President Muhammadu Buhari has suspended the Chairman, Special Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property, Mr. Okoi Obono-Obla, “with immediate effect”.
In a letter dated Wednesday, August 14, 2019 and signed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, Obono-Obla was accused of “falsification of records and financial impropriety”.
The letter from Mustapha conveying the suspension order to Obono-Obla reads as follows: “I write to convey the directive of His Excellency, Muhammadu Buhari, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, for your suspension from office as Chairman, Special Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property with immediate effect.
“This suspension shall subsist until the conclusion of the ICPC investigations into cases of alleged falsification of records and financial impropriety against your person.
“You are required by this instruction to strictly observe and comply with the provisions of PSR 030405 (a-c) of the Public Service Rules. For the avoidance of doubt, the Solicitor General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, shall be the authority to whom you shall report.
“Please accept my best regards”.
The case against Obono-Obla
A House of Representatives ad hoc panel has long alleged that the Yakurr Local Government of Cross River State-born Obono-Obla gained admission into the University of Jos to study Law with a forged ordinary level (WAEC) certificate.
The House panel had tendered that in the course of its primary assignment, it discovered that Obono-Obla may well have forged his way into the University of Jos.
Obono-Obla obtained a Law degree at the University of Jos and subsequently proceeded to the Nigerian Law School from where he was called to the bar.
An unnamed top government official has told Punch newspaper that the federal government may ask the University of Jos to withdraw Obono-Obla’s Law degree while the Nigerian Law School may also be directed to bar him from practicing as a lawyer.
Asides the charge of falsification of academic records, Obono-Obla has also been accused of abuse of office, intimidation, financial impropriety, among others.
One source told Punch that: “According to the Office of the Attorney-General, Obla has been accused of various offences ranging from abuse of office, intimidation and unauthorised malicious investigations and administrative misconduct, among others.
“In fact, the matter of the mandate of the panel became an issue of judicial interpretation at the Appeal Court in the case of Tijjani Musa V the Federal Government of Nigeria.
“In that case, the Appeal Court held that the panel headed by Obono-Obla lacks prosecutorial powers and cannot seize properties belonging to anyone or obtain forfeiture orders against any public official.”
Going beyond his mandate
Pulse has learnt from top ranking sources in government that as chairman for the recovery of public property panel, Obono-Obla often went beyond his brief for pecuniary gains.
While Obono-Obla’s panel was primarily set up to investigate cases referred to it by the government, according to the law establishing the panel, the chairman would go on to take on cases outside of the panel's purview.
Obono-Obla also reportedly fell out with other members of the panel for his excesses and high handedness on the job. These aggrieved members of the panel would go on to address petitions to the presidency, calling for the sack of their chairman, Pulse has learnt.
Punch quotes a source as spilling that “the other four members of the five-man panel wrote a petition against him, asking for urgent action to curtail the several identified unlawful conducts of the chairman of the panel.
“According to the panel members, while two cases involving NEXIM Bank and CBN, Finance Ministry, Nigeran Ports Authority were referred to the panel, the chairman single-handedly took on over 50 cases outside the mandate of the panel”.
Obono-Obla defends himself
Reacting to the allegations against him, a beleaguered Obono-Obla said some powerful lawmakers are hell bent on ending his career in government because he has exposed how corrupt they are.
He calls his travails "a hatchet job done to witch-hunt, harass, intimidate, ridicule and scandalise me because I dared to investigate and expose assets hidden abroad by some powerful people in the National Assembly".
An Abuja based legal practitioner, First Baba Isa (FBI), tells Pulse that Obono-Obla has been singled out for persecution by powerful persons in government whose toes he had stepped on in the course of his assignment.
“The hard truth that President Buhari and the APC-led government will come to realise sooner than later is that this test, this trial, is theirs; not for Chief Okoi Obono-obla.
“President Buhari and the APC are the ones on the hot seat. The questions being asked are not directed at Obono-obla, the questions are questions Buhari and APC will answer today, tomorrow and forever.
“Why is a government who swore to fight corruption purportedly sacrificing its most dogged corruption fighter on the altar of politics, nepotism and filthy lucre?
“Why is an anti-corruption body that has recovered billions in cash and property for the government and people of Nigeria being accused of overzealousness? Is it true that overzealousness is now being defined as touching some certain persons and investigating some sacred cows?
“These facts are now in the public. These questions are now being asked. And if President Buhari and the APC-led government think these questions are not theirs to answer, then, with the deepest respects, they are being deluded”, FBI said.
President Buhari who won a first term in office partly on the back of a promise to crack down on entrenched and endemic corruption in Nigeria, has often been accused of going soft on members of his own political party, APC, and members of his government.
The presidency often rejects the claims however, insisting that there are no sacred cows in its war against corruption.