The political wrangling continues as the House of Representatives last week tackled the Special Presidential Investigative Panel for the Recovery of Public Property over its operations. KAUTHAR ANUMBA-KHALEEL writes on the development.
Like someone coming out of a trance, the House of Representatives is suddenly questioning the legality of the operations of the Special Presidential Investigative Panel for the Recovery of Public Property several months after it was constituted, saying that it usurped the powers of the Code of Conduct Bureau/Tribunal as well as other anti-graft agencies.
The Panel was set up in August, 2017 by the then Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), in line with powers conferred on the President by the Recovery of Public Property (Special Provisions) Act Cap R4, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.
The decision of the House was contained in a motion which came a day after the Federal Government moved to freeze all hidden assets allegedly linked to the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu.
It would be recalled that the SPIP had by an ex-parte motion filed on its behalf by Festus Keyamo (SAN,) asked a Federal High Court in Abuja to freeze all hidden assets allegedly owned by the Deputy Senate President last week.
Keyamo told the court that Section 330 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, Section 8 of the Recovery of Public Property (Special Provisions) Act, section 44 (2) (K) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended gives the Federal Government the power to freeze property a public officer failed to disclose in the asset declaration form surly completed by the officer.
The suit with the file number FHC/ABJ/CS/284/2018, specifically applie request the court to make an interim court order “temporarily attaching/forfeiting the property listed in Schedule B hereunder, to the Federal Government of Nigeria, pending the conclusion of further inquiry/investigation by the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property and/or possible arraignment of the Respondent”.
The properties listed in the Schedule B, which the Government’s panel is seeking to seize are: No. 11, Evans Enwerem Street, Apo Legislative Quarters, Apo, Abuja; Plot 2633 Kyami, Abuja, Housing Estate; (Plot 1106 CRD, Cadastral Zone 07-07, Lugbe, Abuja; Plot 2782 Asokoro Extension, Abuja; Houses at Citi Park Estate, Gwagwalada, Abuja; Plot 1474 Cadastral Zone BD6, Mabushi, Abuja; Congress Court, Abuja; Flat 1, Block D25, Athletics Street, (24th Street) Games Village, Abuja and Plot 66, 64 Crescent, Gwarimpa Estate, Abuja.
Others are, Flat 4 Varsity Court, Harmer Street, WIH 4NW, London; 52 Ayleston Avenue, NW6 7AB, London; Room 1903, The Address Hotel, Downtown Dubai; The Address Boulevard, 3901, Dubai; 2 Flats of Burij Side Boulevard (the signature), Dubai; Emirate Gardens Apartment No. EGG1/1/114, Dubai; Emirate Gardens Apartment No. EGG1/115, Dubai; Apartment No. DFB/12/B 1204, Park Towers, Dubai; Flat 3604, MAG214, Dubai and Villa No 148, Maeen 1, The Lakes Emirates Hills, Dubai; 4507 Stella Street, Bellavida Estate Kissime, Florida, USA; 2747 Club Cortile Circle, Kissime, Florida, USA and 2763 Club Cortile Circle, Kissime, Florida, USA.
Sponsor, Hon. Kingsley Chinda, argued that the SPIP, which was inaugurated using the provisions of the Public Property Special Provisions Act, 2004, has taken over the duties of inviting Nigerians to fill asset declaration documents, which is the mandate of the CCB.
“The said panel is alleged to have received petitions from Nigerians and its mode of operation is to proceed to invite citizens to fill asset declaration forms, which is by law the exclusive mandate of the Code of Conduct Bureau under the Code of Conduct and Tribunal Act CAP T 15, LFN 2004.
“Following the activities of the panel, the Attorney General of the Federation has received several complaints from the general public on the need to take an in-depth look at the law, viz-a viz the various anti-corruption agencies that are now established, particularly the Code of Conduct Bureau and the Code of Conduct Tribunal.”
Chinda also noted that the Public Property Act, having predated the CCB and other anti-corruption agencies’ laws, should no longer form the basis on which the government would conduct such investigations. “The Public Property (Special Provision) Act, codified as CAP R4 LFN, 2004, predates the Code of Conduct and Tribunal Act CAP T15 LFN 2004. Whereas the Act commenced 31st Dec, 1983, the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act commenced on 1st January, 1991, (eight years later). The Public Property (Special Provision) Act CAP R4 LFN 2004 is a spent law by virtue of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, CAP T15 LFN 2004”.
According to him, “the functions specified by the Act to be performed through panels established by the President are now performed by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, which serves as a special court headed by a qualified judge of a superior court of record in Nigeria to try the offences regarding the breach of the code of conduct of public officers. Besides, the Code of Conduct Act being a newer law on the subject matter, has made specific provisions on the matter.
“It is trite law that the court will construe a later act as repealing an earlier one if the two provisions cannot stand together or if they both make the same provisions dealing with a similar subject matter as established in Trade Bank Plc Vs. Lagos Island Local Government (2003) FWLR (Pt 161) 1734.”
While asserting that, “Special presidential investigation panels (SPIP) ought not to have been set up in view of the existence of such institutions as the EFCC, ICPC and especially the Code of Conduct Bureau and the Code of Conduct Tribunal, both created by law and supported by the 1999 Constitution”, Chinda further reminded the House that the SPIP would further add to the cost of governance by drawing funds to duplicate functions that the anti-corruption agencies and the CCB/CCT were already carrying out.
Similarly, the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) attributed the motion by the panel to a part of the grand plan by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to strangulate the opposition ahead of the 2019 elections, adding that the current administration’s obsession with Ekweremadu was an indication that the party (APC) was poised to ”scandalise, persecute, and bring down its perceived opponents”.
