By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, on Thursday, declined to order the arrest of the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, following his absence in court to face trial over his alleged refusal to declare his assets to the Special Presidential Investigative Panel for the Recovery of Public Assets.
The court, in a ruling that was delivered by trial Justice Binta Nyako, turned down an application the Chief Okio Obono-Obla led Presidential Panel made for a bench warrant to be issued against Ekweremadu.
Justice Nyako said she was not unmindful of the fact that Ekweremadu had earlier filed processes to challenge the jurisdiction of the court, as well as the legal competence of the two-count criminal charge the Panel preferred against him.
The Panel had through its lawyer, Mr. Celsius Ukpong, insisted that Ekweremadu ought to physically appear before the court to either enter his plea to the charge, or to query the validity of his trial.
It told the court that the Defendant was duly served with all the relevant processes in the charge that was entered against him since May 11.
The prosecution accused Ekweremadu of deliberately making himself unavailable in court so as to frustrate his trial.
It therefore applied for an order to compel security agencies to arrest and produce him before the court for arraignment.
However, Ekweremadu’s lawyer, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, persuaded the court to refuse the application which he said was highly unmeritorious.
Aside drawing the attention of the court to his client’s grounds of objection, the defence lawyer, said it was more honourable for the Presidential Panel to withdraw the charge since the Court of Appeal has declared its operations as illegal.
Awomolo tendered a copy of the appellate court’s judgment that was delivered on November 5, stressing that the higher court made it abundantly clear that the Panel, which filed the criminal charge against his client, has no prosecutorial power under the law.
After she had listened to both parties, Justice Nyako, said there was no necessity for the court to issue a bench warrant against Ekweremadu.
The Judge subsequently adjourned the case till February 26, 2019, to hear Ekweremadu’s preliminary objections to his trial.
The Presidential Panel had in the charge marked FHC/ABJ/CR/62/2018, alleged that Ekweremadu refused to declare his assets in a manner it prescribed for him.
It alleged that the Defendant ignored several invitations extended for him to “clarify issues in the allegation of excessive wealth or suspicious assets” which it said “cannot be justified or expiained” by his legitimate income.
Nevertheless, the appellate court, in its judgment in a suit marked CA/A/278/2018, which was lodged by former Director in the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Ibrahim Tumsah, held that the Panel lacked the powers to try assets related offences.
A five-man panel of Justices of the Court of Appeal led by Justice Hussein Mukhtar, voided a high court order that permitted the Panel to seize assets on behalf of FG.
It held that the lower court “was in error when it granted the reliefs sought in favour of the Chairman of the Presidential Panel on Recovery of Public Property when the statute establishing the Agency do not give it power to initiate the proceedings that led to the grant of the orders of the lower court”.
It will be recalled that Ekweremadu had earlier challenged the powers of the high to grant interim ownership of his 22 properties to FG.
Ekweremadu maintained that under the 1999 Constitution, as amended, the court, lacked the jurisdiction to entertain and exercise judicial powers in matter related to, connected with and arising from the Code of Conduct and Declaration of Assets.
He told the court that the Chief Obono-Oblah led Panel that is moving to seize his properties for the government “is an illegal body”, saying it was not created under any law made by the National Assembly.
“The so called Special Panel was never Gazetted in any publication in the Federal Government of Nigeria Gazette. The President and Commander-in-Chief never inaugurated any panel anytime and anywhere in Nigeria”.
He contended that the Panel lacked the locus standi, competence and legal vires to receive complaints, investigate and initiate legal proceedings in matters connected with assets he declared to the Code of Conduct Bureau in 2007 and 2015.