The Federal High Court in Abuja has ordered the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC) to lift the restrictions it placed on the bank accounts of a businessman and his company, Nkrah Marine Limited.
In the judgement delivered on January 18, 2022, the judge, Mobolaji Olajuwon, also ordered the commission to pay N5 million to both Eno Williams and his firm.
Mr Williams and his company had sued ICPC over the Post No Debit (PND) order placed on their bank accounts since October 14, 2021 on the instruction of the anti-corruption agency.
They sued, along with ICPC, the two banks, First City Monumental Bank Limited, and Zenith Bank Plc, which froze their accounts at the behest of ICPC.
The plaintiffs indicated in the suit, filed on November 2, 2021, that the case being investigated by the commission was a debt recovery issue, which they said was a fallout of a commercial transaction between them and a firm, Shinning Light Interbiz Limited.
They contended that the ICPC’s action was unlawful and void as the commission had no investigative powers over the issue of debt recovery.
They urged the court to declare that the restrictions placed on their accounts and their continued denial of access to the accounts constituted a violation of their fundamental rights to own property. They also pleaded with the court to order the restrictions be removed immediately.
Delivering judgement in the case on January 18, the court agreed with the plaintiffs that the PND order and their continued denial of access to operate their accounts since October 14, 2021 “are unlawful, void and in gross violation of applicants’ fundamental right to own property and pursue development of their economic and social interests.”
The court also directed the respondents – ICPC and the two banks – to remove the restrictions placed on the applicants’ bank accounts immediately.
It also ordered ICPC to pay N5 million to the applicants “as compensation for freezing the accounts of the applicants unlawfully.”
Mr Olajuwon ruled that the two banks could not be held liable for the blocking of the bank accounts of the applicants without the backing of a court order, citing section 45(2) of the ICPC Act which frees banks, their agents of employees of any liability for complying with the anti-corruption agency’s instruction to place a PND on a bank account.
Why ICPC’s action is ‘unlawful’
The judge ruled that ICPC was wrong to instruct the banks to freeze the accounts of the applicants disregarding their appeal pending at the Court of Appeal to challenge their invitation by the commission for investigation.
ICPC claimed it only froze the accounts of the applicants after they refused to honour its invitation for interrogation over a petition it received from a lawyer to Shinning Light Interbiz Limited in 2017.
It said the petition accused the applicants of criminal conversion and fraud and showed elements of corrupt practices.
It added that Nkrah Marine Limited honoured the first invitation but shunned the subsequent ones and disrupted investigations.
But the judge, in his judgement, said the anti-graft agency should not have gone ahead to freeze the accounts of the applicants after being aware of the applicants’ suit challenging its power to invite them for investigations over a commercial transaction.
“The 1st respondent (ICPC) admitted knowing that the challenge to the invitation extended to the applicants was on the basis that the 1st respondent lacked authority to investigate the matter in issue between the applicants and Shinning light Interbiz Limited,” the court noted.
It added, “As things stand therefore, the issue of the challenge to the authority of the 1st respondent to invite the applicants, on the basis that the 1st respondent does not have the power to investigate the petition received by it as same allegedly emanated from a commercial transaction is still a live issue pending at the Court of Appeal.
“It would therefore follow that anything that has to do with the invitation and investigation must be put on hold pending the outcome of the appeal so as not to foist on the Court of Appeal a fait accompli.”
ICPC was established by former President Olusegun Obasanjo on September 29, 2000, with the mission of receiving and investigating accusations of corruption and, if necessary, prosecuting the perpetrator(s).
The commission is also charged with examining, reviewing, and enforcing the correction of public bodies’ corruption-prone systems and procedures in order to eradicate corruption in public life, as well as educating and enlightening the public on and against corruption and related offenses in order to enlist and foster public support for the fight against corruption.