By Olugbenga Adanikin
FOR nearly 14 months, the State Security Service allegedly detained citizen Austin Ighodaro, illegally without recourse for the due judicial process.
Ighodaro’s wife, Mrs Helen Ighodaro told The ICIR that her husband was wrongly accused of committing an offence contrary to the Anti-Money Laundering Act.
But all through last year, and almost end the first quarter of 2020, Ighodaro, according to his wife, was neither transferred to the Special Control Unit Against Money Laundry (SCUML) for further investigation and prosecution nor to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) – the statutory governmental body responsible for investigating financial corruption in Nigeria.
Rather he was kept in detention and allegedly tortured without a chance for trial.
Torture of detainees by law enforcement agents is a clear violation of Section 36 of the Constitution which guarantees an individual’s right to a fair hearing, as spelt out by the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) signed into law in 2015.
The 2017 Anti-torture Act also forbids security forces from obtaining information by force.
Not only that, the suspect was also denied the right to celebrate the birth of his daughter – Eloghosa Esther Ighodaro, who was delivered on 6th February 2019, the wife told The ICIR.
He was only privileged to see the baby three weeks after she was brought to him while in detention.
Lawyers, however, have argued that no section of the Nigerian constitution permits the State Security Service to arrest and detain suspects on issues that exclude internal national security matters, as detailed in the National Security Acts 1986.
How it began
Ighodaro wife who visited The ICIR‘s office in February narrated how her husband’s ordeal began.
Last year, on Wednesday 30th January, Ighodaro, the Executive Director of Universal Agricultural Empowerment and Development Initiative (UNAEDI) was reportedly arrested by the SSS operatives for a reason yet unknown as of the time of his arrest.
He had visited Liberia and just returned to the country, lodged at White House Hotel, Ikeja in Lagos when the SSS operatives stormed his hotel room.
In the usual brigandage approach of the secrete service, no warrant of arrest was presented or issued, before the accused was detained, according to court documents.
At a point, the accused mistook the operatives for kidnappers. “…they abducted him, handcuffed, leg-cuffed and blindfolded him…,” an amended affidavit in support of a court Suit N0: FHC/ABJ/CS/1153/2019 read.
Ighodaro was eventually taken to the SSS State Command at Benin City, Edo State.
But while in Benin, his wife explained to The ICIR that the accused was driven around parts of the city to identify his supposed properties, since he is an indigene of the state. While this was ongoing, he was reportedly handcuffed.
Mrs. Ighodaro said the SSS assumed her husband had spent the alleged looted money on fixed assets such as landed properties, but he was eventually returned back to detention after the operatives reportedly found nothing against him.
However, on Tuesday, 5th February, 2019 Ighodaro was transferred to Abuja where he was purportedly detained until his wife sought legal action against the continuous abuse of her husband’s basic human rights.
Incidentally, Ighodaro’s case in the hands of the SSS is not peculiar.
Omoyele Sowore, Publisher of Sahara Reporters was abducted in the same manner among other persons that have reportedly suffered undue arrest in a Gestapo style and prosecuted, yet the operatives, the court document says refused to honour the judge’s verdict after repeated judgements.
Alleged N1.7 billion fraud – Is Ighodaro really guilty?
After several days of suspected torture, Ighodaro eventually got to know his offence.
He was accused of being a member of a ‘cabal’ that allegedly ‘attacked’ Sterling Bank and carted away huge sum to the tune of about N1.7 billion.
Ighodaro said he was shocked when he heard about the allegation, according to court document prepared by his lawyer.
But before he could utter a word of defence, Ighodalo claimed he got kicked in the mouth and was beaten while in handcuffs.
Meanwhile, prior to his arrest, in December 2018, a man identified as Osa-Tare Imaziqueze had walked into his NGO’s office located at the NCWS Complex, Garki in Abuja.
The man claimed to be a humanitarian from Germany and was much interested in UNAEDI’s activities, particularly as it supports the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Benue and North-Eastern part of the country.
As a result, Imaziqueze promised to make ‘huge donation’ in support of the NGO.
