By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—Sequel to President Muhammadu Buhari’s directive, the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Mr. Dayo Apata, has assumed control of the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property.
A statement by the Ministry of Justice disclosed that Buhari directed Apata to take over the affairs of the panel, following the suspension of its erstwhile chairman, Chief Okoi Obono-Obla.
The president was said to have ordered Obono-Obla to immediately handover to Apata to await the outcome of investigation into series of petitions lodged against him by “legal practitioners, concerned public spirited citizens and public officers.”
Allegations against Obono-Obla
According to the statement by Deputy Director, Public Affairs, at the Ministry of Justice, Mr. James Odaudu, allegations against Obono-Obla bordered on “abuse of office, intimidation, unauthorised malicious investigation, financial impropriety, administrative misconduct and forgery/falsification of records”.
It further disclosed that his suspension followed the receipt and consideration of the interim investigative report of Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, on the matter.
It said: “The President has also directed that ICPC should conclude its investigations and proceed to prosecute Chief Obono-Obla.
“Meanwhile, the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Dayo Apata, has been directed to immediately take over the affairs of the Special Investigative Panel (SPIP).”
Buhari had in a letter dated August 14 and signed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha, conveyed Obono-Obla’s suspension to him.
The letter with Ref: 58788/S.75/S.18/T 1/100, read: “I write to convey the directive of His Excellency, Muhammadu Buhari, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, for your suspension from office as Chairman, Special Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property, with immediate effect.
“This suspension shall subsist until the conclusion of the ongoing ICPC investigations into cases of alleged falsification of records and financial impropriety against your person.
“You are required by this instruction to strictly observe and comply with the provisions of PSR 030405 (a-c) of the Public Service Rules.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice shall be the authority to whom you shall report. Please accept my best regards.”
Vanguard learned, yesterday, that the ICPC has kick-started the process of drafting a criminal charge against the suspended SPIP chairman.
Obono-Obla had earlier alleged that some high-profile persons that were being investigated by his panel, were behind his ordeal.
In a statement he issued after Abuja office of the panel was sealed-off by armed policemen during the Salah break, Obono-Obla bemoaned what he described as “a smear campaign” against him and the panel.
He said: “It is time we call the myths out for what they are, as the news making the rounds appears to us as a smear campaign from people with their protectionist agenda in favour of persons being investigated.
“SPIP officials have made and continue to contribute vitally to the fight against corruption, and daily, we are recovering monies owed the government in billions and calling upon high profile persons and seemingly ‘untouchable’ persons who have illegally enriched themselves from government coffers at the expense of members of the public, to come forward and answer to their crimes and make refunds of misappropriated government monies.
“The efforts of the SPIP in the fight against corruption in Nigeria deserve to be recognised instead we are being dismissed with misleading scare stories and arm-twisting of the Panel officials by ‘highly placed Nigerians’ wishing to protect some persons under our investigation and thereby distracting the panel from carrying out its lawful mandate.
“We have examples of many high-profile cases where misappropriated public funds were traced to the personal bank accounts of public servants and rather than explain the source of the funds, they resort to false petitions and unfairly attacking the officials of the Panel,” he added.
Controversies had trailed operations of the panel which had on various occasions, threatened to issue warrant of arrest against highly placed public officials, including serving Judges and Federal lawmakers that ignored its summons to appear and declare their assets before it.
The panel proceeded to obtain exparte orders for interim forfeiture of assets of some of the public officers that declined the summons on the basis that they had already declared their assets before the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, as provided in the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
Following plethora of litigations that dogged activities of the panel, in two concurrent judgements, both the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal in Abuja, held that the panel lacked prosecutorial powers and declared its operations as illegal.
Among those the panel had moved to seize their assets included the former Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, Senator Peter Nwaoboshi who is representing Delta North, as well as the governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, in Imo State, Senator Hope Uzodinma.
The panel, on July 1, equally secured a bench warrant for the arrest of the President of the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, Amaju Pinnick and four other officials of the football association.
In a charge marked FHC/ABJ/CR/93/2019, the panel alleged that the NFF officials diverted about $8,400 that was paid to Nigeria by FIFA.
Similarly, the panel, on July 31, filed an exparte application to seize assets of the Director of Operations at Petroleum Equalisation Fund, PEF, Aisha Usman, insisting that it stumbled on evidence that linked her to a N65milion share fraud.
Describing her as “a wealthy civil servant the panel prayed the court for interim forfeiture order against her “suspicious assets”.
It had also summoned top officials of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, and officials of major oil companies in the country to answer questions regarding sundry transactions that were conducted in the past.