A’ Court Voids Assets Recovery Panel’s Power to Prosecute, Seize Properties

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Alex Enumah in Abuja

The Court of Appeal in Abuja yesterday ruled that the Special Presidential Panel on Assets Recovery lacked prosecutorial power and hence cannot initiate criminal proceedings against any accused person.

The court further held that the panel headed by Chief Okoi Obono-Obla, lacked the constitutional power to seize properties of alleged offenders.

A five-man panel of the appellate court led by Justice Hussein Muhktar voided the powers of the panel in a judgment delivered on an appeal filed by a staff of the Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing , Tijani Tumsah, through his counsel, Kehinde Ogunwumiju (SAN).

The court consequently set aside the forfeiture order of Tumsah brothers’ properties granted the panel by a Federal High Court in Abuja.

The panel had approached the High Court and obtained an order of forfeiture of the properties belonging to Tijani, alongside that of his brother , Ibrahim Tumsah,who is the Director of Finance and Accounts in Ministry of Power,Works and Housing.

However, not happy with the decision of the lower court, Tijani had approached the appellate court challenging the prosecutorial power of the panel.

Asides the Tumsah brothers that are being prosecuted by the panel, the panel has also filed a charge against the Deputy Senate President , Ike Ekweremadu, Senators Hope Uzodinma and Stella Oduah.

However, the panel in a unanimous decision , which was delivered by Justice Hussein Muhktar yesterday evening held that the Act which established the panel did not confer on it the powers to prosecute alleged offenders.

In the judgment, the appellate court further held that the powers of the panel is only limited to investigation and not prosecution.

The appellant had asked the court to determine whether the suit culminating in the forfeiture order against him was validly instituted by the panel before the court below.

He also asked the appellate court to determine whether or not the panel could validly rely on the EFCC Act to obtain the freezing order granted by the lower court on December 6,2017.

Also, the appellant asked the court to determine whether or not the lower court was right when it refused to set aside its interim freezing order of December 6, 2016.

The court however resolved all the three issues in favour of the appellant.

It held that nothing in the Recovery of Public Property Act Cap R 4, LFN 2004 empowers the panel to initiate court proceedings pursuant to its investigative powers for the purpose of obtaining an interim order for forfeiture of property.

According to the court, “the panel cannot clothe itself with the cloth not given to it by the Act that established it. It cannot take over the responsibilities of the EFCC.

“The power to investigate and prosecute is solely for the EFCC and such cannot be taken over by any person or agency.

“The provision of the Act is unambiguous and not confusing. The power of the panel is to conduct investigation on any officer who have corruptly enriched himself or breached the code of conduct.

“No power or authority is conferred on the panel to prosecute offenders.

“The ex-parte order granted by the lower court as regards the properties of the appellant is hereby set aside.

“The court below lacks the jurisdiction to entertain the matter, let alone enter judgment”.

The court held that suit instituted against the appellants at the lower court was not properly instituted.

The court further held that the Panel cannot take over the power of the EFCC in prosecuting criminal cases.

The court also held that the lower court was wrong for failing to set aside its forfeiture order.

Earlier,Justice Muhktar had explained why the judgement was delivered late in the day.

According to him, the judgment was earlier scheduled for today, but the panel got the hint that a nationwide strike may begin ,hence the need to deliver the judgment yesterday evening .