Daily Trust (Abuja)

Nigeria: EFCC Drops Graft Case Against Odili

Abuja, Port Harcourt — A case of alleged multi-billion naira corruption against former Rivers State governor Peter Odili and some officials of his administration has been abandoned by the EFCC, Daily Trust's investigations have shown.

This is even as the "perpetual injunction" against arrest secured by Odili in March 2008 still subsists because the Appeal Court in Port Harcourt is yet to vacate it nearly four years after the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission filed an appeal.

EFCC began moves to swoop on Rivers state officials in late 2006 when it issued a report of investigation into the state's finances in which it said over N100 billion was diverted during Odili's two terms.

The report contained allegations of large-scale fraud, conspiracy, conversion of public funds, foreign exchange malpractice, money laundering, stealing and abuse of oath of office against the former governor.

To stave off impeding prosecution of officials, the then Rivers state attorney general went to court and got a perpetual injunction in March 2007 restraining EFCC from investigating the state government.

A year later, months after he had left office in May 2007, Odili himself went to court and asked to be made to benefit from the injunction and the court granted his prayers, making him perpetually immune from arrest, investigation or prosecution.

In October 2008, EFCC challenged the perpetual injunction at the Court of Appeal, but no judgement has yet been given nearly four years after, because of what a source close to the matter said was lack of diligent prosecution and official interference.

In the meantime, the commission had built a case against Odili and other officials, hoping to move in to file charges as soon as the injunction was lifted, sources familiar with matter said.

But about two years ago, the commission dropped further action against Odili, and retrieved the case file from the lawyer handling the matter, because of what a source said were "orders from above."

How it started

Investigations by Daily Trust revealed that the Odili case started when EFCC received a petition against him and some officials of the Rivers State government, over allegations of corruption and diversion of public funds on October 31, 2006.

Thereafter, EFCC began investigation into the finances of the Rivers state government and issued an "investigation report" on December 12, 2006.

To counter EFCC's actions, on February 23, 2007, the then Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice for Rivers State filed a suit number FHC/PH/CS/78/2007 between the Attorney-General for Rivers State vs the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission & 3 others, challenging the powers of the EFCC to probe the affairs of the state and seeking a perpetual injunction against EFCC and other federal agencies from investigating the state.

In the suit, the Rivers state government argued that EFCC had usurped the powers of the State House of Assembly by section 128 and 129 of 1999 Constitution by investigating the disbursing and administering of public funds in the state; directing banks not to release funds to the state government; initiating impeachment proceedings against Odili; instigating (bad) media campaign; and grinding Rivers state to a halt.

Perpetual injunction

Twenty- eight days later, on March 20, 2007, in a judgment delivered by Justice Ibrahim Nyaure Buba, the court granted all the declaratory and injunctive reliefs sought by the state government, including a declaration that the agency's investigations were invalid, an injunction restraining the EFCC and the other defendants from publicising the report of the investigation; and an injunction restraining the EFCC from any further action in relation to the alleged economic and financial crimes committed by Odili.

Months later, having realised that he was not a party to that case and so he could not benefit from the injunction against EFCC, Odili filed a claim against the EFCC and the Attorney-General of the Federation, in suit number FHC/PH/CS/78/2007, seeking to restrain EFCC from investigating, arresting or prosecuting him.

On March 5, 2008, Odili's prayers were granted by the same Justice Ibrahim Nyaure Buba, who declared that: "The subsisting judgment of March 2007 by this court is binding on all parties. Therefore there is a perpetual injunction restraining the EFCC from arresting, detaining and arraigning Odili on the basis of his tenure as governor based on the purported investigation."

Twenty months after the initial injunction was given, on October 6, 2008 EFCC filed an appeal against the injunction of March 2007 on six grounds at Port Harcourt division of the Court of Appeal in suit with file number CA/PH/622/08. In a notice of appeal signed by EFCC's counsel, Paul Erokolo, SAN, the commission urged the appellate court to set aside the entire judgment.

It argued that the lower court can't make order to restrain a completed act, saying that the injunctive reliefs were given after the agency had completed its investigations. It argued that section 6, 4 and 46 of EFCC Act 2004 vested on the commission the powers of investigation and prosecution of economic and financial crimes at all levels of governance, thus it did not usurp the powers of the state legislature.

In 2010, EFCC engaged A.B. Mahmoud, SAN to pursue the appeal of perpetual injunction. By May 15, 2010, Mahmoud filed an amended appeal on nine grounds at the appeal court in Port Harcourt.

While the case was ongoing, Odili again went to the Court of Appeal seeking to be included in the case as an interested party. Odili is being represented through his counsel Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN while Chief Lateef Fagbemi, SAN represents Rivers state government.

On January 27, 2011, the Court of Appeal ruled that Odili should be joined as an interested party.

"We decided not to appeal his inclusion because of time factor. We considered that as a delay tactics and if we appeal this particular case may drag us up to the Supreme Court. And we don't have time on our hands," one source involved in the matter told Daily Trust.

A protracted case

A source close to the matter told Daily Trust: "There is serious interference on the case; that is why there is no diligence to prosecute the case."

Another source cited long adjournments by the appeal court as among factors delaying conclusion of the case. "There are times when the EFCC counsel traveled to Port Harcourt five times consecutively but the case was not heard. They always have excuses; it is lack of man power today, lack of infrastructure tomorrow," the source said.

Daily Trust findings revealed that the case was last heard on March 15 this year and no date has been fixed for the next hearing. When our correspondent contacted the Registrar of the Court of Appeal in Port Harcourt, Tony Ejike, he said: "There is no date fixed for this case."

When Daily Trust sought to know the names of justices on the panel handling the case, the registrar said, "I won't give you their names because if a particular judge handles the case today, it is another judge that will come the next time. So, I can't give you specific names."

The court registrar also declined providing the Daily Trust with the records of the last proceedings.

Efforts to get documents relating to the appeal from the EFCC also proved abortive.

When asked why the EFCC dropped the corruption case against Odili, spokesman for the commission Wilson Uwujaren said in a text message: "EFCC didn't withdraw any charge against Odili. There was an order stopping the commission from investigating the former governor. That order is the subject of appeal at the Court of Appeal Port Harcourt."

'FG is shielding Odili'

Speaking to Daily Trust on the protracted case, Malam Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, Executive Director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), said this was an indication that the Federal Government is not serious in tackling corruption in the country.

"It is clear that the current administration is not interested in dealing with corruption and corrupt people in Nigeria," he said.

"There are many investigated cases of corruption but there is no political will to take action and sanction against those who are established to be corrupt, rather we see the government through the Attorney General and Minister of Justice and EFCC withdrawing some corruption cases since this government came to power."

In his reaction, spokesperson of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Engr Rotimi Fashakin, said, "The war against corruption cannot be said to be effective if the law is purposely hamstrung to prosecute Dr Peter Odili."

"Unfortunately, the Nigerian judiciary is facilitating this vitiation of the prosecutorial powers of EFCC in bringing Odili to justice," he said.

"I remember some years ago, a UK-based Nigerian lawyer, Mr Osita Mba, wrote and delivered a petition to the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Idris Kutigi, on the perpetual injunction granted by a high court judge, forbidding the EFCC from prosecuting him and what this portends for the administration of justice in Nigeria," Fashakin said.

"After about three months, the former CJN wrote this Nigerian lawyer that his petition lacked merit. What the former head of the Nigerian judiciary failed to tell Nigerians is whether it was in the interest of justice vis-a-vis the fight against graft in the country for a lawful agency to be prevented from carrying out its legal duty."

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