The legal intrigue aimed at frustrating the arrest and prosecution of former Governor James Ibori of Delta State continued today at a court in Benin City. The Federal High Court in Benin City, in neighboring Edo State, issued an ex-parte order restraining the Attorney General of the Federation, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and their agents from compelling the Delta State Government to produce or submit any document or information requested by both the Attorney General's office and the anti-corruption agency in relation to the investigation of the former governor's money laundering and corruption investigation.
Justice G.C. Okeke, who gave the order, also made an order stopping the EFCC, the Attorney General and their agents from arresting the former Delta State Governor.
On October 1, Ibori received what turned out to be a short-lived reprieve when a judge of the Southwark Crown Court lifted an order that had frozen Ibori’s assets since August 2nd 2007.
Saharareporters learnt that, following that reprieve, Ibori (who was rumored to have married a new wife named "Belinda" in Miami last week) was headed for Nigeria where his cousin and current Governor of Delta State, Emmanuel Uduaghan, had planned to give him a rosy welcome. It was not clear if his intended return to Nigeria was responsible for high police presence at the Murtala Mohammed airport last night.
But Ibori’s team suffered a major setback a few days ago when an Appeal Court in London reinstated the order to keep his assets frozen. That setback forced Ibori and his team to change course.
With British prosecutors blaming Nigerian officials for aiding Ibori’s triumph on October 1, and an embarrassed Umar Yar’adua proclaiming his regime’s readiness to co-operate with British police investigations who are due in Abuja next week, Ibori sought out a judge willing to append his name to a bogus court order. “This is a clear case of judicial corruption,” said a Lagos-based lawyer who asked to remain anonymous. “I’m ashamed to see judges like Okeke who issue nonsensical orders in exchange—I can assure you—for cash.”
The effect of the order is to practically extend Ibori’s immunity from prosecution which expired May 29 when he left office after an eight-year term that many consider ruinous for the state. Ibori is widely regarded as one of the most corrupt governors of the last eight years.
“This order is bizarre since Ibori is no longer an employee of the Delta State government,” said the Lagos lawyer.
Saharareporters had earlier reported that some former state governors who faced criminal prosecution from the EFCC had met secretly with the Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Michael Aondoankaa, who encouraged them to shop for judges to grant them immunity-type orders barring the EFCC from prosecuting them. At the last count, the AG has acted on an order granted the former governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu. Saminu Turaki of Jigawa State who was accused of stealing N36 billion from his state coffers has also been granted a similar order by a Kano High court. Peter Odili, formerly of Rivers State, has unsuccessfully tried to obtain a court order prohibiting his trial. And now Ibori has been issued a controversial order by a judge.
Though Yar'adua had promised in a widely circulated press statement yesterday not to shield James Ibori, the latest legal twist has cast serious doubt on his sincerity. It is now almost certain that the AGF would plead his "rule of law" mantra to justify a retreat from arresting and prosecuting Ibori.
West Africa Bar Association President and human rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana, already pooh-poohed Yar'adua's declaration saying that it carried no weight since the office of the Attorney General was yet to invoke the relevant Article 3 in the Mutual Assistance Treaty with Britain on corruption. That particular article 3, if invoked by Yar’adua through the Attorney General, would serve as a firm, legal and official directive to the British Government to act against James Ibori's assets in the UK. Falana contended that the controversial letter issued by the Attorney General to James Ibori's lawyers on August 7th 2007 could still be tendered at the Appeal Court in London to frustrate Ibori's trial. He said the latest court order from Benin City coupled with the AG's letter to James Ibori was aimed at sabotaging the Metropolitan Police delegation billed to arrive Nigeria next week to gather new evidence on Ibori's case.
Saharareporters had also reported that the debt profile of Delta State with Oceanic Bank, where James Ibori is said to have financial dealings, had forced the new Delta State regime to appoint a member of the Oceanic Bank staff, Mr. Orogun, to the position of commissioner of finance.
Justice Okeke granted the restraining orders following an ex-parte motion filed by the Attorney General of Delta State, Delta State Government, Secretary to the Delta State Government and Auditor-General of Delta State without hearing the other parties involved and then adjourned the case till October 30th 2007.
The court also granted an order stopping EFCC and the Attorney General from freezing any of the state's bank accounts in Nigeria.
One Emmanuel Gaban Okirihienyefa, the Solicitor General of Delta State, swore to an affidavit that backed the court order.
The Delta State Government approached the court following a letter from EFCC dated 6 June 2007 which requested detailed information on contract awards from 29 May 1999 to date. Ibori was the state governor during the period.
Among other things, the EFCC letter urged the State Government to produce all documents relating to "Security Votes Allocation" and all contracts/projects awarded which are above the sum of N50m.
The letter asked for detailed information on contractors, including names, location of projects, amount paid up to date and the current status of the contract.
The motion from the Delta Solicitor General was as follows: "" sans-serif="" ,="" arialms="">1. Whether the letter by EFCC requesting for information setting out details of security votes allocation and its utilization, public accounts, finances, contracts/projects awarded etc from May 1999 to June 2007 is competent, valid or proper having regard to the provisions of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Establishment Act 2004?
2. Having regard to the wide and manifestly unconnected range of information demanded through its letter of June 6, 2007, whether EFCC is not attempting or desirous of reviewing, probing or auditing the accounts and executive acts of the 2nd Plaintiff (Delta State Government) relating to contracts within the period indicated in the said letter and not seeking information on any specific allegation of commission of financial or economic crimes within the provisions of its enabling Act?
3. Whether the letter does not have the effect of derogating from the constitutional powers and function of the Auditor-General and House of Assembly of Delta State as provided by sections 125 and 128 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 and whether the demand in the aforesaid letter is not therefore manifestly unconstitutional.
4. Whether the combined effect of section 6 and 7 of the EFCC Act are not at variance or inconsistent with the provisions of section 174 of the Constitution of Nigeria in so far as it purports to exclude or limit the powers of the 3rd Defendant (Attorney General) with regard to matters pertaining to investigation, enforcement and prosecution of offences connected with or related to Economic and Financial Crimes and whether the said provisions of section 6 and 7 of the EFCC Act are not consequently void to the extent of this inconsistency.
5. Whether the issuance the 1st defendant's (EFCC) letter can be justified under or by virtue of the provisions of section 7(1)(b) of the EFCC Act and whether the said provisions are not inconsistent with section 36(5) of the 1999 Constitution.
6. Can 1st defendant (EFCC) by virtue of section 42 of its enabling statue validly initiate investigations or prosecution for offences committed under the laws set out therein before the commencement of the Act establishing it without violating the provisions of section 174 of the 1999 Constitution having regard to the prosecutorial powers of the 3rd defendant (Attorney General) for offences committed under the statues set out in the said section 42 of EFCC Act.