Freezing of Benue/Akwa Ibom accounts: Matters arising – Tribune

The accounts of the Benue State government as well as its Akwa Ibom counterpart were reportedly frozen by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) last week. According to media reports, the EFCC took the step ostensibly in pursuance of its bid to unravel an alleged N22 billion fraud linked to the Benue State government. In the operation, five bank accounts belonging to the government were frozen by the commission. Naturally, a gale of condemnations followed the  action. While the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) described the action as unconstitutional, some other commentators linked it to the defection of the Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom, to the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from the All Progressives Congress (APC), the party in government at the centre and EFCC’s paymaster. The Akwa Ibom government is PDP-controlled and its immediate past chief executive had recently defected to the ruling party, a move which received flak from it.

While the Benue State government saw the action taken by the anti-graft agency as a political witch-hunt, the NGF chairman and Zamfara State governor, Abdul’aziz Yari, described the move as patently wrong, especially now that the Benue State government had suffered security challenges which claimed many lives. The EFCC’s move, he added, would further worsen the agony of the people of the state. However, less than  24 hours after the news hit the airwaves, the EFCC promptly de-freezed the accounts. But to all intents and purposes, the freezing is a reflection of the base level to which governance has sunk in Nigeria. There is apparently no regard for the rule of law, order and decorum in the operations of those who superintend over critical affairs of state. The unilateral freezing of a government’s account by an anti-graft agency is an aberration that should have no place in any democratic setting. Once a single individual possesses and actually wields power that is akin to an emperor’s, despotism sets in and the rule of law is circumvented or permanently put in abeyance.

It will be recalled that there is a subsisting court judgment restraining the EFCC from treading this path of impunity. In a suit filed by the Attorney General of Ekiti State following the invitation by the anti-graft agency of some government officials to its office in Abuja to provide details of the state’s financial transactions, a Federal High Court sitting in Ado Ekiti had ruled that the EFCC lacked the power to probe state finances without a report of an indictment by their Houses of Assembly. According to the ruling delivered by Justice Taiwo O. Taiwo in the suit filed by the Ekiti State government against the EFCC, state financial institutions would be breaching the law if they submitted themselves to, released or disclosed to any person, body or agency, including the EFCC and Inspector General of Police, or any other investigating body, any document or financial records.

Quoting copiously from Section 125 (c) of the constitution, the judge said inter alia: “It is unassailable that there is separation of powers. The power for the control of funds, financial outflow and appropriation is vested in the House of Assembly. It is the Auditor General of the state that has the power to conduct checks on all government corporations and to submit his report to the assembly. Nobody, including the court, can read other meaning into the clear provisions of the constitution. The assembly has the responsibility to ensure fund management, cut wastages, reject corruption. The first defendant (EFCC) is bound to operate within the constitution and cannot operate like the lord of the manor. Its statutory duty is not a license to contravene the constitution. I can’t see how the statutory functions of EFCC can extend to a state in a federation under any guise to the extent that the eight to 18 defendants (banks) will be directed to submit bank details. Yes, the first defendant can investigate any person or corporate organisation; what it can’t do is to usurp the powers of the assembly.” We are not aware that a court of superior jurisdiction has voided this ruling.

We assert that no law justifies the EFCC’s freezing of any state account and crippling the activities of the government by so doing. What the EFCC has done by this flagrant action was to stop a component unit of the federation from running in about 24 hours. This is lawlessness of the highest order and should not be condoned. If any security emergency had happened in Benue State within the period of the freezing, how would the people of the state have fared? Indeed, what will be the job of the state Houses of Assembly if the EFCC now has oversight functions over state government accounts? The freezing was even very skewed and curious, as the two state governors have axes to grind with the ruling party.  Against this backdrop, we advise the leadership of the commission to take cognisance of the law in future actions. As a creation of the law, the commission should avoid being at variance with the law. It has nothing to lose by fighting corruption in accordance with the laws of the land.

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