Shortly after, Ighodaro’s NGO received N60 million donations into its Stanbic IBTC Bank Account No: 0016798848. The payment came from a Sterling Bank account.
“Somebody walked into his office in area 11 that he likes the work they are doing and he will like to donate to them. So he responded that they run an NGO and they are open to donations,” Mrs Ighodaro said in an interview with The ICIR.
“A week later, N60 million was donated but after a while, the same person returned to the office, pleaded they should not be angry and asked if it was possible to give him back part of the money. So he responded that NGOs don’t do that.”
“The man responded there was no problem and he left,” she added.
According to her, the accused was allegedly unaware that the transferred sum was fraud proceed meant for her husband to withdraw and pay part in return to the false philanthropist.
Moreover, she said the bank fraud involved a woman, who was later arrested by the secret agents but exonerated her husband.
According to her, the unidentified woman reportedly cloned a particular account, withdrew the money and deposited the sums in tranches into different accounts including that of the NGO.
“Like my husband, they paid N60 million, another person got N100 million and so on…,” she added. “Even the lady in their custody told them (SSS) that she has never met my husband before but she was the one who credited his (NGO’s) account.”
But, prior to the findings and arrests, the NGO had withdrawn N59,919,43.00, and reportedly spent it on humanitarian projects at the Kutara IDP Camp, Nasarawa State and an Talitha Cumi Orhanage Home, Nyanya, Abuja.
“…to enable UNAEDI to finance its intervention programmes that took its staff and other support services to Kutara IDP Camp in Nasarawa State on 31st December, 2018, where it donated relief materials and also undertook to pay 1-year salary arrears of teachers,” the court document revealed.
“On the 1st January, 2019, UNAEDI visited Talitha Cumi Orphanage home in Nyanya, Abuja and Treasure Orphanage Foundation in Karu, Nasarawa State and donated relief materials and sums of money.”
It is, however, uncertain if Ighodaro’s NGO was registered with SCUML but his wife claimed he has all necessary documents which formalises the NGO.
DSS refused to honour court order to pay N500m damages
In the course of filing this report, The ICIR gathered that the SSS prosecution officer handling the case had reportedly recommended to the DG SSS, severally the need for Ighodaro’s release on bail, based on legal provisions and the previous judgement.
The accused was earlier granted bail on 3rd May, 2019 in suit N0: MHC/ABJ/CS/279/2019 but still dishonoured.
“A declaration that the arrest, continuous detention and refusal of access to lawyers and family members of the applicant since Wednesday, January 30, 2019, without charging him to a court of competent jurisdiction or releasing him either unconditionally or on bail is unlawful, unconstitutional, and amounts to a violation of the applicant’s right to personal liberty, fair hearing and freedom of movement as enshrined in sections 35, 36, and 41 of the 1999 constitution (As amended.)” the judgement by Justice N.E Maha, the presiding judge read.
But recommendations from the SSS lawyer repeatedly failed.
The court ruling that ordered the SSS to pay N500 million as damages to the victim for, ‘unlawful arrest, detention, humiliation and psychological trauma occasioned by the illegal acts of the respondent,’ was also said to be discarded.
“There was a time they even gave him an administrative bail, they called us to come but before we got to the entrance of the SSS Headquarters, they said no, we should go back,” Mrs Ighodaro noted.
However, a different suit was filed against the SSS for refusing to honour earlier judgement made by the lower court.
But, when the SSS lawyer appeared in court, he reportedly lied that the accused was already released.
“At first they said he has been released. When we got to the court, the SSS lawyer came and said they have released him to EFCC.
We were happy. So, that same day, they called that I should come and file a discontinuous of the court case against them. Immediately I got there, I was shocked to still see my husband in their custody.
“So it was a deception.”
DSS allegedly disobeyed Attorney General’s office
Again, the SSS raised a caveat insisting that the accused would only be released if Mrs Ighodaro retrieves the fresh suit against it from the court.
Meanwhile, the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, it was gathered had earlier written to the SSS instructing it to refer the case to the EFCC but as at 10th March, the directive has not been honoured.
