A FEDERAL High Court in Lagos on Wednesday overturned an interim forfeiture order that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) got to confiscate 14 assets reportedly belonging to Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello.
Justice Nicholas Oweibo struck out the suit on the grounds that Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution forbids the institution of any criminal or civil proceeding against a serving governor or the President.
The court further ordered the EFCC to publish the ruling in two national publications so that interested parties might respond and argue that it should not be deemed absolute.
The interim forfeiture order was sought to be vacated, but Bello filed a notice of intention to resist and an application after the preservation order was published.
Bello based his appeal on the argument that the listed property was not obtained via the commission of an illegal act because it was acquired before he was elected governor of Kogi State and could not have been proceeds of public funds.
He added that the EFCC cannot file any civil or criminal charges against him because of Section 308 of the Constitution.
The governor also argued that the EFCC’s lawsuit was filed illegally on the grounds that the anti-graft agency was blatantly disobeying a state high court ruling prohibiting it from looking into any accounts of the Kogi State Government until the Motion on Notice was decided.
He claimed that the Commission made false statements to obtain the interim forfeiture order.
Bello added that because the disputed properties were purchased before he was elected governor of Kogi State, the Proceeds of Crime Act could not be applied retroactively.
He claimed that the Supreme Court was hearing arguments over the legality of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2022.
Regarding jurisdiction, he said the individual concerned is based in Lokoja, and the properties named are in Abuja, Kogi, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
He added that the suit should have been filed in either Abuja or Kogi State. Therefore, he requested that the lawsuit be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
In response, Rotimi Oyedepo, SAN, the attorney for the EFCC, stated that the applicant had not presented any evidence to the court to persuade it to overturn the decision.
He claimed that, in contrast to the applicant’s claims, neither the Kogi State High Court nor any other Nigerian court had prevented the EFCC from performing its constitutionally mandated tasks.
In his ruling, Justice Nicholas Oweibo ruled that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case because Section 308 of the Constitution shields a sitting governor from civil or criminal prosecution.
The court had, on February 22, made an interim forfeiture order following an ex parte motion to confiscate 14 properties and firms in Lagos, Abuja, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as N400 million recovered from one Aminu Falala.
When the matter came up, counsel for the Kogi governor, Abdulwahab Mohammed, moved his application, praying that the interim order be vacated.
Mohammed, while moving the application, stated that about the third quarter of 2021, the EFCC approached the court to freeze Kogi State’s account in Sterling Bank with N20 billion salary bailout loan allegedly hidden in it.
He said that when the Kogi State government called Sterling Bank, the bank denied that such an account existed and that they challenged the freezing order made by Justice Tijjani Ringim.
Mohammed said instead of apologising, the EFCC issued a press release stating that the money had been returned to the Central Bank of Nigeria.
The SAN said that following that incident, the Kogi State government approached a state high court, which then restrained the EFCC from going after the state until the determination of the substantive suit.
Mohammed said the order of the Kogi State High Court restraining EFCC from taking any step against the state government was still subsisting.
“The EFCC, in flagrant disregard of the said order of the Kogi State High Court and a pending appeal, arrested one Ali Bello, an associate of the Kogi State governor, on November 29, 2022.
“The EFCC, in flagrant disobedience of the subsisting order of the High Court of Kogi State, interrogated the said Alli Bello and coerced him to oblige them with information pertaining to most of the properties listed in the order of this honourable Court made on the 22nd of February, 2023.
“The said Ali Bello, aggrieved by his illegal arrest and forced interrogation, filed a fundamental rights enforcement application at the High Court of Kogi State against the EFCC.
“That the High Court of Kogi State, in a judgment delivered on January 12, 2023, granted all the reliefs sought by the applicant and made an order declaring his arrest, detention and interrogation illegal and unconstitutional and further made an order of perpetual injunction restraining the EFCC from further arresting, detaining, harassing and intimidating the said Ali Bello.
“He, therefore, urged Justice Oweibo to reverse the freezing orders and return the properties to the governor.
The ICIR reported in December 2022 that the EFCC arraigned Ali Bello, identified as a nephew of Yahaya Bello, governor of Kogi State, before a Federal High Court in Abuja, alongside one Dauda Suleiman, on a 10-count charge of alleged misappropriation and money laundering before Justice James Omotosho.
The Commission stated that the pair, along with one Abdulsalami Hudu, a cashier at the Kogi State House of Assembly who is now at large, took N10.2 billion for personal use out of the state’s coffers.
However, the accused entered a “not guilty” plea to the accusations.