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2023: Nigerian businessman jailed for fraud in U.S. picks PDP nomination form

Uche Ben Odunze was hailed as a real estate big shot by a section of the Nigerian media. Now his history of illicit pursuits has come to light as he seeks a parliamentary seat.

• April 28, 2022
Uche Ben Odunze
Uche Ben Odunze [Credit: IP Smarx]

Uche Ben Odunze, a commercial property manager contesting a seat in the House of Representatives for Orlu/Osu/Oru/Imo East Federal Constituency on the platform of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is an ex-convict from the United States, Peoples Gazette found this week.

Mr Odunze, 41, was sentenced to prison on January 17, 2013, under the name Uche Ben Odunzeh for defrauding the American Centre for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). He now answers “Odunze” as his surname to vie for a seat in the lower parliamentary chamber at the upcoming general elections.

Mr Odunze had lied to the U.S. government to claim remuneration for supplying sophisticated high-end wheelchairs (K0011) when his company, Emerald Medical, only provided cheap and basic wheelchairs to beneficiaries of the Medicaid health programme.

The Nigerian deportee was paid $6,157 per K0011 spec wheelchair, almost twice the price of the basic chairs he supplied, earning himself a whopping $232,470 more than the actual cost of equipment delivered.

In addition to the chair scam, Mr Odunze also swindled the U.S. government to the tune of $44,913 for adult incontinence items (diapers, briefs, liners, disposable underpads and gloves) that he did not deliver to Medicaid beneficiaries.

Guilty of the one-count charge of defrauding the foreign government, Mr Odunze opted for a plea deal that reduced his sentence to 19 months, forfeiture of $277,383 to the American government and deportation because he had been living illegally in the U.S. before his arrest and conviction. He was also slammed with three years of supervisory release.

Following his return to Nigeria, Mr Odunze started promoting himself as a real estate investor and received flowering praises in a section of the Nigerian media. But he stayed away from contesting political positions until 2023, apparently acquainted with the constitutional provisions that allow criminals to run for office after 10 years of their conviction.

Section 66 (1) (a) of the Nigerian Constitution said: “No person shall be qualified for election to the Senate or the House of Representatives if within a period of less than 10 years before the date of an election to a legislative house, he has been convicted and sentenced for an offence involving dishonesty or he has been found guilty of a contravention of the Code of Conduct.”

The National Assembly elections will be held on February 25, 2023, according to a timetable released by the electoral office INEC. Mr Odunze’s sentence will be 10 years on January 17, 2023, roughly six weeks before the date of election.

But his ability to bypass the high-security measures of the American healthcare programme and defraud its government could hand his opponents potent campaign material and dominate discussion when electioneering officially opens for 2023 poll in Nigeria, a nation beset by acute corruption and insecurity.

The Gazette could not independently verify whether or not Mr Odunze started his real estate business with proceeds of his ill-gotten capital in the U.S., a practice seen more often than not in Nigeria. Between 1999 and early 2000s, several politicians, including James Ibori and Bola Tinubu, were elected into top political offices and saw their profiles soar despite convictions in the U.S.

When reached for comments by telephone, Mr Odunze, who initially affirmed his identity after picking up, said it was a wrong number upon learning the call was about his criminal history in the United States.

A spokesman for the PDP did not return The Gazette’s request seeking comment about whether or not the party uncovered Mr Odunze’s nefarious history during screening of aspirants.

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