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Home Law News NBA PRESIDENT AKPATA WRITES EFCC ON HARRASSMENT OF LAWYERS, URGES AGENCY TO...

NBA PRESIDENT AKPATA WRITES EFCC ON HARRASSMENT OF LAWYERS, URGES AGENCY TO DESIST FROM PRACTICE

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Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President, Olumide Akpata has called on the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to desist from the practice of harassing legal practitioners is concerned.

Akpata’s call is contained in a blistering letter addressed to the Chairman of the antigraft agency, Abdulrasheed Bawa, and obtained by NEWSWIRE Law & Events Magazine.  Titled “ASSAULT OF OFFICIAL(S) OF THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION BY OPERATIVES OF THE EFCC AND RELATED INCIDENTS OF UNPROFESSIONALISM AGAINST LAWYERS: A DEMAND FOR INVESTIGATION, IMMEDIATE ACTION AND CESSATION,”

Akpata stated that he was “constrained” to write call Bawa’s attention to the reportage assault on the chairman of the NBA’s Makurdi Branch, Justin Gbagir and what he described as  “the recurring unwholesome and unprofessional conduct by officers and operatives of the EFCC against members of the legal profession in Nigeria. who are lawfully discharging their professional responsibilities.”

As a result of his ordeal, Mr. Gbagir is reported to have sustained various degrees of injury, and is currently hospitalized at the Benue State University Teaching Hospital, Makurdi.

The letter was also copied to Attorney General of the Federation & Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami SAN.

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The 15-paragraph long letter, which was dated June 10, 2021, stated that Mr. Gbagir visited the Makurdi office of the EFCC on 8th June 2021 to facilitate the release of one Ms. Aver Shima, a law officer in the Benue State Ministry of Justice. Ms. Shima had apparently been detained by the EFCC on an allegation that she gave legal advice to the Chairman of the Benue State Universal Basic Education Board that allegedly culminated in the latter signing a document which is reportedly the subject of an investigation by the EFCC.

Since the merits of the detention of Ms. Shima for providing legal advice is, as I understand it, already the subject of independent investigation,” Akpata said, “I shall refrain from commenting on Ms. Shima’s treatment.”

The alleged manhandling of Gbagir by EFCC operatives, Akpata said, was an infuriating turn of events, noting the several interventions by the Honorable Attorney-General, the Solicitor-General and the Special Adviser to the Governor in the detention of Ms. Shima. The EFCC’s action, the letter stated, was a damning indictment of the EFCC operatives, as it was “uncultured.” If this type of ordeal could be meted out to a Bar leader of Mr. Gbagir’s standing (in the presence of an accompanying delegation)  Akpata wondered what fate awaited other lawyers and citizens who interface with the EFCC in that zone.

Expressing his displeasure over the EFCC’s controversial press statement regarding the assault, Akpata recalled that he and Mr. Bawa spoke about the Gbagir incident on 9th June 2021, the latter expressed shock at the development and promised to investigate it. He expressed the hope that the EFCC Chairman would not renege on that promise.

“However,” I have seen certain reports in the media credited to the EFCC Media and Publicity team which denied and largely distorted the facts.

Infidelity to honesty and good order, I trust that you and I can agree that the statement credited to the EFCC media head, to the extent that it represents the official position of the EFCC, is premature and antithetical to your pledge to investigate the issue.” It was totally inconsistent, he said, to the contents of his subsequent conversations with the Attorney-General of Benue State and other well-meaning senior lawyers who witnessed the incident – which, however aligned squarely with the position of Mr. Gbagir, adding that behooves on the EFCC to show that it can rise above board and properly investigate the excesses of its own staff.

Akpata condemned what “the high level of unprofessionalism, crass abuse of power and inhumane treatment” which they “have exhibited, and continue to exhibit, at different times when dealing with lawyers at various offices of the EFCC across the country,” saying that instances abounded of lawyers who have been, or are being, harassed, arrested, and detained for either providing legal advice to, or preparing transaction documents for, their clients, as well as denied access to their clients in custody. The NBA, he warned, was more than willing to provide proof of such unsavory developments, many of them quite recent, as well as further interventions. “

Although this pattern of abuse precedes the current EFCC leadership, Akpata said,  the situation, if left unchecked, will paint the Commission in a negative light, raise serious concerns about it genuineness and  modus operandi, and undermine its relationship with critical stakeholders.”

