By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The Federal High Court in Abuja, on Tuesday, vacated an order it made on May 30, freezing 16 separate bank accounts linked to wife of former President Goodluck Jonathan, Patience.
Justice Binta Nyako lifted the order that barred Mrs. Jonathan and 10 different organizations connected to her, from having access to the bank accounts containing aggregate sums of $5.8million and N3.5billion.
The court took the decision after it heard an application that Mrs. Jonathan and the 10 companies filed to challenge an ex-parte order that granted the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, interim ownership of funds in the accounts.
The companies that were cited as co-applicants in the motion that the ex-first lady filed through her team of lawyers led by Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, were the Incorporated Trustees of Ariwabai Aruera Reachout Foundation, Pagmat Oil and Gas Nigeria Limited, Flinchley Top Homes Limited, Incorporated Trustees of Women for Change and Development Initiative Nigeria, Transocean Property and Investment Ltd, Seagate Property Development Investment Company, Globus Integrated Services and Pluto Property and Investment Company Limited.
Justice Nyako upheld Ozekhome’s argument that the interim forfeiture order had elapsed and could not be renewed by the EFCC.
The former first lady had insisted before the court that the anti-graft agency obtained the forfeiture order by an improper use of the judicial process.
Mrs. Jonathan and the 10 firms told the court that the said interim forfeiture order, including a subsequent one that was issued on October 18, had since expired, with the EFCC, failing to establish a nexus between the applicants and any act of illegality.
In a six –paragraph affidavit deposed to by one Chinedu Maduba, Mrs. Jonathan and the firms admitted their ownership of the 16 bank accounts.
The applicants told the court that EFCC had before May 30 when it secured the forfeiture order, also filed a similar application that affected most of the parties, before Justice C.M.A. Olatoregun of the Federal High Court sitting in Lagos in suit number FHC/L/CS/1342/2016 with same granted on October 10.
They alleged that EFCC suppressed the fact that it had earlier approached the Lagos Division of court for the same relief it applied for and secured from the court in Abuja.
Mrs Jonathan said, though she was not served a copy of the order that froze her accounts, she said she only became aware of the existence of the forfeiture order from the court in Abuja few days ago during the hearing of a petition she sent to the National Assembly and after some of her co-applicants tried to operate their accounts to no avail.
She argued that the interim forfeiture order had a life span of 90 days commencing from May 30, insisting that the order had long elapsed without any renewal or extension of its lifespan.
“That by reason of these orders, the Applicants have been unable to operate their accounts as the banks who are in custody of their accounts have refused to honour any of the applicants’ instructions ostensibly because of the order of this honourable court”, the affidavit added.
While five of the frozen accounts are domiciled in Skye Bank Plc with seven of them in Diamond Bank Plc, the remaining accounts are with Union Bank Plc, First Bank Plc, Ecobank and Zenith Bank Plc.
EFCC had in reaction to the application, prayed the court for an extension of the forfeiture order against funds in the 16 bank accounts.
EFCC lawyer, Mr. Richard Dauda also applied for the extension application to be heard first before the application by Mrs. Jonathan and the firms.
However, Justice Nyako, after hearing both motions, said there was nothing before the court to warrant an extension of the interim forfeiture order.
It will be recalled that Mrs. Jonathan had on October 19, also blocked moves by the EFCC to take over assets belonging to her organisation, Ariwabai Aruera Reachout Foundation.
EFCC had in an ex-parte motion it filed before another Judge of the same high court, applied for an order of interim attachment/forfeiture of assets and properties of the foundation at Plot No. 1960, Cadastral Zone A05 Maitama District and Plot No. 1350, Cadastral Zone A00, in Abuja.
The anti-graft agency equally sought for “An order stopping any disposal, conveyance, mortgage, lease, sale or alienation or otherwise of the property/asset described in the schedule attached herein.
As well as, “An order authorizing the EFCC to appoint a competent person(s)/ firm to manage the asset/property listed in the schedule herein, temporarily forfeited to the federal government pending the conclusion of investigation”.
The motion ex-parte marked FHC/Abj/CS/872/2017, was predicated on section 6(d), 7(2), 24(a), 26(1), 28 and 29 of the EFCC (Establishment) Act, 2004, section 330(a) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, section 15 of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2011, as amended, and section 44(2) (K) of the 1999 constitution, as amended.
The Commission told the court that the assets/properties of Mrs. Jonathan’s foundation “are subject matter of investigation, enquiry and examination by the EFCC”.
It said there was need to preserve the assets/properties “pending the conclusion of investigation and possibly determination of criminal charges that may be instituted against the suspects.
“If there is any transaction on the property by the suspects by way of disposal, conveyance, mortgage, lease, sale and alienation or otherwise of the asset or property described in the schedule herein, it will render nugatory any consequential order(s) which the court may make if the suspect(s) is convicted of the offences alleged against her/them after possible due trial”, the agency added.
Besides, in a 12-paragraphed supporting affidavit that was deposed to by one of its investigators, Mr. Kolawole Mukaila, EFCC said it has a Special Task Force investigating “alleged amounts of money laundered by the former First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan into various account and properties were purchased with nothing to show for”.
Mukaila who identified himself as a member of the special investigating team, averred: “That sometimes in 2016, an alleged case of conspiracy and money laundering was received via intelligence report to the office of the Executive Chairman and referred to my team for investigation.
“That my team swung into action to conduct a discreet investigation by writing letters to Ecobank, Diamond bank, Corporate Affairs Commission and AGIS.
“That in the course of investigation, it was revealed from the responses from the C.A.C and Abuja Geographical Information Systems that the plots of land were allocated to Ariwabai Aruera Reach out Foundation belonging to the former first lady, Patience Jonathan and her allies.
“That investigation further reveals the accounts held by Ariwabai Aruera Reachout Foundation had the former first lady, Patience Jonathan as one of the trustees and signatories of the account. Copies of the response from Diamond bank and Ecobank are hereby attached and marked as Exhibit EFCC 2A- 2B respectively.
“That investigation also revealed that the plots of land were allocated in 2010 and the Certificate of Occupancy was issued in 2011.
“That all the above stated payment/transfers/purchases had no contract award backing it up whatsoever and as such was reasonably suspected to be fraudulent payments and an illegal dissipation of the nation’s resources”, he added.
However, the former first lady persuaded the court presided by Justice Nnamdi Dimgba to suspend hearing on the ex-parte motion to enable her to respond to the application.
Mr. Jonathan said she got wind of EFCC’s plans and decided to file a counter-motion in opposition to the interim forfeiture order request.
She prayed the court to strike out EFCC’s ex-parte Originating Motion dated September 20 on the ground that the court lacks the jurisdiction to entertain the application.
Mrs. Jonathan insisted that the motion was legally defective, insisting that ‘Ex-parte Originating Summons’ “is not one of the modes of commencement of action under Order 3 Rule 1 of the Federal High Court (Civil Procedure Rules) 2009, and it is not known or provided for by any law or rules of court”.
She argued that the motion was an abuse of court process as it was filed “to overreach the Fundamental Human Rights suit pending before this court in suit no. FHC/CS/586/2017, filed by one of the trustees of Ariwabai Aruera Reachout Foundation, against the said EFCC, with respect to the assets/properties of the said Ariwabai Aruera Reachout Foundation, sought to be forfeited by the EFCC through the instant ‘Exparte Originating Summons”.
Mrs. Jonathan, through an affidavit also deposed to by Mr Maduba, told the court that the NGO was founded in 2006 when she was the first lady of Bayelsa state, in conjunction with other trustees.
“That the said NGO was registered as a charitable organization and in the last 10 years, it has carried out several charitable programmes, in line with its objectives. Some of the programmes include vocational training for women, treatment of people with heart and kidney problems within the country and abroad, as well as assisting less privileged generally.
“That recently, the Respondent herein began to harass Mrs. Patience Jonathan, her relatives and the NGO, by indiscriminately freezing their accounts, even without court order, breaking into their properties, sealing off the NGO’s properties without an order of court. That the actions of the Respondent led to the filing of a Fundamental Human Right suit against the Respondent by Mrs. Patience Jonathan”.
Justice Dimgba has fixed January 22, 2018, to hear the matter.