FOLLOWING an application instituted by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami (SAN), a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja recently ordered a temporary forfeiture and freezing of all money domiciled in all accounts not covered by the Biometric Verification Number (BVN) in 19 deposit money banks in the country. In addition to the freezing order stopping all outward payments, operations or transactions in respect of the accounts pending the determination of the suit, the court also ordered the banks to publish the account numbers of such accounts, the branch in which they are domiciled as well as their outstanding balances, and to advertise same in a widely circulated newspaper within seven days. It gave the owners of the account 14 days to identify themselves, failing which the funds in such accounts would be totally forfeited to the Federal Government.
We appreciate the rationale behind the government’s resort to this drastic step. For quite some time, the government has been concerned that its attempt to unravel the persons behind stolen funds which are hidden in banks had been frustrated by bank officials allegedly colluding with such persons to run accounts not linked with a BVN. Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Ibrahim Magu, had raised the alarm recently that some banks were helping corrupt government officials to operate secret accounts without BVN. He even said that some bank officials were in the habit of “opening accounts for government officials even after the introduction of the Treasury Single Account, thereby allowing government funds to be diverted.” So, the Federal Government’s move to hinder those hiding in banks, funds suspected to be proceeds of crime from benefitting from same is not only understandable but also justifiable.
But the attempt to block criminally-minded persons from the proceeds of their crimes should not also lead to depriving those who laboured to make their money of the proceeds of their hard work. The step taken by the government has the propensity to rob industrious Nigerians within and outside the shores of the country from enjoying the fruits of their labour. There are so many Nigerians in the Diaspora who have not been able to do the BVN because they have not been able to come to the country since the CBN introduced the measure. Although there are centers in various places abroad, the number is grossly inadequate and the centers are so far-flung that they serve as a discouragement to bank customers who might want to link their bank accounts to a BVN. The step is also capable of depriving relations of the dead, who have not been able to sort out the usually time-gulping process of claiming the money in the account of the departed, of such funds.
While we agree with the Federal Government that such money in accounts without BVN should not be left in commercial banks that will continue to trade with same without the proceeds of such transactions being shared with the fund owners, we are of the view that it is not right for the Federal Government to take over such monies and convert same to revenue. Rather than doing that, the funds should be warehoused in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) which will hold it in trust for the owners until they show up to claim what is theirs. Government’s duty is to protect its citizens, not to milk and bilk them, especially if they are law-abiding. Therefore, rather than the blanket forfeiture of funds which the government seeks, we are of the opinion that government should impress it on its agencies to scale up their monitoring of accounts and get specific court orders regarding those with suspicious sources and transactions. That way, the government will punish the guilty and protect the innocent.