The case files of 15 high-profile individuals, including the Governor of Imo State, Hope Uzodimma, Senator Peter Nwabaoshi, and others facing graft and other criminal charges have disappeared.
The missing files also included the non-declaration of assets and possession of foreign accounts cases against Anambra North senator, Stella Oduah; the President of the Nigerian Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick; and four other NFF officials as well Akwa Ibom North-East Senator, Bassey Akpan, among others.
The case against Uzodimma involved alleged contract fraud to the tune of N26bn. He reportedly received $12.5m from the Nigerian Ports Authority in 2014 to dredge the Calabar channel, but he allegedly failed to execute the contract.
Sequel to the disappearance of the files, the Ministry of Justice has written to the former head of the legal unit, Special Presidential Investigation Panel on the Recovery of Public Property, Dr Cletus Ukpong, seeking information on the case files.
The files were said to be among the 23 high profile cases listed in a handover note by the chairman of the now defunct SPIP, Okoi Obono-Obla, to the Solicitor-General of the Federation, Dayo Apata (SAN), in August 2019, after Obono-Obla was suspended by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) on August 14.
The Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, subsequently directed Apata, who is the Permanent Secretary in the ministry of justice, to take charge of the panel.
But one year after Apata took over the panel, the whereabouts of the files were said to be unknown, prompting the Solicitor-General to write to Ukpong for information on the cases, the parties and the courts handling them.
The Solicitor-General, in a letter with reference number, SGF/PS/SPIPRPP/733/1, dated July 27, 2020, asked Ukpong to furnish the AGF’s office with information on the 15 court cases and the parties involved.
The letter was titled, ‘Re: Request for case files and demand for accurate information regarding certain unverifiable suit numbers.’
The letter read in part, “Please refer to my letter reference no. SGF/PS/SPIPRPP/733/1 dated May 6, 2020, wherein I requested that you furnish the office of the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice with accurate information detailing the suit numbers, parties and the courts where the matters listed below are pending:
“Suit nos. FHC/ABJ/CR/108/2018 (FRN vs Stella Oduah); FHC/ABJ/1392/2018 (Sen Hope Uzodinma & Anor vs SPIP); FHC/ABJ/CS/290/2018/ (FRN vs Access Bank Plc); FHC/CR/453/2019; FHC/ABJ/CR/1107/2017 (Chinedu Udora vs ACP Suleiman Abdul & 2 others);
FHC/ABJ/CR/407/2019; FHC/ABJ/L/820/2018 (FRN vs George Nkanta & 4 ors earlier taken over by the AGF for prosecution); FHC/ABJ/L/1727/2018 (FRN vs Senator Peter Nwaoboshi) and FHC/ABJ/CR/93/2019 (FRN vs Amaju Pinnick & four others).”
The letter added, “This reminder letter is to further inform you that the office of the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice is yet to receive any response till date.”
The Solicitor-General further explained that none of the listed cases were recovered from the SPIP office or traceable to any court, hence the request for information on them. He noted that prompt response to the demand would enable the AGF to see the cases “to their logical conclusion.”
But the former head of the SPIP legal unit, in his response dated August 9, 2020, said he was not in a position to supply the information being sought by the ministry.
He explained that he had earlier handed over all the cases he was handling for the SPIP on receiving Apata’s demand letter dated August 15, 2019, noting that he did not handle some of the cases listed in his (Apata) most recent letter.
Ukpong stated, “I believe I did not handle some of the listed cases in your letter and it is difficult to ascertain such now with respect to records available to me now.”
“I had earlier requested in writing for the release of my personal documents and property carted away in the process but I have yet to receive any response.”
The ex-SPIP prosecutor added that some of the missing case files might have been “farmed out to external solicitors who were yet to brief me on them.”
“I was not in a position and I did not farm out any of these cases to any external solicitor to handle for the panel. Therefore, I am not in a position to supply some of the requested information or attach meaning to the listed suit numbers,” Ukpong noted.
The lawyer, however, mentioned the case involving Senator Akpan, which he said was before the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, adding that it was being handled by the AGF’s office.
On Uzodimma’s case, the ex-SPIP prosecutor stated that “it appears the matter was farmed out in my opinion,” adding that the same goes for the suit involving Access Bank.
Speaking to our correspondent on the phone on Saturday, the lawyer said the AGF had refused to release his personal effects, including credentials that were taken away over a year ago
They broke into my office and carted away all the files, and my personal files, books, and credentials are missing; that’s the power of the government, there is nothing I can do about it,” he said.
Files’ disappearance calls for thorough probe – Sagay
But commenting on the alleged missing files, the Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof Itse Sagay, said the situation called for a thorough investigation, adding that the Federal Government should set up a panel to quiz the ministry of justice and the former SPIP officials staff to ascertain the whereabouts of the files.
