EFCC can investigate state accounts, court insists, okays probe of Benue officials.
The Federal High Court, Abuja, has dismissed the suit filed by Benue State government, challenging the powers of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to investigate its accounts.
Justice Nnamdi Dimgba, who dismissed the suit yesterday for lacking in merit, held that the case was built on a misconception that the EFCC lacked the statutory powers to investigate the financial activities of a state government.
The court, which urged the anti-graft agency to be neutral and impartial in discharging its statutory functions, noted that the commission has a moral burden of carrying out investigations into the accounts of Benue as soon as the state government changed her political affiliation.
Justice Dimgba was quick to observe that although the commission received the first petition against some officials of the state since June 2016 when the governor was in the same political affiliation with the government in power, it only acted on it when there was a change in the political affiliation of the state, thus given room to suspicion.
“The powers donated to the EFCC under Section 38 of its Act are very broad and not limited to any geographical location.
“It is so broad that it arises even in the context of management of state finances. I must make bold to say that the suit rests on a fallacy that EFCC is investigating the Benue State government.
“This misconception collapsed by the provision of Section 38 of the EFCC Act. Issues are mixed up here and the court cannot allow itself into the misconception.
“What is clear to me, going by the exhibits attached by the 1st defendant, is that petitions were written against some named officials in the administration of Benue State government, containing allegations of fraud against them,” the judge said.
He added that invitation letters were directed to some officials of Benue State Government and another letter requesting the release of some state officials.
According to him, “none of the officials was a governor or deputy governor, who enjoys immunity under Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution.
“The suggestion that EFCC is investigating Benue State government did not hold water. I am of the view that EFCC acted within its powers under the law when it sent letters of invitation to some officials of the Benue State government for the purpose of the investigation, which is the subject matter before this court.
“I don’t agree that its action is a usurpation of responsibilities of the House of Assembly and the auditor general of the state.
“The audit function of the auditor general did not foreclose the duties and functions of EFCC.
“It is complementary to the powers of the State Assembly under Sections 128 and 129 of the 1999 Constitution.
“As far as I can see, there is nothing in Section 125, 128 and 129, which foreclosed the investigating powers of the EFCC. The surveillance powers of the auditor general and House of Assembly is limited.”
“I differ with my brother’s decision in the case of Auditor General of Rivers Vs EFCC, and Auditor General of Ekiti State Vs EFCC, because there is some danger in holding that only State Houses of Assembly can investigate state finances.
“This court takes a different view bearing in mind the collaborative efforts between the state and the federal government in the fight against corruption.”
Justice Dimgba, therefore, maintained that EFCC has legal powers to investigate financial crimes in every stratum of the country’s public life even at local government level.
The EFCC had earlier frozen the state government’s bank account on the ground that it was investigating alleged fraud, but it had gone ahead to unfreeze it the same day the order was made.
In an originating summons filed by the Attorney General of Benue State, Michael Gusa, the government had challenged the powers of EFCC to investigate or inquire into the accounts and /or appropriations, disbursements and administration of the funds of the state, having regard to the clear provisions of Sections 1(1) and (3), 125(2), (4) and (6), 128 and 129 of the 1999 Constitution.
It has the House of Assembly, the clerk, and speaker as well as the auditor-general as other respondents.
While Emeka Etiaba (SAN), represented the state government, Sylvanus Tahir stood for the EFCC.
Linking yesterday’s judgment in favour of EFCC, some observers have wondered how two courts could emerge with contrary views on two similar issues.
Recall that a former Rivers State governor, Peter Odili, had in 2007, obtained a perpetual injunction from a Federal High Court, Port Harcourt, restraining the EFCC, ICPC and other anti-graft agencies from investigating the state’s account.
It was on this ground that Governor Nyesom Wike in August this year declined to answer an invitation by the commission to investigate his administration.
He had insisted that until the 2007 judgment is set aside by the Court of Appeal, no official of Rivers State will answer the call by EFCC.
Also, a few days ago, a Rivers State High Court sitting in Port Harcourt awarded N600 million against the commission as exemplary damages to two Rivers State government officials for declaring them wanted without justification.
The Accountant General, Frederick Dagogo-Abere, and former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Local Government, Lekia Bukpo, were accused by the EFCC of withdrawing N117billion from the state government coffers.
Justice George Omereji in the ruling declared that the anti-graft agency violated the fundamental rights of the officials by investigating the Rivers State Government account.
He held that the action was in disobedience to a subsisting court order restraining the commission from investigating the state government’s account.