The ongoing anti-corruption war takes a fiery twist following the crackdown on Governor Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti State over his alleged profiteering from illicit funds, writes Olisemeka Obeche
Governor Ayo Fayose’s frosty relationship with the Muhammadu Buhari –led government deepen with the freezing of the governor’s personal accounts with Zenith Bank and those of his close political associates by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on June 20, this year. The anti-graft agency’s decision followed its discovery that Fayose allegedly received huge sums of money from the office of the former National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki to bankroll his governorship election project in 2014.
According to information released by the EFCC, Fayose’s Zenith Bank account held the sum of N2.1billion as at the time it was frozen, despite his claims that the Ekiti State government was in financial crisis and was unable to pay workers’ salaries.
The Ibrahim Magu-led commission subsequently seized six choice properties in Lagos and Abuja allegedly owned by the embattled governor. The properties valued at N1.3 billion included four duplexes located at Plot 100 Tiamiyu Savage Street, Victoria Island, Lagos (worth N364 million) and two properties on 32 Yedseram Street and 44 Osun River Crescent, Maitama, Abuja respectively.
In a 10-paragraph counter-affidavit deposed to by Tosin Owobo, EFCC accused Fayose of using the proceeds of crime to buy properties. The affidavit reads in parts: “Apart from fraudulently retaining the sum of N1,219,490,000 being part of the N4,745,000,000 stolen from the treasury of the Federal Government through the Office of the National Security Adviser, the applicant (Fayose) has also received gratification in form of kickbacks from various contractors with the Ekiti State government such as Samchese Nigeria Ltd, Tender Branch Concept Nig. Ltd, Hoff Concept Ltd and Calibre Consulting Ltd.
“The applicant (Fayose) received these kickbacks and gratification through Still Earth Ltd and Signachorr Nigeria Limited. In turn, the applicant (Fayose) instructed the Still Earth Ltd and Signachoor Nigeria Limited to use the funds to acquire properties for him. In complying with the applicant’s instruction, Still Earth Limited and Signachoor Nigeria Limited acquired properties on behalf of the applicant (Fayose) in the name of a company known as J.J Technical Services Limited belonging to the applicant (Fayose) and his wife (Feyisetan).”
According to EFCC, Fayose also used the name of one Mrs Moji Ladeji, his sister, to acquire a property situated at 44, Osun Crescent, Maitama Abuja, from the proceeds of the alleged kickbacks.
As soon as Fayose received the news that the EFCC had frozen his bank account, the governor stormed the Zenith Bank branch in Ado Ekiti, where he denounced the official clamp down on his account as criminal and illegal, arguing that he enjoys immunity as a sitting governor based on the provision of Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution. “This action shows that this government has no respect for the constitution because I enjoy immunity under Section 308. I support government fighting corruption, but it has to be within the ambit of the law,” Fayose argued.
Describing his travail as a deliberate attempt to destabilize Ekiti State, Fayose urged the Buhari government to wait for the expiration of his term in 2018 before bringing any corruption charges against him. “They should not be in a hurry because I will personally come to them for investigation. I have become a public figure in this country that I don’t have anywhere to run to. This rascality of EFCC must stop. We will take every legal procedure to get things right,” he said.
But the EFCC in a swift reaction declared that the immunity being enjoyed by any governor does not prevent the commission from investigating suspicious movements of money into personal accounts. “Under the constitution, government executives don’t have immunity on investigation. They can be investigated while in office but cannot be prosecuted. Also, an account can be blocked during investigation,” EFCC’s Head of Media and Publicity, Wilson Uwujaren said.
Less than 24 hours after the EFCC shut down Fayose’s bank account, the vocal Ekiti State governor fired back at the Presidency, accusing President Buhari of complicity in corrupt practices, especially shielding his wife, Aisha who was allegedly indicted in the Halliburton bribery scandal. However, his allegation that the President’s wife was indicted in the Halliburton scandal has been disproved.
Fayose subsequently issued a new statement in early July, denying allegations of financing his election from illicit funds, insisting that it was funded by Zenith Bank as well as donations from his political friends and associates. He also claimed that the choice properties he acquired were bought legitimately and that his properties were duly declared in his assets declaration form.
“EFCC opinions remain their opinions and if they are so sure of whatever information they have, they should go to court and stop subjecting Nigerians to media trial and that no amount of media trial from the same elements that orchestrated my removal in 2006 can erode my popularity among Ekiti people,” the statement signed by Fayose’s media aide, Lere Olayinka, read.
He also attributed the crackdown on his property by the anti-graft agency as another political scheme to oust him from power, vowing that he would prevail having learnt from the 2006 episode.
Fayose claimed that he has not been accused of stealing a dime from Ekiti treasury and the EFCC has not also said that Ekiti money was stolen and that his election was funded with Ekiti State money.
The Immunity debate
Expectedly, the EFCC crackdown on Fayose has generated mixed reactions among lawyers and political analysts. While some view EFCC’s action as gross violation of his constitutional immunity, others insist that the anti-graft agency has the legal backing to confiscate such property bought through illicit funds.
Mike Ozekhome, a counsel to Fayose claimed that it was illegal and unconstitutional for the account of a sitting governor to be frozen by the EFCC while in office. “The governor enjoys immunity under Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution and for whatever purpose, his account cannot be frozen. Section 308 of the Constitution grants immunity to the governor and his deputy just as it grants immunity to the President and his vice-president. You can wait till he leaves office,” he said.
However, a handful of legal experts view the EFCC action against Fayose as legal. Professor Itse Sagay, Chairman of Presidential Advisory Committee on Corruption argued that the EFCC had been empowered to freeze accounts or assets of anyone under investigation. “If the EFCC is investigating anybody and they have reasons to believe that somebody has acquired state assets for himself, they are empowered by the law to apply to a court to freeze those assets, including banking assets, pending the enquiry and possible trial. So, they have that power,” he said.
He added that the Supreme Court has already held that even if a public officer enjoys immunity, he is subject to being investigated.
Emeka Ngige, SAN also said that if during an investigation the EFCC discovers that a particular account has been used for money laundering, the commission has the right to freeze the account pending the outcome of the investigation. “It is not touching the account but just suspending the usage of the account. It does not matter whether the account belongs to a governor or not,” he said.
There are insinuations by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that the crackdown on Fayose by the EFCC is political as he continually criticises President Buhari’s administration. Prince Dayo Adeyeye, Publicity Secretary of the PDP claimed that Fayose is a victim of Presidency’s plan to silence the opposition.