By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor, Abdulwahab Abdulah, Peter Duru, Ikechukwu Nnochiri & Henry Ojelu
•They’re persecuting me to cripple Benue State — Ortom
•Strange things are happening, says Unongo; it’s witch-hunt — Waku
•You’re taking this too far, Benue leaders cry out
•Nothing wrong asking for documents from those we’re investigating — EFCC
•EFCC has no right to delve into security matters— Lawyers; it does — SERAP
ABUJA—Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State, yesterday, accused the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, of deliberate witch-hunt as the anti-graft agency asked for minutes of the state’s security meetings.
The governor, reacting to EFCC’s demand for minutes of Benue State Security Council meetings between 2015 and 2018, decried the level of harassment and intimidation of officials of his government by the anti-graft agency since he dumped the All Progressives Congress, APC, for the PDP. He stressed that the commission had not relented in persecuting him since his defection.
In a statement signed by his Chief Press Secretary, Terver Akase, Governor Ortom disclosed that the commission had deliberately continued to ground the state government’s activities with persistent invitation of its officials to its office in Abuja.
It’s ridiculous — Ortom
The governor hinted that the anti-graft agency had reduced the persecution to ridiculous level, adding that “the EFCC seems not to have been done with the state government; everyday the commission invites not less than seven government officials to Abuja.
“The victimization has reached a level where the commission is demanding minutes of the security council meetings of the state. This is a deliberate witch-hunt against our administration, all intended to cripple our government.
“Does the statutory mandate of the commission include regulation of states’ security affairs? If we may ask, what does the EFCC want to do with minutes of our security council meetings?
“We wonder why Benue is being singled out for witch-hunt. Governor Ortom is not the first sitting governor to defect to another political party. Why is his case different?
“The EFCC ought to know that monetary approvals are not given during security council meetings as such duties do not fall within the purview of the council.”
Reacting to the development, elder statesman, Wantaregh Paul Unongo expressed shock at current happenings in the country.
He said: “If you noticed, I have not been speaking on issues in the country recently because things that are happening in this country are very strange to those of us who appear to be the founding fathers of the country.
“The things that are happening are very strange to some of us, very soon after observing it, I will speak because I have never heard of anything like what I am seeing in this country now.”
It’s a witch-hunt — Waku, Benue tribal leaders
On his part, Senator Joseph Waku attributed the action of the anti-graft agency to a clear case of deliberate witch-hunt.
Waku said: “Has it been the procedure? Is the EFCC a security apparatus of government? It is just witch-hunting and nothing more.
“The EFCC is not a security outfit with such a mandate, or have they become the courts? It is a clear case of witch-hunt against the government.”
On his part, chairman of Benue State tribal leaders, Chief Edward Ujege, cautioned that the EFCC was taking its fight against the state government too far, warning that the people would resist any attempt to cripple the state still struggling to come out of the harsh and devastating effects of prolonged herdsmen crisis.
Chief Ujege said: “What they are doing is nothing but a witch-hunt. It is not in accordance with the enabling law establishing the commission.
“This is political witch-hunt, the EFCC has gone too far beyond their mandate. Our people will resist this witch-hunt because it’s being taken too far,” Chief Ujege added.
We have the right — EFCC
Confirming the story yesterday, EFCC spokesman, Wilson Uwujaren, said there was nothing strange in asking for records of the state’s security council meetings which allegedly authorised withdrawal of over N23 billion for security purposes.
He noted that the anti-graft agency was investigating the accounts of Benue State government, having noticed consistent massive withdrawals, which the agency suspected were for money laundering.
Uwujaren declined to give further details, pointing out that investigators have the right to demand for any document that could help them in their investigation or prove their suspicion of money laundering to the contrary.
Reacting to the development, Mr. Lawal Pedro, SAN, said asking the state government to release the details of its security meetings was not the core duties of the EFCC.
He said: “That is the work of other security agencies that are in charge of the general security of Nigeria. If in the process of carrying out their jobs, the security agencies now discover any financial crime, that is the only situation that will make them to call for investigation of any crime committed.
‘’The EFCC certainly does not have veto power to ask a state government to release or give details of its security meetings. It is ultra vires the power of the EFCC, going by the law that established the commission.
“However, if the appropriate federal government security agency decides to investigate the state and discovers that there had been an economic crime committed by any official of the state, only then can the EFCC come in to investigate such financial crime that was committed.
‘’The EFCC certainly doesn’t have a general veto power to make such request to any state government in the country. I believe that the police should be in a better position to make such request and certainly not the EFCC.
In his reaction, another legal practitioner, Chuma Otteh, said: “The EFCC, by virtue of the law establishing it, has mandate and powers to investigate criminal matters relating to economic and financial crimes.
‘’Except, the body is requesting for such information relating to economic issue, I find it very strange for it to ask FEC to give information about security meeting. In effect, such request has no basis, so far it is issue bordering on security. Also, EFCC as an arm of government can only rely on information given by the government.”
EFCC has the right — SERAP
However, Executive Director of Social Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, Tokunbo Mumuni, said: “The government has the responsibility to supply such information and hand over whatever it needs to help it dispense its constitutional duties.
“So, there is nothing wrong for the body to request for such information, especially if the security matters deliberated have corrupt dealings. It is entitled to ask for it and the government should supply it for effective investigation.”
It’s ultra vires, more lawyers react
Another lawyer, Dr Allen Richard, said: “The EFCC mandate is to deal with issue of corruption and any economic infractions. It can investigate and prosecute anything bordering on economic sabotage.
“However, if you said it is on security matter, anything done by the body outside economic and financial crimes is ultra vires and it becomes illegal.
“To this end, its request and demand is irrelevant. It does not need it and it doesn’t possess such powers.”
Second Vice President, Nigerian Bar Association, Monday Ubani, said: “That is a strange request. Why should the EFCC be asking a state government to release the details of their security meeting? I have read through the EFCC Act and I have not seen any portion to empower the agency to make such request.
“Another question that one must ask is why is the EFCC singling out just Benue State? There is something certainly suspicious about that request.”
Reacting in a similar vein, another legal practitioner, Destiny Takon, said: “Everybody knows that the power of the EFCC is limited to economic crime. The EFCC lacks the competence to ask an arm of government to make disclosure of its security meeting.
“As a matter of fact, the governor of Benue State is the chief security officer of the state and can hold any meeting concerning the affairs of the state, especially in light of the senseless killing in the state.
“The EFCC is certainly overshooting its powers and in simple terms, what it is doing amounts to witch-hunting which has been known to be the character of this government.
“The agenda clearly appears to be a sinister motive inquiry into any move that Benue State government is making to protect the people of the state. That simply is the only explanation for this.”
Also Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs, yesterday, maintained that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, was bereft of the constitutional powers to compel officials of Benue State Government to furnish it with details of all security meetings that have been held in the state since inception of Governor Samuel Ortom’s administration.
The senior lawyers, in separate interviews with Vanguard, further contended that under the prevailing situation, the anti-graft agency, could not also investigate how state governments utilize their security votes.
Among those that expressed legal opinion included a professor of law, Mr. Ernest Ojukwu, SAN, as well as vocal constitutional lawyer, Chief Mike Ozehkome, SAN.
Both senior lawyers made reference to decided case laws which they said barred the EFCC from supervising or investigating issues bordering on security expenditure of states.
They both insisted that no state could be legally compelled to submit such report to the EFCC.
Prof. Ojukwu, SAN, said: “We have had some decided cases on this matter, but I wouldn’t know if it is the account that they are looking into or they are investigating a suspected crime.
“There are subsisting decisions that, while a serving Governor has immunity against prosecution, he can be investigated. However, as a defendant in a criminal investigation, it should be your decision to submit or not submit information to the agency, which is like writing a statement. The constitution permits you not to say anything. So it is not a mandatory thing that Benue State government must comply.
“It is left for the state government to decide on whether it will comply or not. In law and under the constitution, a defendant in a criminal investigation has a right not to say anything. It is for the agency to prove what it wants.”
According to Ozehkome, SAN: “This requisition is nothing but a vile political instrument to muscle the governor because he refused not to defect from the APC after the Presidency and the APC government had begged him not to decamp. The state governor is the Chief Security Officer under Section 215 of the 1999 Constitution and security votes across Nigeria have never been known to be accounted for or to be disclosed by any of the governors since 1999 when we started this journey in a fresh democratic experimentation.
“The governor cannot be required to disclose security matters of the state, as if Benue State was a parastatal of the Federal Government. We operate a federal system of government where the Federal Government at the centre has no sovereignty or imperial control over state governments as if they were an appendage.
“Various decisions by the courts affirmed that EFCC cannot investigate state accounts. One of them is the case I won for the Ekiti State Government earlier in the year, where the Federal High Court sitting at Ado-Ekiti declared that under Sections 6,7,28, 32 and 34 of the EFCC Establishment Act of 2004, it has no power to act as a Monitor General or as a Senior Prefect to oversee the account of state governments or to ask state officials to produce accounts of Ekiti State Government.