By Vivian Okejeme Abuja
The Federal High Court, Abuja today dismissed the suit by the Benue State Government, challenging the powers of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to investigate it’s accounts.
The trial judge, Justice Nnamdi Dimgba held that the suit is lacking in merit, adding that it was built on a misconception that the EFCC lacked the statutory powers to investigate the financial activities of a state government.
The court noted that the commission has a moral burden by carrying out the investigations into the accounts of Benue State as soon as the state government change her political affiliation.
Delivery the ruling the court said, “The powers donated to the EFCC under Section 38 of its Act are very broad and not limited to any geographical location. It is so broad that it arises even in the context of management of State financies.
“I must make bold to say that the suit rest on a fallacy that EFCC is investigating the Benue State Government. This misconception collapsed by the provision of Section 38 of the EFCC Act.
“Issues are mixed up here and the Court cannot allow itself into the misconception. What is clear to me going by the exhibits attached by the 1st defendant is that petitions were written against some named officials in the administration of the Benue State Government containing allegations of fraud against them.
“Invitation letters were directed to some officials of Benue State Government and another letter requesting the release of some State officials.”
Further in the judgment the court held, “None of the officials is a Governor or Deputy Governor who enjoys immunity under section 308 of the 1999 constitution.
“The suggestion that EFCC is investigating Benue State Government did not hold water. I am of the view that EFCC acted within its powers under the law when it sent letters of invitation to some officials of the Benue State Government for the purpose of investigation, which is the subject matter before this Court.
“I don’t agree that it’s action is a usurpation of responsibilities of the State House of Assembly and the Auditor General of the State.
“The Audit function of the Auditor General did not forclose the duties and functions of the EFCC. It is a complementary to the powers of the powers of the State Assembly under Sections 128 and 129 of the 1999 constitution.
“As far as I can see, there is nothing in section 125, 128 and 129 which for closed the investigating powers of the EFCC. The surveillance powers of the Auditor General and House of Assembly is limited. I am of the view that EFCC retained the powers to investigate the finances of the state. It does not do any violence to the Doctrine of federalism and separation of powers.”
The court added, “Besides, the EFCC has the expertise to carry out forensic investigation of financial crimes which neither the House of Assembly and Auditor General has the special skills to investigate financial crimes.
“I differ with my brothers decision in the case of AG Rivers V EFCC and AG Ekiti V EFCC because there is some danger in holding that only State Houses of Assembly can investigate State finances. This court takes a different view bearing in mind the collaborative efforts between the State and Federal government in the fight against corruption.
“EFCC has legal powers to investigate financial crimes in every strata of our public life even at Local government level,” Justice Dimgba held.
However, the court caution the prosecution agency to be impartial and neutral in such a way that it would earn public confidence.
Justice Dimgba observed that although the Commission received the first petition against some officials of the state since June 2016 when the state governor was in the same political affiliation with the government in power, it only acted on it when there was a change in the political affiliation of the state, thus given rise to suspicion.
The EFCC had earlier this month frozen the bank account of Benue State Government claiming it was investigating alleged fraud but, quickly defroze the account same day the order was made.
The Attorney General of Benue State, Micheal Gusa, had in the originating summon number FHC/MKD/CS/42/18 challenged the powers of the EFCC to investigate or inquire into the accounts and /or appropriations, disbursements and administration of the funds of Benue State Government having regard to the clear provisions of sections 1(1) and (3), 125(2), (4) and (6), 128 and 129 of the 1999 constitution.
Mentioned as defendants in the matter are the Speaker of the Benue State House of Assembly; the Clerk, Benue State House of Assembly; Benue State House of Assembly and the Auditor-General, Benue State.
Reacting shortly after the ruling, the Benue State Government through its counsel, Emeka Etiaba (SAN) faulted the judgement, stating it will challenge it at the Court of Appeal.