By Michael Ojo
For about five hours on Thursday, a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos entertained arguments on whether or not it should order the final forfeiture of two buildings that belong to former Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki situated in Ilorin, Kwara State.
While the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) insisted o the houses were proceeds of crime, the defence argued that Dr Saraki built the houses with funds he legitimately earned.
The anti-graft agency claimed that it had evidence that Saraki, who was Kwara State governor between 2003 and 2011, diverted not less than N10bn belonging to the state.
EFCC told the trial judge, Justice Rilwan Aikawa at that the sum of N1.09bn spent on the two Ilorin buildings was part of the N10bn allegedly stolen by Saraki.
The commission had on December 2, 2019 obtained an order temporarily forfeiting the houses – Plots No. 10 and No. 11 Abdulkadir Road, GRA, Ilorin, Kwara State – to the Federal Government.
It is now urging the court to make the interim forfeiture order permanent, a move that Saraki, through his lawyer, Mr Kehinde Ogunwunmiju (SAN), has vehemently opposed.
In an affidavit filed before the court, an officer of the EFCC, Bilikisu Buhari, said the anti-graft agency found out that while he was Kwara State governor, Saraki allegedly diverted N100m on a monthly basis from the Federal allocation to the state.
She said the N100m was usually diverted from the Kwara State Government account into the account of the Kwara State Government House.
She said following the transfer, one Mr Afeez Yusuf, acting on Saraki’s instructions, usually went to withdraw the money from the Kwara State Government House account and took the cash to the Government House.
She said, “After the funds were stacked in the Kwara State Government House, it was then fraudulently dissipated and taken away in cash by Messrs Abdul Adama, Ubi Ofem and Ubi Austin, acting on the instructions and direction of Dr Bukola Saraki in violent breach of public trust.
“That in this scheme of fraud alone, about N10bn was fraudulently diverted from the treasury of the Kwara State Government. Part of the proceeds of the aforementioned fraud were reasonably suspected to have been mingled with other funds used for the development of the property sought to be forfeited”.
Buhari said Adama, Ofem and Austin, using fictitious names, usually paid the diverted N100m into the bank accounts of contractors who built the houses.
But opposing the prayer to permanently forfeit his client’s houses on Thursday, Saraki’s lawyer, Ogunwunmiju, said they were built from his client’s legitimate earnings.
The senior advocate said N252.2m out of the N1.09bn used for developing the property represented what Saraki was paid by the state for a five-bedroom apartment, which he was entitled to as a two-term governor of Kwara State.
Ogunwunmiju pointed the attention of Justice Aikawa to the Governor and Deputy Governor (Payment of Pension) Law 2010 of Kwara State, which stipulated that an elected two-term governor of the state was entitled to a five-bedroomed duplex, at any location of his choice within Kwara State.
He said rather than allow the state to build the house for him, Saraki chose to collect N252.2m so he could add money to it to build a house to his taste.
Ogunwunmiju contended that if it was true, as alleged by the EFCC, that the document leading to the release of the N252.2m was forged by an official of the Kwara State Government, still the payment to Saraki was not illegitimate because it was provided for under the law.
He urged the court to dismiss the EFCC’s application for being an abuse of court processes, saying the same issues had been taken before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court where Saraki was vindicated.
But counsel for the EFCC, Mr Rotimi Oyedepo, insisted that as long as Saraki failed to explain how he came about the over N700m, which he added to the N252.2m to develop their houses, the houses were liable to be forfeited.
After arguments that lasted for over five hours, Justice Aikwa adjourned till April 27 for judgment.