By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South
FORMER First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, has been in the news since her husband and former President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, left office in 2015 over alleged billions of Naira traced to her by the anti-graft agency, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
Some weeks ago, the Supreme Court affirmed an order of the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court for the interim forfeiture of N2.4bn allegedly traced to her.
Before that, the apex court sanctioned a similar order of interim forfeiture of $8.4m belonging to the ex-First Lady.
The court had ordered, before the forfeiture judgment, her return to the Federal High Court in Lagos to show reason why she would not give up the fund permanently to the Federal Government.
EFCC allegedly traced $8,435,788.84 and over N7.35bn reportedly found in 15 bank accounts to Mrs. Jonathan.
The anti-graft agency claimed its investigations revealed that the $8,435,788.84 and over N7.35bn emanated from the coffers of Bayelsa State. It obtained an interim order to deprive her of the funds on May 8, 2018
Recently, in a separate appeal, a five-man panel of the apex court unanimously handed down a related verdict affirming an interim forfeiture of N2,421,953,522 in the bank account of Lawari Furniture and Bath Limited, a firm which EFCC had linked to Mrs. Jonathan.
The anti-graft agency claimed the various funds were proceeds of unlawful activities. Lawari Furniture and Bath Limited, through its lawyers, Chief Mike Ozekhome , SAN, had filed an appeal at the Supreme Court challenging a January 12, 2018 judgment of the Court of Appeal in Lagos, which validated the interim forfeiture order made on April 26, 2017 by the Federal High Court in Lagos in respect of the N2.4bn.
EFCC’s lawyer, Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo, had opposed the appeal at the hearing before the Supreme Court.
Justice Amiru Sanusi, a member of the Justice Tanko Muhammad-led panel, held, in the lead judgment, that there was no justification to “interfere with the concurrent findings of the two lower courts.”
The lead judgment, read by Justice Sidi Bage on behalf of Justice Sanusi, who was absent, stated that the apex court would only interfere with concurrent decisions of the lower courts only when “there is a special circumstance where the decision is perverse or there is misapplication of law or the facts”.
He added, “I have seen none of these in this appeal. I find no merit in this appeal and it is accordingly dismissed.”
The court also rejected Mrs. Jonathan’s prayer to strike down the provisions of Section 17 of the Advanced Fee Fraud Act and other Fraud Related Offences Act, which the Federal High Court relied on to issue the order of interim forfeiture.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Ejembi Eko, a member of the apex court’s panel, noted that splitting of the appeal from the one ruled upon the week earlier was unnecessary.
Earlier, when the Supreme Court affirmed the forfeiture of Mrs. Jonathan’s $8.4 m on March 8, the EFCC expectedly went on celebration. In a report on its website, same day, the anti-graft agency said, “The five-man bench of the apex court, led by Justice Dattijo Muhammad, in a unanimous judgment, dismissed the ex-First Lady’s appeal and directed her to return to the Federal High Court to show cause why the $8.4million should not be permanently forfeited to the Federal Government.”
The Supreme Court also rejected Mrs Jonathan’s prayer to strike down the provisions of Section 17 of the Advanced Fee Fraud Act and other Fraud related offences Act, which the Federal High Court relied on to issue the order of interim forfeiture.
Affirming the decision of the Court of Appeal in Lagos, which had earlier upheld the Federal High Court’s interim order, Justice Kumai Aka’ahs, in the lead judgment of the apex court, held, “I do not find any reason to interfere with the decision of the lower court”.
Aka’ahs added, “Appellant is to go back to the trial court (the Federal High Court) to show cause why the interim order should not be made permanent.”
Justice Ejembi Eko, a member of the panel, read the lead judgment on behalf of Aka’ahs.
Other members of the five-man panel are Justices Muhammad, John Okoro and Sidi Bage. They all concurred with Aka’ah’s lead judgment.
The EFCC had, last year, approached the Federal High Court in Lagos with an ex parte application, seeking the forfeiture of $8,435,788.84 and other various sums in various bank accounts linked to the wife of the former President.
The commission had, in its application, anchored on Section 17 of AFF Act and urged the court to grant an order of interim forfeiture of the funds which, it said, were suspected to be proceeds of unlawful activities.
Mrs. Jonathan and some organizations were joined, in the said ex parte application, as respondents. Justice Mojisola Olatoregun of the Federal High Court in Lagos had, on April 20, last year, granted the ex parte order.
The judge also ordered the EFCC to publish the court’s order in any major national newspaper to enable the respondents or anyone interested in the funds to appear before the court to show cause within 14 days why the final order of forfeiture of the said funds should not be made in favour of the Federal Government.
Instead of appearing before the court to show reason why she should not forfeit the money as directed by the court, however, Mrs Jonathan filed an appeal before the Court of Appeal to challenge the competence of the application.
She also, in the appeal, challenged the validity of the order made by the trial court and the constitutionality of Section 17 of AFF Act. The Court of Appeal dismissed appeal, prompting her to approach the Supreme Court.
