How I sued anti-graft panel for filing flawed case against me – Chinedu Udora
An Abuja-based lawyer, Mr Chinedu Udora, in this interview with ADE ADESOMOJU, speaks about his encounter with the disbanded Special Presidential Investigations Panel on Recovery of Public Property between 2017 and 2018, and the legality of the panel’s activities before its dissolution
You had an encounter with the Special Presidential Investigations Panel on Recovery of Public Property then led by Mr Okoi Obono-Obla, which led to your instituting a fundamental rights enforcement suit against the panel. What really happened?
In 2017, I got a letter of invitation from the SPIP. It was in respect of the property that belonged to one of my clients. We had been having a running battle on that property which I was trying to recover from multiple individuals occupying it. It was in 2017 that I got judgment and evicted all the tenants from the property. Surprisingly, the office of the SPIP went and marked the property for investigation and subsequently invited me.
Did that happen after the eviction?
Yes, it was after the eviction, and they subsequently invited me. When I got to their office, I told them the history of the property and how I had been in court for almost seven years, trying to take possession of the property. The funny thing is that there was no complaint against us. The property was purchased by my client sometime in 2009. I explained the issues to the panel. I told them there was no problem with the property and that I was only acting as a lawyer in the matter. Subsequently, they allowed me to go on my own recognisance. It was after then that I filed an action for fundamental human rights enforcement, because I inquired if there was any complaint against us, but there was none. And if you look at the Act establishing the SPIP, there must be a reference from the Presidency for the panel to enquire into anything. They are not the police or the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission; they only work based on reference. And there was no reference against me or the property from the Presidency.
So, when we filed the action, the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation was made a party in the suit. I am even surprised that the ministry (Federal Ministry of Justice) is saying that they are waiting to receive a file from the SPIP when they themselves were joined in the suit. Processes were served on them directly and they were represented in the matter separately from the SPIP. They were a party in the matter just like the SPIP was also a party in the matter. So, it wasn’t a suit instituted by SPIP. It was a suit that I instituted against the SPIP and the AGF office as a necessary party for the enforcement of my fundamental rights.
But before the hearing date, parties reached an agreement, as they saw that there was really nothing against me in the matter. The matter was settled amicably. I filed a notice of discontinuance and the matter was discontinued in January 2018. Throughout this process, the Ministry of Justice was part and parcel of the matter.
Who initiated the move for the reconciliation?
The SPIP called me after we filed our suit, and after they filed their defence. We met in court, I had interaction with their lawyers, which later extended to the office. They said they had looked at it and realised that there was really nothing – it was an issue of false information. That was it. My client did not have to appear before them. The matter was settled and we filed our notice of discontinuance. The matter was settled and that was the end of it.
Did they write you to inform you that there was nothing against you?
They did not write me, but they went to remove what they wrote on the wall (of the property). Since then, my client has been in peaceful possession of the property.
Aside from the issue you had with the panel, as a lawyer, what is your general view about the activities of the defunct SPIP?
My view is that the SPIP, of course, is a statutory body. But as distinct from the police, the EFCC and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission who have the general powers to investigate and receive complaints, the SPIP, by its statutory structure, can only receive a complaint from the Federal Government. What do I mean by that? If you have a complaint, you inform the Federal Government who can now send a memo to the SPIP to investigate the issue. The panel is not authorised to take complaints directly from the public. No! What they seemed to also miss was that the law anticipates that there should be several SPIP panels. That is why if you look at the marginal note in the statute setting up the SPIP, it made mention of ‘Special Presidential Investigation Panels’. It did not say one panel. The import of using ‘panels’ is that, as they, the panels, receive a complaint, Panel A can be set up. When there is another complaint, Panel B can be set up, and when there is another one, Panel C can be set up. Therefore, Panel A is only limited to the terms of reference given to it for a particular case. For example, the Panel A that is asked to investigate Mr B, cannot investigate Mr C. Once they finish with Mr B, it is shut down, except they are given another reference. But what the panel was doing was that, they turned themselves into another police department. We raised those issues in court, it was settled, and the matter was never heard. But I believe one day, some other persons may seek the interpretation of the Act, and I am sure that when that comes up, the court will give the proper position.
