Buhari Suspends SPIP Chairman Obono-Obla

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President Muhammadu Buhari Wednesday ordered the suspension the Chairman of the Special Presidential Investigation Panel (SPIP) for the Recovery of Public Property, Okoi Obono-Obla. The presidency said the “suspension shall be in effect until the conclusion of ongoing Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Commission investigations into a number of cases relating to Mr. Obono-Obla.”

The suspension is coming after an extensive investigation conducted into Obono-Obla’s academic credentials by the anti-graft agency. He is facing allegations of certificate forgery and other corruption-related charges. On Friday, his office located in Asokoro, was sealed by some armed police officers.

But Aso Rock sources told Huhuonline.com that Obono-Obla has been actually been sacked, explaining that his sack letter was delivered to both the Solicitor-General of the Federation and the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Obono-Obla’s supervising ministry. A senior presidency official who elected anonymity said Obono-Obla might face criminal prosecution on matters relating to alleged financial misconduct, as uncovered by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC).

“He may in addition, face prosecution with regard to his academic credentials, specifically, the WAEC Certificate issue. Government may ask the University of Jos to withdraw his law degree and the Nigerian Law School to debar him from practice. This is owing to the conclusion of the ICPC investigation, the recommendations of which were approved in full by President Buhari,” the source said.

Obono-Obla, however, in a statement said it was difficult to know why his office was sealed because of the Eid-el-Kabir holidays. He alleged that some ‘highly placed Nigerians’ wishing to protect some persons under investigation were arm-twisting the panel officials, thereby distracting the panel from carrying out its lawful mandate.

According to him, the panel has examples of many high-profile cases where misappropriated public funds were traced to the personal bank accounts of public servants and rather than explain the source of the funds, they resort to false petitions and unfairly attacking the officials of the panel.

“Some corrupt people in government are fighting me…You know they have sacked me several times without a sack letter. So, I believe that if there is anything like that, the President will inform me. I have not heard anything from him. I am not in Abuja. I travelled for the holiday and I was told of the action. I know it is the action of mischievous people. I will not comment further until I return to Abuja.”

Obono-Obla said: “as you all know, the past few days have been aghast with media reports of police sealing the offices of the panel. My attention was drawn to the unfortunate news item making the rounds.” The chairman said he had been “inundated with calls from members of the public who are seeking to know the true position of events concerning the purported sealing off of the SPIP offices in Abuja by armed Policemen.

“I am yet to receive an official briefing on the issue since SPIP’s staff are observing the Eid-el-Kabir holiday and away from our desks. It is time we call the myths out for what they are, as the news making the rounds appear to us as a smear campaign from people with their protectionist agenda in favour of persons being investigated.

Obono-Obla said that officials of the panel had made and continued to contribute vitally to the fight against corruption. “The efforts of the SPIP in the fight against corruption in Nigeria deserve to be recognised. Instead, we are being dismissed with misleading scare stories and arm-twisting of the panel officials by ‘highly placed Nigerians’ wishing to protect some persons under our investigation and thereby distracting the panel from carrying out its lawful mandate.”

Aso Rock sources also told Huhuonline.com that the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Justice Minister had earlier recommended to the presidency, among others, “that a thorough investigation be conducted into the allegations of forgery levelled against Mr. Obono-Obla,” and consequently proposed suspending him from office.

The sources also disclosed that the presidency had also recently received another report which indicted the Obono-Obla on other acts of forgery and misconduct. The Office of the AGF, had accused Obono-Obla of various misdemeanours “ranging from abuse of office, intimidation and unauthorised malicious investigations, financial impropriety, administrative misconduct, and allegations of forgery, falsification of records, to mention but a few.”

“In fact, late last year, the matter of the mandate of the panel became an issue of judicial interpretation at the Appeal Court in the case of Tijjani Musa Tumsah versus the Federal Republic 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.

“The court also held that the duty of the panel upon conclusion of an investigation is to submit its report to the head of government and that the panel, as against the conduct of the chairman, cannot act outside its enabling statute, the Recovery of Public Property Special Provisions Act of 1984.

“Actually once when confronted with some of his alleged misconduct and other allegations, Obono-Obla signed a written undertaking to the effect that the panel under his leadership would only act on a written mandate received from the presidency, and will seek authorisation from the presidency to undertake fresh mandates in accordance with extant laws of the federation.”

But Obono-Obla ignored the undertaking and continued his fishing expedition. Whereas the panel was supposed to investigate only cases referred to it by the government, it unilaterally took up cases outside its mandate in gross violation of the rule of law, including violations of people’s fundamental human rights. “Despite the specificity of the mandate of the panel, the Federal government has been inundated with complaints against Mr. Obono-Obla. These include complaints of violation of the specific mandate of the panel, human rights abuses and conduct unbecoming of an official of government, which conduct and actions had a number of times subjected the panel and the government to ridicule.

“Matters however came to a head when the other four members of the 5-man Panel wrote a petition against Obono-Obla, 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, Nigerian Ports Authority were referred to the panel, the chairman single-handedly took on over 50 cases outside the mandate of the panel.

“They also stated that “contrary to the fact that the Panel is an investigative panel by its enabling law, which lacks prosecutorial powers, Mr. Obono-Obla has unlawfully engaged lawyers to file charges against suspects without recourse to the Attorney-General’s office,” one source noted.