The letter contains a three-point demand, namely:  that the EFCC boss use his good offices to investigate the NBA complaint expeditiously and thoroughly in the interest of justice and ensure that all operatives complicit in the Gbagir incident are disciplined in line with extant service rules and applicable laws in line with Bawa’s pledge, on his assumption of office, to reposition the Commission as an agency boasting of the finest of personnel.  Lawyers dealing with the Commission, Akpata said, should be accorded the respect and dignity that they deserve when acting on behalf of their clients. Bawa, he added, must take steps to ensure that this would be the case at all offices of the Commission across the country.

Below is the full text of the letter:

10th June 2021

The Executive Chairman
Economic and Financial Crimes Commission
EFCC Headquarters
Plot 301/302, Institution and Research Cadastral District
Jabi, Abuja

Attention: Mr. Abdulrasheed Bawa

Dear Sir,

ASSAULT OF OFFICIAL(S) OF THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION BY OPERATIVES OF THE EFCC AND RELATED INCIDENTS OF UNPROFESSIONALISM AGAINST LAWYERS: A DEMAND FOR INVESTIGATION, IMMEDIATE ACTION AND CESSATION

  1. I am constrained to write to you over (a) an unfortunate incident which occurred on 8th June 2021 involving some operatives of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (the “EFCC” or the “Commission”) at its Makurdi Zonal office, and Mr. Justin Gbagir (“Mr. Gbagir”), a senior member of the Nigerian Bar Association (“NBA”) who is also the Chairman of the Makurdi Branch of NBA; and (b) the recurring unwholesome and unprofessional conducts by officers and operatives of the EFCC against members of the legal profession in Nigeria who are lawfully discharging their professional responsibilities.

The Unfortunate Makurdi Incident

2. I have been credibly informed that Mr. Gbagir visited the Makurdi office of the EFCC on 8th June 2021 to facilitate the release of one Ms. Aver Shima (“ Shima”), who is a law officer in the employ of the Benue State Ministry of Justice. Ms. Shima had apparently been detained by the EFCC on an allegation that she gave legal advice to the Chairman of the Benue State Universal Basic Education Board that allegedly culminated in the latter signing a document which is reportedly the subject of an investigation by the EFCC.   Since the merits of the detention of Ms. Shima for providing legal advice is now, as I understand it, already the subject of independent investigation, I shall refrain from commenting on Ms. Shima’s treatment.

3. As we understand from the sequence of events, when Mr. Gbagir arrived at the EFCC zonal office in the company of other senior members of the Benue State Ministry of Justice, including the State Director of Public Prosecution, the delegation was refused entry into the offices of the EFCC and was subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment by the security operatives manning the gate of the EFCC on the rather specious ground that they were “agitators” who had come to protest. It took the intervention of the Senior Special Assistant to the State Governor and the arrival of the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General of the State before the delegation was allowed access into the facility.

4. It is our further understanding that when Mr. Gbagir was introduced to the EFCC zonal head (Mr. Kazeem Oseni) by the Solicitor-General of the State as the Chairman of the Makurdi Branch of the NBA, Mr. Gbagir was denied all courtesies on the ground that he was an “agitator”. Perplexed and embarrassed, Mr. Gbagir sought to excuse himself from the office of the zonal head only to be swarmed by an army of operatives of the EFCC, who brutally manhandled Mr. Gbagir and pushed him out of the premises. Of particular note and concern is the fact that eyewitness accounts confirm that the actions of the EFCC operatives were carried out with the tacit consent of the zonal head, at best, or based on his express instructions, at worst.

5. Infuriated by this turn of events, the Honorable Attorney-General, the Solicitor General and the Special Adviser to the Governor who had all come to intervene in the detention of Ms. Shima left the premises. Suffice to state that Mr. Gbagir who suffered severe hurt and sustained various degrees of injury had to be hospitalized at the Benue State University Teaching Hospital, Makurdi.

6. I assume that you will agree, Mr. Chairman, that if this level of uncultured behavior could be exhibited by EFCC operatives in the presence of the strong delegation accompanying Mr. Gbagir, who in his own right is a Bar Leader, then the potential fate of other lawyers and citizens who interface with the EFCC in that zone is better imagined than experienced.

