The Federal High Court sitting in Abuja yesterday vacated an order it made on November 4, 2020, which directed banks to freeze accounts that were linked to 20 alleged promoters of the #EndSARS protest that rocked the nation last year.
The court, in a ruling by Justice Ahmed Mohammed, ordered all the commercial banks affected by the order, to "immediately" unfreeze the accounts, even as it struck out the suit that was filed against the alleged #EndSARS promoters by the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, and its govenor, Mr. Godwin Emiefele.
The order came after all the parties notified the court that they had resolved to amicably settle the matter by withdrawing all the processes they earlier filed with respect to the suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/1384/2020.
While the CBN and its govenor were represented by a former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Michael Aondoakaa, SAN, all the persons affected by the freezing order were represented by human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN.
The senior lawyers told the court at the resumed proceedings in the matter on Wednesday that their decision to withdraw all the processes in the suit was to allow the reconciliation process that is ongoing before various panels of enquiry on police brutality across the country, to progress unhindered.
After he had listened to the parties, Justice Mohammed accordingly struck out the suit.
It would be recalled that the court had on the strength of an ex-parte application that was brought before it by the CBN and its govenor, ordered banks to freeze accounts of the alleged promoters of the #EndSARS protest for a total period of 180 days.
The court said the order was to allow the CBN to conclude its investigation into allegation that the accounts were used to finance terrorism.
The 20 persons listed as defendants in the suit were Bolatito Oduala, Chima Ibebunjoh, Mary Kpengwa, Gatefield Nigeria Limited, Saadat Bibi, Bassey Israel, Wisdom Obi, Nicholas Osazele, Ebere Idibie, Akintomide Yusuf, Uhuo Promise, Mosopefoluwa Odeseye and Adegoke Emmanuel.
Others are, Umoh Ekanem, Babatunde Segun, Mulu Teghenan, Mary Oshifowora, Winifred Jacob, Victor Solomon and Idunu Williams.
Meanwhile, the defendants, in an application they filed to set-aside the order, maintained that they were denied fair hearing by the court.
They accused the CBN of not only lying to the court when it painted them as suspected terrorists, but also engaging in gross abuse of the judicial process.
The Defendants contended that the freezing order the court issued against them was "anchored on misrepresentation of material facts and based on suppression of material facts" by the CBN.
Listing 13 grounds the court should consider and unfreeze their accounts, they argued that the ex-parte order the court granted to the apex bank only validated an illegal act.
According to them, "The Plaintiff/Respondent unlawfully froze the accounts of the Defendants/Applicants before seeking and obtaining the orders of this Honourable Court on November 4, 2020.
"This Honorable Court on the 4th day of November, 2020 pursuant to an ex parte application brought by the Plaintiff/Respondent, made a mandatory order, inter alia, empowering the Plaintiff/Applicant to direct the head of Access Bank of Nigeria Plc, Fidelity Bank Plc, First Bank Plc, Guarantee Trust Bank Plc, United Bank Plc and Zenith Bank Plc to freeze forthwith all transactions on the 20 Bank Accounts of the Defendants/Applicants for a period of 90 days pending the outcome of investigation and inquiry currently being conducted by the CBN without affording the Respondents/Applicants the right of fair hearing.
"The said order of the Honourable Court permitting the Plaintiff/Respondent to freeze the applicants account for a period of 90 days (renewable for another 90 days) breached the fundamental right of the Defendants/Applicants, to fair hearing guaranteed by Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, Laws of the Federation, 2004 in that no fair hearing was granted the applicant/respondent before the order was made.
"The Plaintiff/Respondent is neither one of the investigative agencies nor prosecuting agencies recognized under the Terrorism Prevention Act, 2011 and the Terrorism Prevention (Amendment) Act, 2013.
"The said other violated the rights of the Defendants/Applicants to own movable property. There was no urgency warranting the grant of the order ex parte.
"The ex-parte order made by the Honourable Court has determined the fundamental right of the Defendants/Applicants without affording them fair hearing", they argued.
More so, in a 27-paragraphed supporting affidavit that was deposed to by Marshal Abubakar, a lawyer in Falana's Chambers, the Applicants, said they were never afforded the opportunity to defend the terrorism allegation the CBN made against them, before the ex-parte order was made, contrary to the the provision of Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, Laws of the Federation, 2004.
