….grants EFCC’s request for final forfeiture of unclaimed N5.734bn to FG
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, on Friday, aborted bid by the Federal Government to seize funds in all accounts without the Bank Verification Number, BVN.
The court, in a judgment that was delivered by Justice Nnamdi Dimgba, held that FG failed to fulfill certain condition precedents that would entitle it to secure final forfeiture order in respect of funds in such accounts.
Justice Dimgba held that FG failed to comply with section 17 of the Advanced Fee Fraud.
He maintained that for FG to succeed in obtaining final forfeiture order, it must be proved that funds in such accounts were abandoned or unclaimed, were products of unlawful activity, as well as an advert placed for anyone laying claim to such funds to come forward.
“Advertisement therefore is a necessary condition to be fulfilled”, the court held, adding that “relief sought by the plaintiff cannot be granted at this stage”.
Justice Dimgba noted that FG neither adduced any evidence to prove that funds in the accounts were proceeds of crime, nor indicated efforts it made to ensure that banks complied with interim orders of the court.
It will be recalled that the court had in an ex-parte order it made on October 17, 2017, directed the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, and 19 commercial banks in the country to disclose all accounts in their custody without BVN and amounts in them.
The court further granted an interim order directing the banks to freeze funds in such accounts by stopping “all outward payments, operations or transactions”, pending the hearing of the substantive application that was filed by the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, seeking permanent forfeiture of funds in such accounts to FG.
It specifically granted “An interim order of forfeiture of the monies in the said accounts without BVN to the Claimants/Applicants being accounts with insufficient Know Your Customer guidelines contrary to Section 3 of the Money Laundering Act, 2011 and CBN guidelines, pending the determination of the originating motion on notice”.
The court ordered Chief Compliance Officers of all the banks to depose an affidavit disclosing details of all such accounts, their owners and their proceeds.
However, in another ruling on November 15, 2017, Justice Dimgba, varied the initial orders following an agreement FG reached with the 19 commercial banks.
The court directed banks to immediately unfreeze accounts that had since been linked to a BVN after the freezing order was made.
The Judge noted that the way the relief was couched, the freezing order placed on such accounts woud have subsisted until the case was finally determined and not by the account owner undertaking the BVN registration.
Justice Dimgba said that aspect of his ruling had created “awkward and unfortunate results”.
Meanwhile, FG, in a subsequent motion, applied for final forfeiture order on all funds in accounts without BVN.
All the 19 commecial banks however challenged jurisdiction of the high court to entertain the suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/911/16, which has FG and the AGF as the applicants.
They prayed the court to dismiss the suit, contending that the AGF lacked the capacity to demand such reliefs on behalf of FG.
Delivering judgment in the matter, the court dismissed all the preliminary objections the banks raised against the AGF.
The court however held that FG failed to indicate in any of its affidavits that contempt proceeding was initiated against any of the banks for its failure to obey lawful orders it earlier made with respect to accounts without BVN.
“The plaintiffs ought to have taken appropriate steps to ensure that the orders were complied with before bringing the instant application”, the court held.
Before it dismissed FG’s motion, the court stressed that the initial interim orders it issued against all commercial banks in the country are still valid and extant.
“I am of the view that the motion on notice of October 17, 2017, does not deserve to succeed.
“The order of October 17, 2017, is very much in force. The plaintiffs are entitled to bring subsistence of the order in fruition provided they fulfil the condition precedents”, Justice Dimgba held.
Sued as defendants in the matter were Access Bank Plc, Citi Bank Nigeria, Diamond Bank Plc, Ecobank Nigeria, Fidelity Bank of Nigeria Plc, First Bank of Nigeria Plc, First City Monument Bank Plc, Guaranty Trust Bank Plc and Heritage Bank Plc.
Others were Keystone Bank, Skye Bank Plc, Stanbic IBTC Bank Plc, Union Bank of Nigeria Plc, United Bank for Africa Plc, Unity Bank Plc, Wema Bank Plc, Zenith Bank Plc and the CBN.
In a related development, Justice Dimgba, in another ruling on Friday in a suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/1203/2017, ordered that the sum of N5, 734, 785, 000 which had been in a recovery account of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, domiciled with the CBN, should be permanently forfeited to FG.
The court further granted FG leave to claim ownership of eight unclaimed properties which were alleged to have been acquired through proceeds of crime.
The properties which the court ordered to be forfeited to FG included two 4 bedroom terrace duplexes at Gudu District Abuja, 6 bedroom detached house at Apo Dutse, Plot 1086 Cadatsral Zone B10, Dakibiyu, FCT, Plot 2317 Mbora District, Cadastral Zone C06 FCT, 3 bedroom flat at Victoria Island Lagos, 5 bedroom detached and another 3 bedroom bungalow at Wuse II, Abuja.