The Special Presidential Investigation Panel on the Recovery of Public Property disbanded by President Muhammadu Buhari about a year ago, has been revived by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami (SAN).
The Punch reports that Malami has appointed the head of a civil society organisation, the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative, Dennis Aghanya, as the “Lead Consultant”, who solely administers the affairs of the panel from an office allocated to him at the Federal Ministry of Justice’s headquarters in Abuja.
The panel originally comprised five members with Mr Okoi Obono-Obla as the Chairman when it was constituted in August 2017.
Aghanya, who now runs the panel as a “unit” of the Federal Ministry of Justice, was the one who sent a petition to the Code of Code of Conduct Bureau in January 2019 for the probe and prosecution of the immediate-past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen.
His petition to the CCB sparked the probe of the former CJN, who was subsequently charged with five counts at the Code of Conduct of Tribunal for failing to declare his assets in breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.
Malami, as the AGF, appointed Umar Aliyu (SAN), now deceased, who prosecuted Onnoghen at the CCT on behalf of the CBB and the Federal Government.
In April 2010, the CCT convicted Onnoghen, ordered his removal from office and barred him from holding public office for at least 10 years.
No reason was given for the appointment of Aghanya by Malami as the sole administrator of the SPIP.
The SPIP, constituted in August 2017, was dissolved by Buhari on September 18, 2019.
The dissolution, announced in a statement by presidential spokesperson, Mr Femi Adesina, on September 17, 2019, followed the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission’s probe into allegations of records falsification and financial impropriety levelled against its then chairman, Mr Okoi Obono-Obla.
With the dissolution of the panel, which within the two years of being constituted drew various controversies concerning the legality of its existence and mode of operations, Buhari directed its cases be taken over by the AGF office.
It was further learnt that the Obono-Obla-led panel had over 1,000 cases, including charges filed at the Federal High Court in Abuja against high profile personalities, including a former Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, the President of the Nigerian Football Association, Amaju Pinnick, Imo State Governor, Hope Uzodinma. It was further learnt that the cases have been withdrawn by the AGF office.
Consultant begins house ownership verification exercise
PUNCH confirmed that since his recent appointment by the AGF, Aghanya has picked up the “verification/proof of ownership of property” exercise started by the Obono-Obla-led panel.
The new panel under Aghanya’s leadership, which is acting independently of the units and departments, including the Assets Recovery Unit of the Federal Ministry of Justice, has been inviting occupiers of houses suspected to have been illegally acquired from the Federal Government in Abuja.
Despite the November 18, 2018 judgment of the Court of Appeal in Abuja, which barred the panel from initiating any court proceedings, the letters sent out by Aghanya are laced with threats of possible litigation against whoever fails to comply with his demands within 14 days.
It was gathered that many of the recipients of the panel’s demands, via the letterhead of the SPIP, have forwarded complaints to the AGF office and other departments of the Federal Ministry of Justice questioning the legality of the panel. They expressed shock about what one of them described as “a backdoor reinstatement of the panel.”
One of the demand letters issued last week and served on an Abuja house was seen by our correspondent on Friday.
The letter which is understood to be a sample of what had been served on many other Abuja houses, acknowledged that the President had dissolved the SPIP and directed the AGF “to take over and conclude all outstanding investigations and other related activities of the defunct SPIP.”
Aghanya in the letter described SPIP as a unit of the Federal Ministry of Justice which “is conducting verification and recovery exercise on Federal Government landed properties.”
Many officials of the ministry told our correspondent that the SPIP unit (as the disbanded Obono-Obla panel now described itself) was not part of the recognised units of the ministry.
Some officials said the description of the SPIP as a unit in the ministry was “a crafty way of bypassing the approval of the President, who disbanded the panel led by Obono-Obla and reserves the power to reconstitute it.”
