Lawyer and human rights activist, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, tells BAYO AKINLOYE that the judiciary is complicit in the Federal Government’s efforts to take over 46 million bank accounts without BVN
Some have considered the step taken by the Federal Government to freeze bank accounts of people with BVN as an attempt to steal from innocent citizens. What is your view?
The whole idea of forfeiture of the resources and assets of citizens to the Federal Government is illegal and unconstitutional. Under sections 43 and 44 of the 1999 Constitution, every citizen of Nigeria has a right to property, moveable and immovable. The moveable ones are cars, cash and other assets that can be taken from one location to another while the immovable ones are land, buildings etc. The citizens have vested rights over their private or corporate assets and these rights cannot be forfeited or acquired under any guise by the government without giving an opportunity to the owner to be heard in relation to any allegation that may arise concerning his property. To that extent therefore, it is wrong for the Federal Government to be seeking to take away from the citizens (what belongs to them).
If you check the history of this government, it is the worst in terms of economic adversities for Nigerians, dragging us into economic recession, by which most people have lost their purchasing power. So, a government that is not creating wealth cannot seek to be ‘stealing’ from the people. It is in this regard that I find the steps taken by the Federal Government as totally wrong, in law and indeed, politically. How can government be seeking to scoop money belonging to its own citizens? It is totally immoral. Now, when you go to a bank to deposit money, you are entering into a contract with the bank, to warehouse your money and give you access to withdraw it as you please, upon payment of certain commission.
The Federal Government and indeed the Attorney General are not parties to that contract. So how can a stranger to a contract go behind the parties and seek to terminate that contract and then take over the subject matter of that contract? It is not done in law because there is no privity of contract between the customers who deposited their funds in the banks and the Federal Government that approached the court to forfeit the money so deposited. The whole case and the orders granted in it are abnormalities in law.
The Federal Government said the step was taken to curb money laundering. Don’t you think that’s a good intention?
The whole court case is illegal. First, the owners of the money in the banks are not parties to the case, so they cannot be heard in respect of their assets that the Federal Government wants to forfeit upon mere suspicion. How can all 46 million people be fraudsters? Have you ever seen a nation like that, where 46 million bank accounts belong to fraudsters? That nation is doomed for life.
Secondly, the constitution in Section 36 says that before you go ahead to determine the rights and obligations of any citizen, you must afford him the right to fair hearing. Remember these are supposed to be interim orders of forfeiture. But the trick in it all is that if after 14 days, you do not challenge the order, then your bank account and the money in it are forfeited to the government, which is seeking to reap where it has not sown. I mean how can a government that is taunting transparency be involved in this kind of official scam?
Third, the court is created under Section 6 of the constitution to adjudicate upon disputes between persons and persons and between government and persons or vice versa. In this BVN case, you will clearly see that it is like an arrangement between the Federal Government and all the banks because there is no dispute at all. The people, who should be disputing with anybody, are the owners of the bank accounts to be forfeited and they are not parties to the case in the first place.
Fourth, a court of law is created to enforce law, not executive policies of CBN. Under Section 3 of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, what is required of a customer who wants to open a bank account is to furnish sufficient particulars to identify the person, such as his name, his address, his passport photograph, his documents of identity, like his passport, his national identity card, payment of utility bill for PHCN or water, to show where he resides. There is no requirement for data capturing or BVN in the Act, under which the court granted these forfeiture orders. And the Act does not prescribe the penalty of forfeiture of bank account for non-compliance. So you then begin to wonder how the court arrived at its conclusion to forfeit people’s money.
The idea behind money laundering involves the illegal transfer of money through an outside source in order to conceal its true identity or source, like a person in a position of public trust using his son or wife to execute fake contracts as a means of siphoning money. So, the first thing is that most of the funds being laundered are public funds. Do you then tell me that all the 46 million bank accounts to be forfeited are being used to launder money? Certainly not! Some of the bank accounts must belong to private persons, some to state governments, etc. So, you will see clearly that the step to forfeit people’s money was not taken to curb money laundering. Don’t you think that after three years of the existence of the BVN policy, everyone should have complied if there is nothing to hide?
Even if you give the BVN policy another 10 years, not everyone will or can comply with it, for so many reasons. I have received messages from people in Israel, saying there is no data-capturing centre in Israel and the one closest to them is in Turkey and this Nigerians say they don’t have travelling permits to go to Turkey. So, you want them to forfeit their money? There are wealthy people, who are bed-ridden and are battling to save their lives, and you want them to forfeit their money. There are estates with very huge bank accounts but there is dispute between the beneficiaries of these estates and many of them are in court to resolve the disputes. Do you want them to forfeit their money in 14 days when such disputes may last years to end? There are companies with disputes in court and they have very fat bank accounts. Do you want them to forfeit their money? We run a largely illiterate society where many people are not even aware of the BVN policy, not to talk of complying with it.
Can you expatiate on your argument concerning an ‘interim order for a permanent purpose’?
An interim order is something that is obtained for a temporary purpose – for a very short period of time. But according to the order that has been obtained by the Federal Government, if after 14 days of publishing the order, you do not come forward to give reasons why you have not complied with the BVN policy, then you forfeit your money permanently, to the government. Under our law, it is the person that is making an allegation that has the onus to prove it. In this case, it is the Federal Government that is claiming that these bank accounts are being used to launder money; so, the burden is on the government to prove this. If I may ask, why this desperation? Is the government that broke? And if so, it should look inwards and block further avenues for wastage instead of seeking to punish the people by taking away their hard-earned investments.