He said, “This deserves to have a fact-finding panel set up because it is a major issue in the anti-corruption war; that files opened with regards to prominent people who are suspected of huge corruption disappeared. It is important that government sets up a fact-finding panel and to invite the two parties (ministry of justice and ex-SPIP officials) together so that whoever has the files can be traced.”
Malami not aware of missing files – Aide
The Special Assistant on Media and Public Relations to the AGF, Dr Umar Gwandu, said his principal had no prior knowledge of the high-profile cases listed by the Solicitor-General in his letter, stressing that Malami equally had no idea of the missing case files.
He said, “The Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice does not have any prior knowledge of the 15 case files of the prominent Nigerians you were referring to.
The AGF is not aware of any report, formal or informal, emanating from or being brought to the AGF office on the purported incidence. No orders were made by the AGF and no such orders could have been made in the office legitimately without his sanction, and no such sanction was made.”
Gwandu further dismissed the allegation that the AGF directed his staff to break into the SPIP office, describing it as ridiculous.
Investigation reveals more about missing files
Meanwhile, findings have shown that some of the SPIP cases whose files were listed as missing were withdrawn from court following the claim by the AGF office that they were to be reviewed for better handling. Some were struck out by the court after the AGF office claimed that the files were missing.
On November 5, 2019, the AGF office withdrew the corruption charges instituted against five officials of the Nigeria Football Association, including its President, Amaju Pinnick, over alleged misappropriation of $8.4m and N4bn belonging to the NFF.
A lawyer from the AGF office, Mr Abubakar Musa, informed Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu of the Federal High Court in Abuja that the office decided to withdraw the case in order to review it and decide the appropriate action to take on it.
Justice Ojukwu struck out the case when the application for withdrawal was not opposed by the defence lawyer, Mohammed Katu.
The SPIP case against Governor Hope Uzodinma of Imo State was also struck out by the Federal High Court in Abuja on similar grounds.
But some of the SPIP’s high-profile cases, such as the one instituted against a former Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, have been struck out by the court on the basis of the AGF office’s claim that the files were missing.
For instance, on February 24, 2020, Justice Binta Nyako struck out the case involving Senator Ike Ekweremadu after the prosecuting counsel from the AGF office, Mr Pius Akutah, told the court that the former lawyer handling the case for the SPIP had disappeared with the case file.
Akutah had at the proceeding pleaded with the judge to order the former counsel to release the file to the AGF office
But Ekweremadu’s lawyer, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), urged the judge to either strike out the case or adjourn it indefinitely.
Responding, Justice Nyako, alluding to the enormous power of the AGF office, noted that the prosecutor representing the AGF “should not be waiting for me to make an order against an individual.”
Justice Nyako added, “So, as it is today, you don’t know the case against the defendant since you don’t have the file. I am going to strike out the case, when you are ready you can come back.
“The case is hereby struck out for want of diligent prosecution. The prosecution is allowed to come back whenever they are ready to proceed with the case.”
The SPIP had filed two counts against Ekweremadu on May 11, 2018, alleging that he failed to declare nine landed assets in Abuja; two in London, the United Kingdom; eight in Dubai, the United Arab Emirate; and three in Florida, the United States of America.
The defunct panel alleged that the offences which he allegedly committed were contrary to and punishable under section 3(3)(1)(a) of the Recovery of Public Property (Special Provision) Act 2004.
Corrupt persons spared on account of party allegiance – TI
Commenting on the development, the Chairman, Transparency International Nigeria, Musa Rafsanjani, said the current regime’s anti-graft campaign lacked coordination, noting that many corrupt people were being spared on account of their allegiance to the President and some senior officials.
“That is why the cases against many people in leadership positions today, from governors to federal lawmakers, have been completely silenced because they are in the same party and are loyal to the president and some people in government. You can’t fight corruption that way.”
The Executive Director, Civil Liberties Organisation, Ibuchukwu Ezike, said the government had never been serious with the anti-graft war, despite the establishment of two anti-graft agencies, noting that it was a gimmick to deceive Nigerians.
He added, “They are taking individuals to court but they would not investigate the cases properly. What we have seen is that when you are a poor person, you continue to suffer, but if you are rich, the law would protect you. The fight against corruption has not been justified; the corrupt are walking freely. We have never trusted the fight against corruption by any government in this country.”
Also, the President, Campaign for Democracy, Mr Usman Abdul, said for a government that came with the promise to fight corruption, this was unacceptable. We look at the fight against corruption as mere rhetoric if we are talking about missing case files.
He added, “This calls for a probe. The President must order a probe and clean up the mess in the Ministry of Justice. With this, one will begin to doubt the capacity of the ministry to prosecute corruption cases. The AGF and other actors should step aside pending the outcome of that probe.”
Also, the Executive Chairman, Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership, Mr Debo Adeniran, said, “This shows that some of the people working with the President are sabotaging the anti-corruption efforts. The Ministry of Justice under Malami and Apata has not shown adequate commitment to the fight against corruption. There should be a probe to recover the files.”
Source: The PUNCH