The Investigative Police Office (IPO) in charge of the case and the Director of Operations also agreed based on intelligent information that the case was outside the jurisdiction of the secret agents.
Moreover, the Bureau de Change who was allegedly involved in the allegation was the first to be arrested by the DSS. But he was reportedly released three months after his arrest when the DSS reportedly realised the said Alhaji was diabetic and HIV positive.
“The man had so many sicknesses, so they had to release him,” the source added.
However, after the long illegal detention, on 11th March, the DSS finally handed Ighodaro over to the EFCC for prosecution. This is more than a year after he was being held unduly. He is currently under EFCC supervision.
“They took him to EFCC last week Wednesday, he was moved to Lagos Tuesday morning….so the investigation is ongoing in Lagos. I’m just leaving his place. They will charge him to court next week,” his wife later told The ICIR.
What the law says and experts opinion
Does the SSS have right to wade into affairs outside national security? Do they have the mandate to investigate civil matters? Does the constitution empower the SSS to detain accused persons? These among others are questions begging for answers on the case.
But, Abdul Mahmud, a lawyer in his reaction said beyond the ACJA, it is illegal and unconstitutional for the SSS to arrest the accused person or anyone alleged to have committed financial crime, so far it away from national security matters.
He said it is only the EFCC and Police that has the power to arrest offenders but this should also be done within provisions of the law such that no accused person should be detained beyond 48 hours, and at most 72 hours.
“Two schools of thoughts have emerged on the limit of power the SSS can exercise.
I belong to that school that the power it has was gifted to it by the National Security Acts 1986 which specifically empowered it to prevent and detect, protect and preserve all military non-classified matters on the internal security of Nigeria, and other power assigned to it by the National Assembly and the President,”
“The law does not specifically mention arrest. The crime is not a national security issue but a financial offence.”
“For the situation on ground, it is only EFCC and the Police that can arrest, detain and even try this individual. There is even a more fundamental constitutional issue involved by section (3) (3) 34, 36 of the constitution.
“It talks about the length of time a citizen can be detained by a detaining agency. No more than 24 hours or at worse 72 hours.
But this guy has been detained for over a year without bringing him up for trial. So what the DSS is doing is in flagrant violation of section 36 of the constitution.
That’s why I said forget ACJA, the constitution is superior to ACJA.”
Also, according to ACJA which also promotes effective management of criminal justice institutions.
“A suspect arrested for an offence which a magistrate court has no jurisdiction to try shall, within a reasonable time of arrest, be brought before a magistrate court for remand,” Section 293 of the Act says.
A lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity simply described the accused person’s detention as illegal, citing section 36 of the Nigerian constitution.
“The answer to your question is that it is illegal and this can be found in the constitution,” she said citing Section 36. She added that ‘it is basically not legal’.
Barrister Inihebe Effiong, human rights lawyer also shared a similar view as above.
He described the action of the SSS as outrightly illegal, as the right to personal liberty is guaranteed under the constitution.
“By virtue of that, nobody in Nigeria irrespective of the reason for the arrest should be detained by any security agency or authority of persons beyond 24 hours.
So, if the SSS is convinced that the person committed a criminal offence, the only option available under section 35 of the constitution is to arraign the person,” Effiong said.
“If they say the crime is so grievous and because of that they can not arraign the person to court, it means that from the beginning, they don’t have a case with the person, so what they have is illegal.
And if there is a court order, and the order has not been honoured, that has gone beyond the issue of illegal detention. that has gone to clear lawlessness and impunity.”
The lawyer noted that action by the DSS could also be labelled as contempt of court for refusing court order.
“They don’t have any power outside the national security agency Act which is the enabling law that establishes the agency. They don’t have any power under any law in Nigeria to detain anyone beyond 24 hours.”
DSS silent over matter
Peter Afunanya, the DSS Spokesperson was contacted via phone but he terminated the call and then requested The ICIR to send a text message.
Hours after the text message was sent, it was not replied. As at the time of filing this report, no response has also been given.