- Need for caution so as not to be accused of partisanship
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) must watch its actions, especially with the 2019 general elections drawing near, so as not to be accused of acting a political script against perceived opponents of the party in control of the Federal Government. We offer this advice against the brouhaha that greeted the purported freezing of the accounts of Benue State government. It is even more intriguing that while a section of the media quoted sources in EFCC as denying the action, others claimed that the commission acted based on an interim order of court, obtained ex parte.
If the commission froze those accounts based on a court order, then it can claim to have observed the fundamental precepts of rule of law; even as enquiry as to the propriety of the order shifts to the court that made the order. Of course, we agree that a court has discretion to grant an ex parte order, where the circumstances warrant that. But in exercising such discretionary powers, the court is enjoined to act judicially and judiciously. That perhaps explains why judges are circumspect in granting ex parteapplications, but would rather order that the other party be put on notice.
Again, we are aware that a judge grants an order ex parte based on facts presented to him by the applicant. Where an applicant presents false circumstances showing that grievous damages could result, if he is ordered to put the opponent on notice, the judge may grant an interim order based on balance of convenience. But in such circumstance, the applicant is enjoined to enter into an undertaking to pay damages, where subsequently the court finds out that it was misled to make that interim order ex parte. So, Nigerians would want to know who did what in the Benue saga.
We acknowledge that the EFCC officially claimed to have been investigating the state government well before the governor and some of his officials defected from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). If it is so, the commission shouldn’t be estopped from taking any legitimate action within the law, because of change in partisan interests. But again, we expect the commission to act reasonably in the exercise of its enormous powers. With the power to arrest and detain suspects, the commission must not allow itself to become a scarecrow, with all the attendant negative forbearing influence on the general public.
On the part of the court, if the judge acted wrongly in granting the interim order, the National Judicial Council (NJC) should apply sanction. To freeze the account of a state government is not a trivial matter, and before such an order can be made ex parte, those asking for the order must place compelling evidence of the urgent need to preserve the res.
We commend the Chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum, Abdulaziz Yari, for rising above partisan interests, to question the propriety of the order. The power to freeze a state account cannot be granted lightly, for, if the courts have such powers, then mutatis mutandis, it can also freeze the Federal Government’s accounts, over allegations of corruption.
Those who argue lightly that an entire state account can be shut down must weigh the enormity of hardship such an action will visit on the innocent by-standers not accused of corrupt practices, like civil servants, patients in the state hospitals, pensioners, students in schools, amongst other vulnerable persons in the state. A more reasonable thing would be to target the officials allegedly involved in corrupt practice and obtaining an order of court to freeze their accounts. After all, there is no vicarious responsibility for alleged criminal conduct.