By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The Supreme Court, on Wednesday, fixed March 8 to deliver judgement in an appeal the wife of former President Goodluck Jonathan, Patience, lodged to challenge the powers of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, to seize funds in bank accounts that were linked to her.
The former First lady is praying the apex court to set-aside a forfeiture order the Federal High Court in Lagos made on May 8, which granted EFCC interim ownership of N9.2 billion and $8.4million that were allegedly traced to her accounts.
In the appeal she filed on January 31, Mrs. Jonathan formulated three issues for the Supreme Court to determine.
She urged the apex court to go ahead and determine whether section 17 of the Advance Fee Fraud and other related offences Act, 2006, which permits the EFCC to seize assets that are suspected to have been unlawfully acquired, is not in conflict with provisions of the 1999 constitution that guarantees the presumption of innocence of accused persons.
Mrs. Jonathan’s lawyer, Mr. Kehinde Adedipe, SAN, told the apex court that section 17 of the Advance Fee Fraud Act gave EFCC the nod to approach a court to seize assets it considered “suspicious”, without notifying the owner.
He said section 6 of the Act provided that seizure and forfeiture of such assets must not be based on conviction for any crime.
Adedipe argued that the Court of Appeal in Lagos was wrong to have upheld the interim forfeiture order the EFCC secured against her client, on the premise that Mrs. Jonathan was at liberty to apply and adduce reasons why it should be set-aside.
“My lords, what that section has done is to criminalise an accused person even without conviction. The implication is that by an application that is made ex-parte, an individual is assumed to have committed an infraction of the law.
“Hearing one party and asking the other side to come back and justify why an order should be vacated, does not mean that they have been granted equal opportunity as provided for in the constitution.
“It is reversing the onus, even without trial or conviction. The purpose of the constitution is to protect the citizens.
“In this case, it looks like it has already been assumed that the citizen was guilty by taking away her assets”,Adedipe argued.
Besides, he contended that EFCC failed to state the nature of any unlawful act that produced the funds it suspected to have been acquired through fraud.
He maintained that it was wrong for the anti-graft agency to rely on mere suspicion to seize funds traced to the ex-First lady.
“There was no material whatsoever to back such suspicion. I therefore urge your lordships to allow this appeal and set-aside the decision of the Court of Appeal, as well as to dismiss the judgement of the High Court upon which the interim forfeiture order was made”, Mrs. Jonathan’s lawyer added.
Meanwhile, EFCC, through its lawyer, Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo, urged the apex court to dismss the appeal as grossly lacking I merit, insisting that Mrs. Jonathan’s contentions were based on misconception of the law.
EFCC maintained that it has powers under the law to seize assets that are “reasonably suspected to have been acquired with proceeds of unlawful activities”.
The commission told the apex court that the lower court had before it granted the interim forfeiture order, compelled it to make a publication, requesting Mrs. Jonathan or any person that had interest in the fund to appear and show cause why it should not be forfeited to the government.
“My lords, instead of coming to the high court to show cause, this appellant ran to the Court of Appeal.
“I urge your lordships to dismantle this appears and uphold the constitutionality of section 17 of the Advance Fee Fraud Act”, EFCC’s lawyer submitted.
After they had listened to both sides, a five-man panel of Justices of the apex court led by Justice Musa Dattijjo, adjourned the matter till March 8 for judgment.
The court however declined request to hear another appeal Mrs. Jonathan filed to challenge an order of the Federal High Court in Abuja that granted EFCC temporary ownership of two properties in Abuja that were linked to her.
The apex court noted that the said appeal which Mrs Jonathan filed through Chief Mike Ozekhome, was not listed in the cause-list for hearing on Wednesday.
It will be recalled that Justice Mojisola Olatoregun of the High Court in Lagos granted interim forfeiture order against Mrs. Jonathan on the strength of an ex-parte motion by EFCC.
The seized funds were said to be in the custody of the defunct Skye Bank Plc, Diamond Bank Plc, Stanbic IBTC Bank and First Bank Plc.
EFCC had in a 15-paragraph that was deposed by one Huleji Tukura, averred that its investigations revealed that the funds were siphoned from the Bayelsa State Government treasury.
It alleged that the funds were moved when the former first lady served as a permanent secretary in one of the Ministries in the state.
“The funds sought to be forfeited to the Federal Government of Nigeria are not the 1st respondent’s lawful earnings but are rather reasonably suspected to be proceeds of unlawful activities”, it insisted.