7. When we both spoke about this incident on 9th June 2021, you understandably expressed shock at this development and promised to investigate same. I have no cause yet to believe that you would personally renege on that promise. However, I have seen certain reports in the media credited to the EFCC Media and Publicity team which denied and largely distorted the facts.  Infidelity to honesty and good order, I trust that you and I can agree that the statement credited to the EFCC media head, to the extent that it represents the official position of the EFCC, is premature and antithetic to your pledge to investigate the issue.

8. It is pertinent to add that both before and after reading the EFCC statement, I spoke to the Attorney-General of Benue State and other well-meaning senior lawyers who witnessed the incident, and their narrative is entirely consistent with the position of Mr. Gbagir. I have no reason to doubt or disbelieve their narrative and it now behooves on the EFCC to show that it can rise above board and properly investigate the excesses of its own staff.

Other egregious conducts of EFCC operatives against legal practitioners  

9. Chairman, whilst the above represents the isolated experience of Mr. Gbagir, it is an opportune time to bring to your attention the high level of unprofessionalism, crass abuse of power and inhumane treatment that operatives of the EFCC have exhibited, and continue to exhibit, at different times when dealing with lawyers at various offices of the EFCC across the country. Verifiable instances abound of lawyers who have been, or are being, harassed, arrested, and detained for either providing legal advice to, or preparing transaction documents for, their clients. There are also other instances, where lawyers are simply denied access to their clients in custody or continuously maltreated, frustrated, intimidated and demeaned by EFCC operatives. The NBA is more than willing to make further representations to you and provide proof of such unsavory developments including recent instances where we have had to intervene on behalf of our members who were unjustly harassed or detained by the EFCC.

10. This state of affairs, which admittedly precedes your appointment to superintend the EFCC, is totally unacceptable and, if not checked, will increasingly paint the Commission in a negative light, raise serious concerns about the modus operandi of the Commission and undermine her relationship with critical stakeholders. As you know, the role of lawyers is critical to the actualisation of the Commission’s foundational objectives. As a law enforcement agency that is established to be responsible and accountable to the citizenry, one would expect that lawyers will continue to be your partners in progress who should feel welcome and accommodated by the Commission and its operatives.

11. Regrettably, the current state of the relationship between lawyers and the Commission, which ordinarily ought to be harmonious, collaborative and symbiotic, is unhealthy and continues to deteriorate. For inexplicable reasons, the relationship is characterized by the wanton harassment and assault of members of the legal profession who, by their calling, are mandated to provide legal advisory and support services to suspects in the custody of the Commission or those who are otherwise under investigation. This debasing treatment must cease forthwith.

Conclusion

12. It is in view of the foregoing that I therefore formally request you to use your good offices to investigate this complaint expeditiously and thoroughly in the interest of justice and ensure that all operatives complicit in the very unfortunate incident are disciplined in line with extant service rules and applicable laws. The NBA will be constantly following up with you in this respect, as we will no longer endure or tolerate the incessant harassment of our members by EFCC operatives while such lawyers are lawfully discharging their duties.

13. You may recall that one of the cardinal pillars of your mandate upon your assumption of office was to reposition the Commission and make it a reputable anti-corruption agency that boasts of the finest of personnel. I dare say that achieving this laudable objective would necessarily include weaning the Commission of officers and personnel whose conduct, taken individually or in the aggregate, are bound to undermine the image of the Commission.

14. As you continue to settle into office, I urge you to look into these issues carefully with a view to resolving them holistically and avoiding a recurrence. We are indeed expectant that there will be no repeat of incidences such as those complained about in this letter.  Lawyers dealing with the Commission must and should be accorded the respect and dignity that they deserve when acting on behalf of their clients.  Under your leadership, you must intervene and take steps to ensure that this is the case at all offices of the Commission across the country.

15. While I look forward to an expeditious investigation of the unjust treatment of Mr. Gbagir and a general refocusing of the approach of the EFCC in its dealings with lawyers, please accept, Mr. Chairman, the assurances of my highest consideration.

Yours faithfully,

OLUMIDE AKPATA

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