When recently the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property (SPIP), headed by Okoi Obono-Obla, said it had submitted some 39 names of alleged treasury looters to the Nigerian Immigration Service to prevent them from escaping investigation and prosecution for alleged criminal acts not few Nigerians were taken aback.
The reason is simple- those who were surprised by the submission of the list and perhaps the intention behind could not but wonder what power does the panel has to arrogate such huge task to itself.
Discerning Nigerians have asked if this the panel has the powers to determine, who is corrupt or not? What basis or criteria did it use to determine the corrupt persons it has so identified?
The other point is, even if the panel was mandated to investigate certain persons, how does one situate its powers to forward such names, straight from its stable to the immigration? Just how possible is that? Crass impunity!
What however remains is that it is still not clear where Obono-Obla' panel derives its strange powers to arrest, seize property and prosecute public office holders under investigation and even put them on travel ban.
But such powers are certainly not derivatives of the Act that forms the basis of the panel.
The panel was set up pursuant to the Recovery of Public Property (Special Provisions) Act of 1983. In the Act, there is no line that empowers the panel to arrest any suspect. In fact, the word ‘arrest’ does not feature in the Act.
But as it has been rightly observed by critical minded Nigerians, the chairman of the panel is not only turning the laws of the land on their heads, he is also through the panel violating other Nigerians fundamental human rights.
There have also been several allegations that the panel chairman uses the panel to settle score and for personal vendetta. And truly, there are evidences to support this.
The recent travel ban that he issued using the Nigerian Immigration Services is a near home example.
Also, the travails of Tumsah brothers in the hands of Obla's panel are crystal clear examples.
Recently, his panel arrested Hope Uzodinma, the Senator representing Orlu Senatorial District of Imo State, for alleged corruption.
As it has been observed and argued by many Nigerians that Obla's qualification and competence as a lawyer are questionable, he has demonstrated so in Tumsah brothers case and Uzodinma's arrest.
Or could it be that the panel chairman is power drunk. But whatever his motivations, he is doing more harms or damage to the image of the administration that he represents.
Uzodinma's arrest was in spite of a court ruling stating that the panel can only investigate alleged corruption cases, but lacks the powers to prosecute suspects or confiscate assets.
Obono-Obla had ‘boasted’ to newsmen after the arrest that his panel “arrested” Uzodinma at the Abuja Airport on Sunday, after the lawmaker had evaded them for a long time.
Uzodinma was later released midnight on Sunday, but he told journalists that he was not arrested, but rather was being set up by the Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha.
But Obono-Obla insisted that Uodinma was arrested and was only released partly because “we do not have a detention facility”.
Speaking on Uzodinma's arrest, Obono-Obla said: “The man was arrested. He was arrested, yesterday, (Sunday) at the airport about 8:30 pm by our operatives and he was kept there till about 12 midnight before he pleaded that he should be allowed to go and we conceded because we don’t have detention facility.”
Obono-Obla said his committee allowed Uzodinma a one-day respite because he complained that his blood pressure was high, and “we don’t want him to die”.
“If he fails to report tomorrow (Tuesday), then we will take it up,” he said. But that was the last we heard, perhaps, the power drunk chairman has allowed common sense to prevail.
Does the panel has power to arrest and prosecute?
The laws are clear about the government agencies that have powers to arrest and prosecute. In this case, the EFCC and ICPC readily comes to mind.
For Obla's panel the law is also not ambiguous about it's duties and limits.
The Recovery of Public Property Act confers three powers on the panel, namely: the power to issue search warrants, the power to search properties under investigations, and the power to avoid artificial and other transactions.
The Act, however, made it clear that the panel can exercise its powers only when a court of competent jurisdiction gives it the go-ahead.
This, the panel had done without recourse to the court in the first instance in the case of Tumsah brothers.
The Act also empowers the panel to investigate someone who is not a public officer, but who is “related to, or otherwise connected with a public officer (and) appears to have acquired assets far in excess of any income from his known or ostensible means of livelihood”.
In a recent judgment, a five-man panel of Appeal Court justices, led by Hussein Muhktar, ruled that the presidential panel on asset recovery “cannot clothe itself with the clothes not given to it by the Act that established it”.
“The provision of the Act is unambiguous and not confusing. The powers of the panel are to conduct an investigation on any officer who has corruptly enriched himself of breached the code of conduct. No power or authority is conferred on the panel to prosecute offenders,” Justice Muhktar ruled.
"It is not clear then, on which authorisation or legislation the Obono-Obla-led panel is relying on to arrest suspected corrupt public officials, or to detain them" writes Kingsley Obiejesi of ICIR in a recent article questioning the power of the panel.
In the case of Garba versus University of Maiduguri (1986) 1NWLR (Pt 18) 550, the Supreme Court ruled that, “The offences for which the appellants were undoubtedly held liable by the board and panel include looting, arson, destruction of property and indecent assault. These are offences under the penal code or criminal code and therefore are triable only by regular courts of law.
“Neither the investigation panel, which investigated these serious charges, nor the disciplinary board of the Senate, which considers its findings, is a court of law. Neither was competent to adjudicate on matters connected with the rights of the appellants once the allegations include crime…”
In essence, once a person is accused of criminal offence, the court affirmed that he must be tried in a court of law. No other tribunal, investigating panel, or committee is vested with such powers to make pronouncement on criminal matters regarding an individual except a court of competent jurisdiction.
Thus, on this, it is clear that the Obono-Obla panel is usurping the powers of the court and arrogating to itself, the authority it does not have. Government appears to be taking its fight against corruption to a rather ridiculous level and needs to be told it is strangely stepping out of legal and constitutional lines. That panel cannot suffice for the court and it is a no-brainer
Chris Steven, writes from Abuja.