In what can be regarded as remarkable victory in the war against corruption, the Supreme Court on Friday, March 8, 2019, affirmed the request of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in tackling questionable wealth, as the apex court affirmed an order of interim forfeiture made by the Federal High Court in Lagos in respect of $8.4 million linked to the wife of former President Goodluck Jonathan, Mrs. Patience Jonathan.
The five-man bench of the apex court led by Justice Dattijo Muhammad, in a unanimous judgment, dismissed the ex-First Lady’s appeal and directed her to return to the Federal High Court to show cause why the said $8.4million should not be permanently forfeited to the Federal Government.
The Supreme Court also rejected Mrs Jonathan’s prayer to strike down the provisions of section 17 of the Advanced Fee Fraud Act and other Fraud related offences Act, which was relied on by the Federal High Court to issue the order of interim forfeiture.
Affirming the decision of the Court of Appeal in Lagos, which had earlier upheld the Federal High Court’s interim order, Justice Kumai Aka’ahs, in the lead judgment of the apex court on Friday, held, “I do not find any reason to interfere with the decision of the lower court”.
Justice Aka’ahs also added that, “Appellant is to go back to the trial court (the Federal High Court) to show cause why the interim order should not be made permanent.”
The lead judgment was read on behalf of Justice Aka’ahs by Justice Ejembi Eko, also a member of the panel.
Other members of the five-man panel are Justices Muhammad, John Okoro, Eko, and Sidi Bage. They all concurred with Justice Aka’ah’s lead judgment.
The EFCC had last year approached the Federal High Court in Lagos with an ex parte application, seeking the forfeiture of $8,435,788.84 and other various sums in various bank accounts linked to the wife of the former President.
The Commission had in its application anchored on Section 17 of AFF Act, urged the court to grant an order of interim forfeiture of the funds which they said were suspected to be proceeds of unlawful activities.
Mrs Jonathan and others, including some organisations were joined in the said ex parte application as respondents.
Justice Mojisola Olatoregun of the Federal High Court in Lagos had on April 20, 2018 granted the ex parte order.
The judge also ordered the EFCC to publish the court’s order in any major national newspaper to enable the respondents or anyone interested in the funds to appear before the court to show cause within 14 days why the final order of forfeiture of the said funds should not be made in favour of the Federal Government of Nigeria.
But instead of appearing before the court to show cause why the money should not be forfeited as directed by the court, Mrs Jonathan had filed an appeal before the Court of Appeal to challenge the competence of the ex parte application filed by the EFCC to request the order of interim forfeiture.
She also in her appeal, challenged the validity of the order made by the trial court and the constitutionality of the Section 17 of AFF Act. But the Court of Appeal in Lagos dismissed her appeal. The development prompted her to approach the Supreme Court, asking the apex court to rule in her favour.
Arguing her appeal on December 12, 2018, her lead lawyer, Mr. Ifedayo Adedipe (SAN), urged the Supreme Court to quash Section 17 of AFF Act which he contended negated the principles of fair hearing and presumption of innocence prescribed in the Constitution.
He said Section 17 of AFF Act which allowed assets to be seized from an individual without conviction, a hearing or a criminal charge whether temporarily or permanently was unconstitutional.
He also said the ex parte application which the trial court granted failed to disclose the alleged “unlawful activities”, the funds were linked to.
But in his response, the EFCC’s lawyer, Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo, said the appellant’s appeal was based on misconception about the provision of Section 17 of AFF Act.
He added that there was nothing unconstitutional about the said provision which he said provides opportunity to the affected person to be heard on the temporarily forfeited assets.
The Supreme Court consequently dismissed Mrs Jonathan’s appeal and upheld the decisions of the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal.