Nigeria's embattled petroleum minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, has secured an interim court injunction ordering the House of Representatives to discontinue an ongoing investigation of how the minister allegedly squandered more than N10billion of public funds leasing private jets for two years.
A federal court in Abuja restrained the House, its committees or representatives from summoning Mrs. Alison-Madueke or requesting that she produce papers, documents or give evidence relating to the jet spending.
The presiding judge, A. R. Mohammed, also barred the lawmakers from ordering the minister's arrest for failing to appear before the House Committee on Public Accounts, which is probing the allegation.
The interim order was given April 14, while the court asked that a representative of the House appear on a later date and argue why full injunction as requested by the minister should not be granted.
"It is directed that the respondents shall be served with the motion exparte dated and filed on 11th April, 2014 for interim orders of injunction," the court mandated.
Mrs. Alison-Madueke is accused of spending billions of naira for the services of private jets she deployed for mostly personal trips. State oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, supervised by the minister, has absolved the minister of wrongdoing.
As petroleum minister, Mrs. Alison-Madueke has been repeatedly investigated by the National Assembly. Multiple reports have blamed the minister for either maladministration, corruption or violation of the law.
A key probe which found the minister wanting was the 2012 fuel subsidy inquiry which exposed how the government spent more than N2 trillion subsidizing petrol in one year when actual subsidy cost was less than N500 billion.
There is also the recent allegation of missing $20 billion oil funds.
Amid the charges, Mrs. Alison-Madueke has also drawn praise for ensuring a year-round availability of petrol, a significant achievement in Nigeria's notoriously corrupt oil sector.
Yet, that achievement recently ebbed with fuel shortage across the country lasting months.
The latest allegation against Mrs. Alison-Madueke came March 20 in a motion presented by a member of the House of Representatives, Samuel Adejare, accusing the minister of committing about 500,000 Euros (N130 million naira) monthly to maintain an aircraft for her personal needs and those of her immediate family.
Mr. Adejare said preliminary investigations showed government funds were used for financing the deal.
Preliminary investigation by the House public accounts committee showed more than one aircraft was involved.
Some lawmakers on the committee have spoken of pressure on them to suspend the investigation and a planned public hearing that has already been delayed by the minister's refusal to attend.
Mrs. Alison-Madueke has also refused to submit required documents related to the spending, ahead of a public hearing.
The court's interim injunction which is dated April 14 but only made public Monday, ordered the House not to summon the minister or ask her to provide any documents relating to the jet scandal.
The court order was emailed by the NNPC to reporters late Monday.
Ohi Alegbe, a spokesperson for the NNPC, who also speaks for the minister, told PREMIUM TIMES the injunction was earlier served on the House two weeks back. He said the House may have deliberately kept the papers from the public.
But the chairman of the House Public Accounts Committee, Solomon Olamilekan, said he was surprised the minister waited until Monday- the scheduled day of the commencement of the investigation- before coming up with a court order, giving the impression the court document had just been served.
House agrees to soft pedal
The order raised immediate concerns whether the court, as a separate arm of government, has powers to restrain another arm-legislature- from its constitutional functions of investigating government agencies.
The NNPC spokesperson, Mr. Alegbe, said the order was not "unusual". "There is nothing strange about it. There is a precedent," he said.
In its reaction Monday, the House of Representatives on Monday said it would study the order and decide on a response.
"As a law abiding arm of government, we will tarry a while and of course take a legal opinion as far as issues are concerned," Zakary Mohammed, a spokesperson for the House, said.
Mr. Olamilekan said the committee had received responses from other groups involved in the investigation including Vistajet International and Executive Jet Hangar.
He said the only responses being awaited by the committee are those from the ministry of petroleum, the NNPC, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, and Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria, FAAN.
"Today is April 28, the committee scheduled to receive the honourable Minister of Petroleum Resources and other agencies that have stake in this investigation.
"But as we speak, there is a court order, which has been served to the office of the speaker, even though the committee has not gotten the copy of that order," he said.
"The nature of the court order is simple. They are just restraining us from carrying out our own investigation. I don't know what they are afraid of that they have gone to court."