announced, he assured party leaders that he is innocent of any undue influence because that committee was a separate government agency with its own chairman.
"I was not a member of the committee," said Ogbulafor. "I never attended their meetings even for once. More so, decisions were solely made by them. My role was limited to accompanying them to the presidency to present their reports. I know that these allegations are politically motivated, and I am absolutely sure that justice will be done and I will be vindicated."
It is a contentious time for the ruling party chairman. He suspended more than a dozen leading members of the People's Democratic Party last month for insisting on changes to the way the party chooses its nominees.
The party's so-called reform forum wants a more transparent process that would weaken the political influence of powerful state governors.
With last week's death of President Umaru Yar'Adua, Ogbulafor now chairs a party that is led by a man who he says should not be its next nominee.
President Goodluck Jonathan is from southern Nigeria. Ogbulafor says the party should honor an informal regional power sharing deal that gives a northern politician the opportunity to run next year for what would have been President Yar'Adua's second term. But there is no law preventing President Jonathan from running, and he has not ruled out doing so.
Party reformers want Ogbulafor dismissed as chairman because of the corruption charges. So far neither President Jonathan nor any members of the party's National Working Committee have spoken publicly about his future.
The trial is scheduled to begin June 21.