By Nnamdi Wali
TWO-TERM former governor of Rivers State, Dr. Peter Odili, has become an obsession of sort for some people. Such politically motivated irrational preoccupation has been on for sometime now. Nothing, can be as absurd as the ongoing fudging of facts on what is dressed up in legalese as “Odili’s perpetual injunction”.
Almost ten years after a legal matter in which the former governor (Odili) took the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to court, with all parties to the matter fully represented by eminent lawyers ,in the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), and judgment delivered in favour of Odili, it still beats one’s imagination that after the anti-graft agency abandoned its appeal at the Appellate court, it is now reported to be seeking to reopen the case. What hurts is not the attempts to reopen the case, it’s a misrepresentation of the material facts in the case in question.
This article is motivated in the main, by recent media reports that the Senate is reportedly working to upturn the so-called Odili’s “perpetual injunction”. According to the reports, Sen. Chukwuka Utazi-led Senate Committee on Anti-corruption and Financial Crimes, has proposed an amendment of the EFCC Act, which will upturn the injunction. The Committee was recently in Port Harcourt on an oversight visit to the South-South regional office of the EFCC.
A request was purportedly made by the regional coordinator of EFCC, Mr. Ishaq Salihu. He was reported to have said that the “perpetual injunction” obtained by Odili was affecting the morale of the operatives in prosecuting suspects in the South South region. Upon that lamentation by Ishaq, the Utazi-led committee was said to have promised to seek an amendment to the relevant EFCC Act.
It is in this regard that it has become necessary to revisit the Odili case and avoid this idee fixe by those who want to fudge the facts and blackmail Odili. Undoubtedly, the EFCC is tasked with awesome responsibility. Since its inception in 2003, the Commission ought to have a proud history. The mandate it is saddled with is of critical importance to the country. Section 47 of the enabling Act (2004) mandates the agency to combat financial and economic crimes. Opinions however differ on whether EFCC is discharging its duties in accordance with the law.
Not long ago, during a courtesy visit of some media houses in the country, the acting Chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Magu, whose confirmation was rejected by the Senate last week, said that the inability of the agency to prosecute former governor of Rivers State, Dr. Peter Odili was because of a “perpetual injunction” by a court. Magu also claimed that the Court of Appeal in Port Harcourt has further frustrated the effort of the commission by refusing to list its appeal since 2008.
EFCC prosecutor, Mr. Johnson Ojogbene, who accompanied Magu on the media tour had also claimed that the commission was always handicapped whenever the issue of injunction was involved, because, in his words,”there is nothing we can do but to obey it”. Let’s refresh our minds on how Odili’s travails began. It all began in January 2007. That was when the EFCC under Mallam Nuhu Ribadu issued what it called an “interim report” on the tenure of Odili .
The interim report hurriedly put together by Ribadu claimed it discovered a trove of financial fraud totalling N100bn belonging to Rivers state allegedly diverted by Odili. This allegation came about at the time Odili had indicated his intention to contest the office of the president under the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
However, Odili did not allow the allegations against him to go unchallenged. On February 22, through the then state Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Odein Ajumogobia, SAN, Odili went to court to challenge the powers of the EFCC to probe the affairs of the state government . He had argued that the attempt by the EFCC was “prejudicial to the smooth running of governance in Rivers state”.
It was a full trial. All parties in the suit were fully represented by counsels. And on March 23, 2007, Justice Ibrahim Buba, then of the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt who adjudicated on the case granted all the declaratory and injunctive reliefs sought by Odili.
One of them was a declaration that the EFCC and other defendants be stopped from publicising the so-called interim report and an injunction restraining the agency from further action regarding the alleged financial and economic crimes allegedly committed by Odili.
Besides, there was another suit against the EFCC and the Attorney General of the federation seeking to bar them from any attempt to arrest the plaintiff. The suit sought to enforce the judgment of Justice Buba by way of exparte order. Though the learned judge declined to grant the prayer, he however held that his earlier judgment of March 7,2007 was binding on all parties. This was what the EFCC erroneously calls “perpetual injunction”.
This is contrary to what the agency has laboured all these years to make the public believe. It is not. To say that the Court granted Odili permanent injunction will amount to twisting the truth.
Even if it was a perpetual injunction, in point of law, a High Court can give a perpetual injunction. But like all High Court judgments, it is appealable, and a case of this nature is not time-barred.
Therefore, the excuse by EFCC that the case is being frustrated at the Court of Appeal in Port Harcourt is a schoolboy excuse. Very laughable. The truth is that the so-called interim report was a shoddy investigation that left many loopholes that any diligent defence attorney would take advantage of. That was exactly what Odili’s lawyers did.
Anyone familiar with this case and the attempt to reopen it, as the EFCC is trying to do, knows it is an attempt to renew a previously shuttered case. The aim is to get at Odili by all means. It is important that the EFCC should not seek the spotlight for its own advancement by trying to secure conviction at all costs. As any learned mind will tell you , “justice allows neither for self-aggrandizing crusaders on high horses nor for passive bureaucrats wielding rubber stamps from the shadows’’. What Justice demands is responsibility, not a witch- hunt.
One is not saying that EFCC has committed a serious error by trying to reopen the case, or indeed, any previous high-profile case. Rather, one is of the view that the agency should avoid using the fruits of investigation as a smoking gun to settle old scores. EFCC should not allow itself to be sucked into, or intimidated by pressures from the powers that be and use it as an instrument to punish perceived enemies. That will defeat the purpose of setting up the commission.
Wali, a legal practitioner, writes from Port Harcourt, Rivers State