By Chika Amanze-Nwachuku
A former Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki has urged a Federal High Court in Lagos to dismiss the application by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), seeking the final forfeiture of his Ilorin home to the federal government, insisting that the anti-graft agency could not rely on mere suspicion that government money was used in funding the construction of the house in question in obtaining the forfeiture order.
Saraki’s lawyers, led by Mr. Kehinde Ogunwumiju, SAN, posited that while the EFCC could rely on mere suspicion in obtaining an interim forfeiture order, the agency should provide concrete evidence and prove beyond reasonable doubt its claims in order to obtain a permanent and final forfeiture order.
Arguing the application before Justice Rilwan Aikawa on Thursday, the former Senate President’s lawyers noted that the EFCC has not produced any oral or documentary evidence of approval, instruction or endorsement by Dr. Saraki to justify the forfeiture order.
The commission had on December 2, 2019 obtained an order temporarily forfeiting the former Senate President’s houses – Plots No. 10 and No. 11 Abdulkadir Road, GRA, Ilorin, Kwara State – to the Federal Government of Nigeria, claiming they were built with funds stolen from Kwara State’s coffers.
Consequently, the Commission has approached the court to make an order for a permanent and final forfeiture of the property.
Arguing the application before Justice Aikawa on Thursday, the EFCC counsel, Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo had argued that two Ilorin houses belonging to Saraki, must be forfeited to the federal government because they were built with funds allegedly stolen from the coffers of Kwara State.
The anti-graft agency claimed that it had evidence that Saraki, who was Kwara State governor between 2003 and 2011, diverted not less than N10 billion belonging to the state.
According to the EFCC, the sum of N1.09 billion spent on the two Ilorin buildings was part of the N10 billion allegedly stolen by Saraki.
But Saraki’s lawyer, Ogunwunmiju, who vehemently opposed the application, insisted that the houses were built from his legitimate earnings.
The Senior lawyer submitted that N252.2 million out of the N1.09billion used for developing the property represented what Saraki was paid for the development of a five-bedroom apartment, which he was entitled to as a two-term governor of Kwara State.
Ogunwunmiju drew the attention of Justice Aikawa to the Governor and Deputy Governor (Payment of Pension) Law 2010 of Kwara State, which stipulated that an elected two-term governor of the state was entitled to a five- and four-bedroomed duplex, respectively, at any location of their choice within Kwara State.
He said rather than allow the state to build the house for him, Saraki chose to collect N252.2 million so he could add money to it to build a house to his taste.
Ogunwumiju further argued that all the exaggerated claims by the EFCC on withdrawal of government money and its use to acquire property were the same claims made before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court between September 22, 2015 and July 6, 2018 when all the courts concluded and gave judgement respectively to the effect that there was no prima facie case established against Saraki.
The senior lawyer further noted specifically that Count 7 of the decided case, which went up to Supreme Court states as follows: “That you, Dr. Olubukola Abubakar Saraki….(made) various lodgements into your Guaranty Trust Bank account at GT Bank GRA, Ilorin, through your aides as the Governor of Kwara State and your account officer and which funds you handed over to them in cash at the Kwara State Government House…which were not fairly attributable to your income, gifts or loans…” The same old story is being repeated by the EFCC before Justice Aikawa at the FHC, Lagos, Saraki’s lawyers noted.
The lawyers also submitted that the EFCC produced no new evidence different from what was presented before the CCT and the appellate courts in 2015 and this amounted to re-opening a case that had been decided up to the Supreme Court. “This is just a case of bringing back through the back door a case they had earlier lost.”
According to Saraki’s lawyers, the claim of transfer of funds belonging to Kwara State Government has no evidential link to the former Senate President as there was no document or instruction or testimony by any witness linking him to any such illegal transfer of money.
“We will like, for emphasis, to state that the fictitious claims by EFCC of a certain amount being taken from government coffers and deposited by aides have no basis, is totally untrue and a fabricated lie. The agency has not produced any oral or documentary evidence of approval, instruction or endorsement by Dr. Saraki as proof of such act.
These claims made newspaper headlines when they were first thrown into the public space by the same EFCC in September 2015 during the CCT trial and no evidence has been produced in support of such claim. They remain mere headline-grabbing stunt”, the lawyers submitted.
Saraki’s lawyers also disagreed with the position of the anti-graft agency that mere suspicion that government money was used in funding the construction of the house in question would be enough to justify the application for forfeiture of the property and that the burden of proof is on the defendant to prove the source of the money for the construction of the property.
Saraki’s lawyer posited that while EFCC could rely on mere suspicion in obtaining an interim forfeiture order, it should provide concrete evidence and prove beyond reasonable doubt its claims in order to obtain a permanent and final forfeiture order.
The lawyers also told the court that in line with the provision of the Governor and Deputy Governor (Payment of Pension) Law 2010 of Kwara State, the State Government provided N252.2 million for the building of a five bedroom Duplex for Saraki as a two-term Governor of the State and he added his personal money to enable him fund the construction of the property in question. The personal fund came from earnings from companies in which Dr. Saraki has statutorily declared that he has substantial and controlling interests.
Furthermore, the lawyers noted that the financial contribution Dr. Saraki made to the construction of the house in question was made in installments over several years after he left office as Governor.
They therefore urged the court to dismiss the EFCC’s application for being an abuse of court processes, saying the same issues had been taken before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court where Saraki was vindicated. After arguments that lasted for over five hours, Justice Aikwa adjourned till April 27 for judgment.
A statement by Saraki Media Office, signed by Mr. Yusuph Olaniyonu further noted that the court was also told that the property was built on a private land, never owned by government.
Olaniyonu observed that the reports in the newspaper on the court proceedings were selectively derived from the written briefs submitted by both parties in the matter and the journalists decided to give prominence to the sensational claims of the EFCC while using the brilliant submissions of the Saraki lawyers as foot notes.
“We hereby assure the associates and supporters of Dr. Saraki that he remains unflinching in his belief in the ability of the Nigerian judiciary to always do justice to all persons and at all times. We believe that justice shall prevail in this case, as well,” he said.