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Unease over forfeited funds

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Unease over forfeited funds

There is a growing unease over how much of looted funds already forfeited to the Federal Government in the last four years of President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration. Are there accounts created for these funds? If yes, why has the agency acting on behalf of the federal government, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) finds it difficult to supply the court? AKEEM NAFIU reports

 

Monday, last week, Justice Mojisola Olatoregun of a Federal High Court in Lagos in an encounter with a prosecutor of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo raised an alarm over the safety of various funds already forfeited to the Federal Government since the beginning of President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration.

The judge was, however, concerned about the inability of the EFCC’s lawyer to furnish the court with an account where forfeited funds had been kept despite repeated demands.

Looted funds running into trillions in both local and foreign currency have been forfeited to the Federal Government through various court orders.

This, however, became a subject of a diatribe in an open court as Justice Olatoregun raised the concern while delivering judgement in a suit filed by the anti-graft agency seeking forfeiture of $8.4 million and N9.2 billion belonging to a former First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan.

In the judgement, the judge granted EFCC’s request for final forfeiture of the funds to the Federal Government on the premise that oral evidence presented by the respondents’ witnesses failed to dispel EFCC’s suspicion that the funds were proceeds of unlawful activities.

The respondents in the suit are Dame Patience Jonathan, Globus Integrated Services Ltd, Finchley Top Homes Ltd, AM PM Global Network Ltd, Pagmat Oil and Gas Nigeria Ltd, Magel Resort Ltd and Esther Oba. They have since gone to the Court of Appeal to upturn the lower court’s verdict.

The need for transparency in the handling of the forfeited funds cannot be overemphasized and as such the concerns of Justice Olatoregun was being shared by a section of Nigerians, who believe there was the need for transparency and accountability in ways and manner the forfeited looted funds were being handled by the EFCC on behalf of the federal government.

An indication that all may not be well with the handling of the forfeited funds emerged in February, 2018, when the Ministry of Finance disputed claims by the Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Ibrahim Magu, that his agency recovered N739 billion between 2016 and 2017.

In faulting Magu’s claims, the Ministry of Finance disclosed that its calculation of recovered funds within the period was just N91.3 billion.

The N91.3 billion was said to have also included assets under final and interim forfeitures and funds recovered in foreign currencies.

 

EFCC’s recovery of looted funds

Despite the dispute regarding the actual amount recovered by the EFCC at a particular period, the anti-graft agency under Ibrahim Magu has continued to secure court orders forfeiting large sums of money to the Federal Government.

Funds suspected to be proceeds of unlawful activities by the anti-graft agency which are traced to certain individuals have been forfeited to government by various courts across the country.

 

Notable forfeitures

Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) could be said to have made the biggest recoveries in terms of cash and assets from the former Minister of Petroleum Resources.

The anti-graft agency had so far recovered $84.964 million and N11.325 billion from the former minister through various forfeiture orders secured at the Federal High Court in Lagos.

 

The latest of such feat by the anti-graft agency was an interim forfeiture of 2,149 pieces of jewelries and a customised gold iPhone, valued at $40 million allegedly belonging to Diezani to the Federal Government.

Arguing a motion to back up the forfeiture request, EFCC’s lawyer, Rotimi Oyedepo, told Justice Nicholas Oweibo of a Federal High Court in Lagos that the items which were recovered within the premises of the former minister were suspected to be proceeds of unlawful activities.

 

The commission had earlier on August 1, 2019 secured the permanent forfeiture of Diezani’s $37.5million mansion in Banana Island to the Federal Government, via an order of Justice Chuka Obiozor.

The property designated as Building 3, Block B, Bella Vista Plot 1, Zone N, Federal Government Layout, Banana Island Foreshore Estate containing 24 apartments, 18 flats and 6 penthouses was said to have been paid for in cash by Mrs. Diezani in 2013.

On 11th October, 2017, Justice Abdul-Azeez Anka also ordered the permanent forfeiture of 56 houses situated in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja valued at $21, 982, 224 (about N3.3 billion) allegedly linked to Mrs. Diezani to the Federal Government.