Arguing her appeal on December 12, 2018, her lead lawyer, Mr. Ifedayo Adedipe (SAN), urged the Supreme Court to quash Section 17 of AFF Act, which he contended negated the principles of fair hearing and presumption of innocence prescribed by the Constitution.
He said that Section 17 of the AFF Act, which allowed assets’ seizure from an individual without conviction, a hearing or a criminal charge, whether temporarily or permanently, was unconstitutional. The counsel also said the ex parte application, which the trial court granted, failed to disclose the alleged “unlawful activities” linked to the funds.
However, in his response, the EFCC’s lawyer, Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo, said the appellant misconceived the provision of Section 17 of the AFF Act in her appeal.
He added that there was no illegality about the provision that provides opportunity to hear affected person on temporarily forfeited assets.
The Supreme Court consequently dismissed Mrs. Jonathan’s appeal and upheld the decisions of the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal.
Another N1.4bn seized
In January, EFCC also secured an interim forfeiture of N1.4 billion found in the accounts said to belong to the former First Lady in a commercial bank.
Two major lodgements were alleged to have been made in the bank accounts on May 20 and 25, 2015, days before the end of the Jonathan administration.
The forfeiture order was handed down by a Kano Federal High Court presided over by Justice A. Lewis-Allagoa consequent upon a motion ex-parte filed by the EFCC seeking the interim seizure of the money, which was found in the account of a company known as Magel Resort Limited, traced to Mrs Jonathan.
The commission told the court that it got an intelligence that a bank account domiciled in the said commercial bank had a huge sum of money unused by anybody. Upon receipt of the intelligence, the EFCC swung into action by conducting preliminary investigation, which revealed that the former First Lady and some relatives of her husband were directors of the company which owned the accounts.
According to court documents, those named as Directors of the firm are Oba Oba Tamunotonye, Goodluck Jonathan Aruera, Goodluck Jonathan Ariwabai and Esther Fynface.
The agency said that in trying to trace the origin of the money, it discovered that Fynface, alleged to be in charge of the company, deposited N500, 000 on May 20, 2015 while N1 billion was transferred in two tranches on May 25 from PAGMAT OIL AND GAS NIGERIA LIMITED, a company not registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission.
Ruling on the motion, Justice A. Lewis-Allagoa held, “An interim forfeiture order is granted to the Federal Government in the sum of N1.4 billion in the bank account of the 1st respondent Magel Resort Limited 4011019546 which is maintained with 2nd respondent Fidelity Bank Plc.
Mrs Jonathan also faced prosecution over the N2bn hotel allegedly belonging to her in Bayelsa. She inaugurated the hotel, known as Aridolf Resort Wellness and Spa, Yenagoa, in April 2015, barely a month before the end of her husband’s tenure. EFCC obtained an order to seize the hotel.
In July 2017, the former First Lady alleged harassment of her family by security agencies and sought the House of Representatives intervention. In a petition to the green chamber, she urged the Federal Government to call the agencies to order.
The lawmaker representing Okrika Constituency of Rivers, Rep. Bright Tamuno, presented the petition at the House’s plenary. Tamuno urged the House to wade into the matter in consideration of the sacrifices her husband, former President Jonathan, made for the country.
According to him, no former First Lady had been harassed like this before, and, in view of the sacrifices that her husband had made for the country, the House should consider and call the security agencies to order.
In the petition, the ex-First Lady alleged that EFCC and National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and other agencies of the Federal Government orchestrated her harassment.
Groups in dilemma
Meanwhile, in January 2018, the Niger Delta ex-Agitators Forum warned EFCC against what it described as the persecution of Mrs Jonathan. Addressing journalists in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, the President of the body, Prince Hornby, said the “persecution” of Mrs. Jonathan was a ploy to ridicule the people of the oil-rich region.
Hornby warned that ex-militants would react in a manner that would not be in the interest of the nation if the alleged persecution of the former First Lady continued. He said, “Non-governmental organizations are for the empowerment of the people. How many First Ladies of Nigeria did not have NGOs while in office? How many of them do not own properties?
“Why should Dame Jonathan be the target for harassment and public ridicule? Her NGO’s office complex was demolished without following due process. This is capable of igniting tension in the Niger Delta.
“We shall no longer tolerate this vindictive fight against our daughter and mother and her family. President Muhammadu Buhari should caution the EFCC Chairman, Ibrahim Magu, immediately”.
Like the ex-agitators, prominent leaders of the Niger Delta region, including Chief Edwin Clark, faulted the Buhari administration for what they described as the attempt to humiliate the family of the former President, also in January 2017.
The leaders’ position was contained in a communiqué issued at the end of a meeting organised by the Pan Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF, at the residence of Clark in Kiagbodo, Burutu local government area of Delta State.
Clark and the current National Chairman of PANDEF, Air Commodore Idongesit Nkanga (ret.), signed the communiqué, but with the latest discoveries of overwhelming figures and avalanche of court orders on the forfeiture, the regional group and others appear incapacitated in coming to her rescue.