Justice Clemence Honyenuga has said he “over-tolerated” the cross-examination of witnesses by the defence lawyers of ex-CEO of Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) Dr Stephen Opuni and businessman Seidu Agongo, in the course of their prosecution by the state for causing financial loss to the state.
In a back-and-forth argument with Mr Nutifafa Nutsukui, who held brief for Mr Benson Nutsukpui, counsel for Mr Agongo and his firm Agricult Company Limited (Second and Third Accused Persons) on Thursday, 17 March 2022, Justice Honynuga, who is a Supreme Court judge sitting with additional responsibility as a High Court judge on the matter, asked: “How long will it take you to cross-examine DW1?”
“A minimum of four sittings”, Mr Nutsukpui answered, arguing: “My Lord, this is somebody who’s been on the Board for eight years and because of his various roles, we believe that he’s key; the person that we could get some of the evidence from, so, considering he testified in chief for about five sittings … my Lord, we would have thought that in the minimum, at least four sittings”.
Justice Honyenuga then said, “No”, insisting: “I’m going to give you two sittings”.
Asked by Justice Honyenuga if he was going to cross-examine the defence witness on every word of his evidence-in-chief, Mr Nutsupkui responded: “My Lord, [in] our previous work in this court, we have not abused the process of cross-examination”.
Justice Honyenuga, however, disagreed, saying: “Yes, and that is the advantage you are taking of the whole situation. Yes, that is the advantage because I was so liberal, gave you a lot of time; you could cross-examine for months, you do this and that and that is the advantage you are taking now”.
“Yes, you are taking advantage of it?”, the judge emphasised, adding: “If I had limited you right from the word go: cross-examination, one day, you’re to finish; if you don’t finish, well, that is it; through the cross-examination two days, three days, if you were to finish, that would have been it but I tolerated, I over-tolerated all of you; yes, especially if you’ll be frank to yourselves, I over-tolerated you, especially defence counsel. Yes”.
The First Defence Witness (DW1) in the five-year-old case is Mr Charles Tetteh Dodoo, who served on the Board of the state-owned cocoa-buying company from June 2009 to December 2016.
He testified in defence of the First Accused Person, Dr Stephen Opuni and was led in his evidence-in-chief by Mr Samuel Cudjoe.
Meanwhile, during the same sitting at the Criminal Division of the Accra High Court, the witness told the court: “I am not aware” the Second and Third Accused Persons “influenced” the “review” and subsequent approval of COCOBOD’s 2013/2014 budget, which also contained the state-run firm’s procurement programme for that year.
This was his response to a direct question from Mr Nutsukpui, about whether the witness knew if his clients influenced COCOBOD’s budgeting processes for the year under question.
Mr Agongo, Agricult and ex-CEO of COCOBOD, Dr Stephen Kwabena Opuni, are being tried by the state for causing financial loss to the state through the alleged fraudulent procurement of Lithovit fertiliser.
Mr Tetteh told the court that COCOBOD’s procurement plan is always contained in the company’s budget, which, according to him, the Board of Directors of the company normally approve by “consensus”.
In addition, Mr Tetteh said every procurement is authorised by the Board
“My Lord, I have no knowledge of any supplier of goods and services having an influence on these processes”, Mr Tetteh told the court. “What I want to add is that the suppliers or their representatives come often to COCOBOD to follow up on their issued”.
Read below excerpts of the cross-examination:
Q. Now, sir, according to you, on the 6th of December 2021, when a new Board was sworn in in January 2014, it reviewed the 2013/2014 budget. is that correct?
A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. And, according to you, this second Board requested that area for the coverage of fertiliser application be expanded?
A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. This review process and the request for the expansion in the coverage area; was it a decision of the whole Board, if you remember?
A. I recall that after the inauguration, the Board met and discussed this programme and that next to the expanded programme.
Q. As far as you are concerned, this was a decision of the whole Board and not any single individual of the Board. Is that correct?
A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. Now sir, this process of reviewing the 2013/2014 budget, as far as you are aware, was it influenced in any way by the 2nd and 3rd Accused Persons?
A. My Lord, I didn’t know them.
Q. Now, the decision to expand the coverage area for fertiliser application, as far as you are aware, was that decision of the Board influenced by the 2nd and 3rd Accused Persons.
A. My Lord, I am not aware.
Q. Sir, would you consider from your experience from serving on the Board that the budget review process and the decision to expand the area for fertiliser coverage were normal Board functions or normal decisions made by this second Board that you served on?
A. My Lord, what I recall at the time during the discussions was that new products, by way of fertilisers and agrochemicals, do come on the market and so COCOBOD needs to make allowance for these products as and when they are tested and approved by CRIG. So, in the midst of this discussion, this expansion was discussed and the review was requested.
Q. My question to you is: Would you consider that as a normal Board function that the Board was carrying out?
A. My Lord, I do not see anything odd about these discussions given the fact that board members come from various backgrounds and they are supposed to make meaningful input to board discussions.
The case has been adjourned to Monday, 28 March 2022.
In March 2018, the AG charged Dr Opuni and Mr Agongo with 27 counts for allegedly engaging in illegalities that caused financial loss of GHS271.3 million to the state and allegedly led to the distribution of sub-standard fertilisers to farmers.
Mr Agongo is alleged to have used fraudulent means to sell sub-standard fertiliser to COCOBOD for onward distribution to cocoa farmers while Dr Opuni is accused of facilitating the act by allowing Mr Agongo’s products not to be tested and certified as required by law.
They have pleaded not guilty to all the 27 charges and are currently on bail in the sum of GH300,000 each.