They told the court that the CBN had since October, 2020, ordered banks to freeze all the accounts belonging to them, even before it approached the court for the ex-parte order.
"That on October 15, 2020, the accounts of the Defendants/Applicants were frozen by their respective banks on the orders of the Plaintiff/Respondent without notice and lawful justification.
"That the Plaintiff/Respondent approached this honorable court by way of motion ex-parte to legalize the illegal freezing of the Defendants/Applicants accounts.
"That an ex-parte order was made on the 4th day of November, 2020, by which this Honorable Court froze the Respondents/Applicants' accounts based on allegation(s) bordering on terrorism.
"That the Plaintiff/Respondent's motion ex parte did not disclose any fact capable of linking the defendants/applicants to any terrorism activity."
The Applicant said they would suffer economic hardship, unless the court vacated the order it made against them.
Meanwhile, Civil society groups, on Wednesday, warned the federal authorities that the fight for justice and good governance by #EndSARS protesters is still not over, despite the Federal High Court's order directing the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to unfreeze the bank accounts of the 20 promoters of the protest.
Stop freezing activists' bank accounts, Falana tells CBN
Meanwhile, counsel to the protesters, Mr Femi Falana in his reaction said: "Let the CBN stop freezing the Bank Accounts of activists because it constitutes a gross infringement of the fundamental right to fair hearing and property. If the CBN does not desist from the illegal practice our courts should turn down frivolous applications for freezing the bank accounts of activists and other citizens."
This is even as the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, described the freezing of their accounts as uncalled for, adding that Nigeria cannot nurture its democracy by stopping citizens from expressing their views or demonstrating against bad governance.
The CSOs, which spoke in separate interviews with Vanguard, noted that the Federal Government had a history of flouting Court Orders. So, they urged the youths to take proactive steps to ensure the judge's directive was implemented.
Sue for damages, Concerned Nigerians tells #EndSARS promoters
The convener of Concerned Nigerians, Comrade Deji Adeyanju, queried: "What was the offence allegedly committed by these patriotic Nigerians who were just protesting and exercising their fundamental human rights?
"This is to show that we are not practising democracy. That's why such aberration, could have taken place.
"However, the youths who suffered one loss or the other due to the freezing of their accounts should sue CBN and claim damages. This is how to make countries work. They should not leave everything to God."
Stop bending backwards to oppressive govts, Free Nigeria Movement tells Courts
Also, the Free Nigeria Movement said the court, in the first place, ought not to have ordered the accounts frozen at the request of the Federal Government through the Central Bank of Nigeria.
Convener of the group, Raphael Adebayo said: "The protesters' accounts should never have been frozen in the first place. The protesters whose accounts were frozen have had to struggle immensely for the past three months, living a destitute life despite having money in the bank.
Put #EndSARS on the 2023 agenda, CDNDC tells youths
Reacting also, the Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution, urged the youths to put #EndSARS on their human rights agenda for governance ahead of the 2023 general elections.
Mr. Ariyo Atoye, Convener of CDNDC said: "Interestingly, I see no reason to celebrate this 'well-deserved' court verdict unfreezing the accounts of #EndSARS promoters, because that ugly, thoughtless and shameful action the government took, shouldn't have happened in the first instance in a democratic nation."
We can't nurture democracy by stifling freedom of expression -- CAN
On its part, the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, described the freezing of their accounts as uncalled for, adding that Nigeria cannot nurture its democracy by stopping citizens from expressing their views or demonstrating against bad governance.
CAN's Vice Chairman (Northern region), Reverend John Hayab, said: "The freezing of their accounts in the first place was uncalled for. We cannot nurture our democracy by stopping citizens from expressing their views or demonstrating against bad governance.
"It is sad to remember that those in authority now in our country some years ago mobilized citizens to protest against the then government.
"A good teacher should expect his students to do better than him, but that is not what we are seeing today. I salute the courage of the Judge for this judgement and advice the people concern to respect the judgement.
Our nation will not enjoy any good progress when citizens are denied their right to peaceful assembly and expressions of views."
Vanguard News Nigeria