According to a statement signed by its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbodiyan, the PDP while positing that the ruling party isn’t ready to fight corruption, said, “in the current matter, apart from relying on an obsolete law to dabble into the roles of the Code of Conduct Bureau, we are not surprised that the panel could not carry out a thorough and independent investigation on the purported property of the senator, but relied on a petition by the former Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice Innocent Umezulike, who is standing corruption trial in several courts, after his removal from office by the National Judicial Council (NJC) in 2017.
“We recall that the senator accused Umezulike and some politicians of stealing and doctoring his will, inserting non-existing properties or properties that had nothing to do with him. It is also instructive that this calculated smear campaign is in the guise of forfeiture of phantom assets came on the heels of Senator Ekweremadu’s alarm and scathing criticism of the APC-led administration over the nation’s deteriorating democracy and in the midst of the ongoing executive-legislature faceoff, in which a ranking senator of the APC extraction identified Ekweremadu as a pillar of support to the Senate President”.
It wondered why the federal government, by its own admission, rushed to court without completion of investigation, but had ”turned deaf ears to the outcry by Nigerians for the prosecution of the administration’s functionaries and friends indicted of corruption”.
“This government and party have a wet appetite for prosecution and media trial of the opposition while investigation is on, but refuses to prosecute its members and friends indicted by even its own presidential or ministerial panels. While members of the opposition are taken to court on stretchers, the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Engr. Babachir Lawal, indicted by both the Senate and a presidential panel only got a pat on the back. The APC Federal Government has failed to prosecute those involved in the Ikoyigate scandal, and the recall of fugitive Abdulrasheed Maina, among others. Ekweremadu is a major symbol of the opposition. We believe that this is part of the grand plan to strangulate the PDP ahead of the 2019 elections and we will resist.
“Now that the federal government has gleefully inundated the public with the imaginary assets of the deputy senate president, can it now also publish the full assets of the President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Yemi Osinbanjo, cabinet ministers and APC governors, who have all failed to make public their assets as promised during the 2015 election”, PDP said.
Reacting to the motion, Ekweremadu, maintained that he had no other assets outside those he declared with the Code of Conduct Bureau as required by law. Also, in a statement signed by his Special Adviser on Media, Uche Anichukwu, he also hinged the motion on a vendetta and smear campaign allegedly championed by the chairman of the recovery panel, Okoi Obono-Obla, who doubles as the president’s special assistant on prosecution.
The statement read, “The attention of the Office of the Deputy president of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, has been drawn to a Motion Exparte filed by Festus Keyamo Chambers on behalf of the so-called Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property for an order to temporarily forfeit assets it claimed the Senator did not declare with the Code of Conduct Bureau.
“Senator Ekweremadu, however, wishes to state unequivocally that there is no asset to forfeit as he declared all his assets with the Code of Conduct Bureau as required by law.
“The so-called Panel sought and obtained his Assets Declaration Forms but could not look at them since it is clearly out on a vendetta and smear campaign championed by Mr. Okoi Obono-Obla.
“This is clearly part of the politics of 2019 and is further exposing those who colluded with the dismissed former Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice Innocent Umezulike and his cronies to steal and doctor his will”.
Observers have however faulted the decision of the House and picked holes in Chinda’s argument saying that the mandates of the panel and that of CCB and CCT were not the same as such, there is no interference.
According to Christian Sante, an Abuja based lawyer, the Recovery of Public Property (Special Provisions) Act provides for the Investigation of the Assets of any Public Officer who is alleged to have been engaged in corrupt practices, unjust enrichment of himself or any other person who has abused his office or has in any way breached the Code of Conduct for Public Officers contained in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
He also questioned the motive of the House and wondered why it took the legislature a while to point out the alleged duplication of functions of the panel and the CCT, adding that the legislature was only trying to protect itself. “The move is suspicious. If indeed they are of the opinion that the special panel is a duplication, why didn’t they speak up soon; why would they wait until one of theirs is being investigated before realizing that”, Sante queried.
In the same vein, Abubakar Ahmed while picking holes in Chinda’s position said, “I really don’t know how the 8th assembly operates. The lawmaker pointed out that the Act is a military Decree, no doubt about that, but what stopped them from either amending or repealing that law. Isn’t that what they are paid to do?
“What exactly do they want to investigate? They have posited that the law under which the panel was set up is obsolete, yet they want to investigate its activities to ensure that it operates within the confines of the law. That is contradictory. They should use the time they want to spend investigating the panel to amend the law. And I hope they realize that observers believe that it’s because the deputy senate president is involved that they want to frustrate the job of the panel”.
In adopting the motion, the House also resolved to write the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, to draw his attention to such interferences and the need for him to caution judicial officers against granting “questionable injunctions” interfering with the work of the legislature even as it resolved to probe the operations of the panel to ensure it was in tandem with the law.
Leadership further recalls that the panel is also probing former senate president, David Mark, for the purchase of the official residence of the president of the senate. The Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami, and the panel’s chairman, Okoi Obono-Obla, in court documents which include a notice of preliminary objection, a counter-affidavit to Mark’s motion for interlocutory injunction and a defense to the substantive suit, explained that Mark unlawfully acquired the property in 2011, without being reflected in the Federal Government’s gazette as required and argued that the house is a national monument that was not meant to be acquired by an individual.
The Panel which was set up in August, 2017 by the then Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo in line with powers conferred on the President by the Recovery of Public Property (Special Provisions) Act Cap R4, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, last year warned that it would move decisively against those suspected to have illegally acquired pubic assets in consonance with the power of the panel to carry out “investigation of the assets of public officers believed to have corruptly enriched themselves or who have contributed towards the economic adversity of the country.”
According to the panel, “the Constitution of the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property is the last ditch effort of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari to fight the cankerworm known as corruption, which has deeply eaten into the fabric of Nigerian society,” it stated.