The letters issued by Aghanya “directed” the recipients “to furnish this office, through the designated channel below, the following and records in respect of the above referred Federal Government of Nigeria property:
“Offer letter, letter of allocation, evidence of payment, Certificate of Occupancy, property verification form (duly completed), photocopy of this correspondence, any other document you consider relevant to justify your claim.”
The letter added, “Kindly note that the above requested information and records must be submitted to the above address within a period of 14 days from the receipt of this letter, failure which necessary criminal action and recovery proceedings shall commence.”
It directed the recipients of the letter to direct any inquiry they might have to the SPIP office at Room 1B, 32, Ground Floor of the Federal Ministry of Justice.
AGF office examining allegations against new panel –Malami’s aide
When contacted by our correspondent to respond to allegations that the AGF reinstated the SPIP without presidential approval and that Aghanya’s appointment was a compensation for his role in the ouster of the ex-CJN Onnoghen, the minister’s special assistant on media and publicity, Dr Umar Gwandu, replied in a terse message that the AGF office “is examining the allegations and will respond accordingly thereof.”
The reinstatement of the panel, which has been inundated with several legal actions challenging its legality before it was wound up by a presidential directive last year, is said to re-awaken many controversies surrounding it.
The House of Representatives in a report by its Ad Hoc Committee on ‘The Need to Investigate the Legality and Modus Operandi of the Special Presidential Investigation Panel’ had before the panel’s dissolution urged the President “to dissolve the panel in view of the arbitrary use of powers and abuse of office by the chairman (Obono-Obla).”
“That the Code of Conduct Bureau should be utilised to perform the functions that the panel sought to perform in the current anti-corruption drive,” the House of Representatives stated in the report which was unanimously adopted at plenary on December 20, 2018.
Before the panel watch was wound up by the presidential directive, Ekweremadu had filed a suit contending that the Recovery of Public Property (Special Provision) Act which established the panel had been overtaken and rendered inactive by the establishment of the CCB in the Nigerian 1999 Constitution, to accept and administer assets declaration by public officers, the same mandate the panel sought to perform.
I applied and got the job, says Aghanya
When also contacted by our correspondent on Friday, Aghanya said it was insulting to tag his involvement with the SPIP files as a compensation for his roles in the removal of Onnoghen.
Aghanya said he was only assisting a committee set up to review the files of the defunct SPIP in its winding up mandate.
“Rather than call it compensation to me, I am rather assisting the winding up committee on the defunct SPIP to achieve its mandate,” he stated.
He said he applied to be appointed as the lead consultant for recovery of illegally occupied government property after the Federal Ministry of Justice set up a committee to review all the SPIP’s recovered files.
Aghanya said he had never seen Malami since he started the job.
He stated, “The committee also invited me, on the basis of my application, as the consultant who was responsible for all the files for the recovery of Federal Government houses occupied illegally under the defunct Obono-Obla panel.
“They set up a smaller committee which I am working with in carrying out this assignment. My involvement is merely to guide this committee I am attached with because I have the expertise, since I was the one who generated the files, under the defunct Obono-Obla panel, which they are now working on.
“It’s therefore an insult to my personality and lack of appreciation for anyone to attribute this odious task I am handling to a form of compensation for revealing the infraction committed by the former CJN, Onnoghen.
“I can also assure you that I have never set my eyes on the HAGF (Malami) since I got involved with this assignment. If I have any need, I meet my smaller committee who now takes my issue to the main committee.
“What I am doing is simply in line with my call for anti-corruption advocacy. I do it for passion as service to my fatherland and in support of the anti-corruption fight of the current administration which the HAGF has demonstrated appropriately.
“I don’t want to be dragged into any form of politicisation of noble issues. I would have ignored your text message making inquiries on this matter, but I believe it’s an opportunity provided for me to clear the air before my head would be shaved in my absence.
“One of the most difficult assignments, in this direction, is to identify Federal Government houses illegally occupied, but we have recorded unimaginable success.”