The houses were allegedly bought between 2011 and 2013 by the former minister from proceeds of suspected unlawful activity during her tenure in office

 

The forfeited property included: 21 mixed housing units of 8 numbers of four bedroom penthouse apartment; six numbers of three bedroom apartments; two numbers of three bedroom apartment and one number of four bedroom apartment, all ensuit and located at 7, Thurnburn Street and 5 Raymond Street, Yaba, valued at N937 million and bought through Chapel Properties Ltd.

 

Others are: 16 numbers of four bedroom terrace, located at Heritage Court Estate, Omerelu Street, Diobu GRA, Port Harcourt, River States, valued at N928    million and bought through Blue Nile Estate Ltd; 13 numbers of 3 bedroom with one room maid’s quarter, situated at Mabushi Gardens Estate, Plot 1205, Cadastral Zone B06, Mabushi, Abuja, valued at N650 million and bought through Azinga Meadows Ltd and six flats of three bedroom and one boys quarter, located at Plot 808 (135) Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, valued at N805 million and bought through Vistapoint property Development Ltd.

Similarly on 28th February, 2018, Justice Mojisola Olatoregun also ordered permanent forfeiture of two penthouses valued at $4.764 million belonging to Mrs Diezani to the Federal Government.

The buildings were described as Penthouse 22, Block B, 8, Gerrard Road, Ikoyi, and Penthouse 21, Building 5, Block C, 11 floor, Plot1, Zone N, FGN layout, Banana Island, Ikoyi.

On 27th June, 2018, Justice Babs Kuewumi also ordered interim forfeiture of a property worth N325.4 million belonging to Mrs. Allison-Madueke to the Federal Government.

The property, a vacant plot of land situated at Plot 13, Block II, Oniru Chieftaincy Family Private Estate, Lekki, Lagos, was said to have been acquired in 2010 with proceeds of unlawful activity.

On April 14, 2019, a property located at Plot 9, Azikiwe Road, Old GRA, Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, allegedly linked to the former minister was also forfeited to the Federal Government.

Justice Chuka Obiozor ordered the interim forfeiture of the property after granting an ex-parte motion filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Dame Patience Jonathan

Another VIP in the eye of the storm is former First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan. So far, the sum of $24 million and N12.64 billion allegedly linked to the former first lady has been forfeited to the Federal Government.

Out of the amount, the EFCC has already secured permanent forfeiture of the sums of $8.4 million and N9.2 billion, while the rest were temporarily forfeited to the Federal Government.

Osborne Towers

On 6th June, 2017, Justice Sule Hassan of a Federal High Court in Lagos ordered the permanent forfeiture of the sums of $43,449,947, £27,800 and N23, 218,000 (about N13billion) recovered by the EFCC at a private apartment in Ikoyi, to the Federal Government.

The money was recovered by the anti-graft agency on 12th April, 2017, in Flat 7B, Osborne Towers, 16, Osborne Road, Ikoyi, Lagos.

The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) through its then Director General, Ambassador Ayo Oke, has laid claim to the funds. However, an investigation was launched into the recovery by the Federal Government following which Ambassador Oke was suspended.

About 21 months after Oke’s suspension, the EFCC slammed a 4-count charge of alleged $205.9 million fraud on him and his wife, Mrs. Folashade Ayodele Oke, at a Federal High Court in Lagos. Their arraignment over the alleged offence has since been stalled following the failure to appear in court.

Lawyers speak

Some members of the wig and gown have equally expressed displeasure at the way and manner funds forfeited to the Federal Government are being handled by those in charge.

The lawyers, both of inner and outer Bar, while speaking on the issue at the weekend feared that management of these funds have been shrouded in secrecy.

They want the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to ensure proper accounts of the recovered funds are rendered to avoid unnecessary speculation and suspicion by members of the public.

Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Seyi Sowemimo, want the EFCC to religiously keep to the tenets of the law by ensuring that it presents annual report about how forfeited funds are kept and expended to the National Assembly.

He said: “I think it is a legitimate thing for Nigerians to know where the forfeited funds are kept and how they are being utilized. The EFCC is by law expected to annually present a report to the National Assembly about how these recovered funds are kept and expended. I am not aware that the anti-graft agency has religiously complied with this requirement of law.

“It is also worthy of note that some persons have gone to court demanding explanations about how these funds are managed. I am even surprised that all these are happening during Buhari’s administration when people expect a lot of transparency.

“So, I am equally concerned about the fact that information concerning these forfeited funds are scare or even non-existent. This will surely give rise to suspicion by people that recovered looted funds might have been relooted by some individuals”.

In his submissions, a former Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Adekunle Ojo, was worried that Nigerians were usually kept in the dark when it comes to government’s policies.

“Basically, we have problems in this country when it comes to transparency and accountability. It’s my own sincere belief that the current president should be able to take us out of the woods.

“Much of government businesses are shrouded in secrecy and it shouldn’t be. Everything should be open to members of the public. When anti-graft agencies recover funds from people, nothing should be hidden about how much was recovered. Even, Nigerians should be told about how the money is to be expended.

 

“I am one of those advocating that part of every funds recovered should be given to the anti-graft agencies because they need a lot of money to carry out their functions.

“Beyond that, every other fund that were recovered must be judiciously spent. This is because these recovered funds might not have been included in government’s budget.

“Therefore, my suggestion is that when fund was recovered, there should be an account specifically meant for it. Federal Government can later present a supplementary budget which will capture how the fund was realized and how it will be utilized.

“So, it is disheartening that government business is being run like a secret cult. It is not enough that the anti-graft agencies are telling us they are recovering money. We must know where the funds are being kept. This is because these kinds of funds cannot be lodged together with every other money,” Ojo said.

A former General Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mazi Afam Osigwe, advocated for the establishment of a body to manage all funds forfeited to the Federal Government.

He said: “By law, the EFCC is expected to present yearly report to the National Assembly. Has the anti-graft agency been doing that? If the answer is in the affirmative, does the report contain a breakdown of funds recovered and where they are kept? How are these funds being managed?

“This is part of the reason why some of us have been clamouring for the establishment of a body to manage these recoveries. Whether funds are temporarily or permanently forfeited to the Federal Government, there must be an account for them.

“Nigerians should be concerned about how these forfeited funds are kept and there should be proper account of how they are expended. The same thing goes for forfeited property and assets. We should also know how they are being managed, whether they have been sold off or kept somewhere rotten away while litigation goes on. These are critical questions that must be answered in the fight against corruption”.

The National President of the Campaign For the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu, asked Nigerians to exploit the window provided by the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to get the needed facts about how forfeited funds are being managed.

“With the FOI Act, it’s hardly heard these days that such information are not accessible. The media houses or practitioners should make a direct request for such information. In any case, the content and details of the orders and judgements of courts directing interim or final forfeitures are public documents and accessible.

“Forfeited funds should be ploughed back to the society and should be used to empower the weak and vulnerable through provision of social services and supports. Provision of infrastructure and Creation of enabling environment for job creation and infrastructure development”, he said.

To the Editor of Nigerian Weekly Law Reports, Mr. Oluwole Kehinde, no information on how forfeited funds are being managed should be kept away from the public.

He said: “I believe the EFCC said they have been paying into an account domiciled in the CBN. That being the case, the money would have to be appropriated by the National Assembly before it could be spent. Nevertheless, the EFCC is expected to make full disclosure to the public”.

Mr. Mohammed Fawehinmi asked the Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Ibrahim Magu, to pass the necessary information regarding management of the forfeited funds to the public.

“I agree with you that it is not right for Nigerians to be kept in the dark as to how these forfeited funds are being managed. The public indeed deserve to know where the funds are being kept.

“But, actually the funds ought to be kept in a special account with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), not even in the federation account.

“I think the Acting Chairman of the EFCC need to throw more light on some of these issues in order to avoid unnecessary speculations or misrepresentation of facts by Nigerians,” Fawehinmi said.

 

 

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