There was a Court of Appeal’s judgment that said the panel cannot initiate proceedings in court…
I agree, because, the panel is just a panel of investigation. When the panel makes its findings, it refers it to the Attorney-General of the Federation’s office, who has the statutory power to initiate proceedings. The panel cannot do that on its own, because it is just a panel of investigation, and nothing more. Like I said, the panel went beyond its powers. Apart from instituting actions in court, it also took complaints from the public. This is not the intendment of the Act. If you read the provisions of the Act, you will find that it is not so. The panel can only act based on reference and after that, it closes shop. Again, if you go further, you will find out that before the panel can even investigate a person, there ought to have been a conviction from court, because it has the power to trace stolen property. But if you claim that a property is stolen, there ought to have been a conviction from the court, saying that Mr A is corrupt. So it is only after there has been a conviction in court that the panel can now invite you, look at your asset declaration form, and trace those property that you may have illegally got.
But you said a while ago that the panel can investigate based on reference from the Presidency. What if the Presidency asks the panel to investigate an individual, not convicted, but suspected to have illegitimately acquired certain property?
The panel can in the process of investigating the terms of reference, discover that a property has been acquired illegitimately. It will then go through the Attorney-General of the Federation to seek a court order to confiscate the property.
Like I mentioned, the powers of the SPIP are contained under section 3 of the Recovery of Public Property (Special Provisions) Act which gives the panel power to issue notices to people to declare their assets. So it is when you have declared your assets, and they find out that you gave false information or that there are assets that you have, but didn’t declare, that they can go ahead and investigate.
In a nutshell, you are saying that the panel is something like the Judicial Commission of Inquiry?
Yes, it is a panel of inquiry. It is an investigation panel and nothing more.
So, would you say the President was right in disbanding the panel?
Yes, of course, it was long overdue, because the panel constituted itself as the Nigeria Police Force and even the EFCC, and went outside its mandate. So, the President did the right thing by disbanding the panel and referring its cases to the Attorney-General.
But do you see the panel, if properly constituted and restricted to exercising only powers granted it by its enabling law, as a veritable tool in fighting corruption?
Of course, it actually reduces the burden on other sister security agencies like the EFCC. While the EFCC and the ICPC have the general powers to investigate, the panel can only do so on referral from the President. So, if that is done, it will reduce the time that will be required for that investigation, as against if it is given to the EFCC. This will also give the panel the opportunity to devote more time to doing a good job in the aspect of investigation. In the long run, it will be of advantage if the panel can stick strictly to the provisions of its Act by acting only on cases referred to it.
If this can be guaranteed, would you advise the President to reconstitute the panel?
The President has taken an oath to defend the law, to implement all the laws. As the chief of the executive arm of government, it is his duty to ensure the implementation of all the Acts and laws passed by the National Assembly. So, he has to carry out that duty and I am sure he is carrying out that duty very well.
Where do we stand regarding the issue of independence of the judiciary in the country?
It is a continuous process. I will give it to the judiciary; they are doing their best. More often than not, we don’t understand that the judiciary is guided by rules, regulations and precedent. A good case that is not properly presented before the court can turn out to be dismissed, but not because the judiciary wants it to be dismissed. It is because the person that has brought the case may not have provided adequate information to the lawyer and where it is provided, it is not properly placed before the court. The courts in trying to make any decision will always be guided by the laid down rules and procedures. At times, there are judgments that are not expected, but it is not principally the problem of the judiciary.
Again, we should ensure that in trying to educate and prepare our lawyers, it is only those that are properly qualified that get to be called to the Nigerian Bar. They are doing very well at the moment, but I believe that the Council of Legal Education will also need to tighten up to ensure that the quality of lawyers that pass through the education system, the Nigerian Law School, are well prepared for dispensation of justice. Once that is done, then we have better days ahead.
I guess that also applies to the appointment of judges too?
Of course, let the best qualified person get the job. In terms of appointment of judges, there are also laid down procedures that are supposed to be followed. Judges are supposed to be appointed on merit. If we are able to bring in merit in the appointment of judges, I can assure you that we will be doing better than we are doing now.