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Supreme Court dismisses Abacha family’s appeal seeking access to frozen foreign accounts

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The Supreme Court on Friday dismissed another suit filed by the Sani Abacha family seeking access to the looted funds which they and the late Nigerian dictator stashed in foreign bank accounts.

The suit filed in the name of Ali Abacha, was dismissed by a five-man panel led by Sylvester Ngwuta for lacking in merit.

Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, a Justice of the Supreme Court, who prepared the lead judgment, held that Mr Ali Abacha’s case was not different from that of a son of the ex-dictator, Abba Mohammed Sani, which was earlier dismissed by the apex court on February 7, 2020.

Justice Kekere-Ekun, whose judgment was read by another Justice of the apex court, Ejembi Eko, on Friday, said: “It is pertinent to state at this juncture that a case with the same facts and issues was decided recently by this court in SC. 68/2010 Alhaji Abba Mohammed Sani Vs the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Attorney-General of the Federation.

“Judgment was delivered on February 7, 2020. It is now reported in (2020) 2-3 SC (Pt. II).

“Although the appellants are different, the facts and issues in contention are the same. Both had their bank accounts in Switzerland and other countries frozen as result of the authorisation given to the Swiss law firm by the respondents.

“In the earlier case, the contention was also that the respondents acted outside the scope of their duties under a repealed law and were therefore not entitled to seek refuge under section 2(a) of the Public Officer Protection Act.”

She held that as in Abba Sani’s case, the Ali Abacha’s matter too had become statute-barred and incompetent because it was not filed at the trial court within three months of the occurrence of the action complained about, thereby flouting section 2(a) of the Public Officer Protection Act.

She said, “It is not in dispute that the suit before the trial court was filed outside the three months stipulated in section 2(a) of the Act.

“The only issue to be considered was whether in the circumstances, the action was maintainable. The suit was not doubt statute-barred and rightly struck out by the lower court.
“Incidentally, R.O Atabo, also represented the appellant in Sani Vs the President & Another.

“He has not advanced any superior argument to warrant a departure from our decision in that case. This issue is resolved against the appellant.”

She ruled that it was unnecessary to go further to resolve other issues in the appeal.

“In conclusion, I find this appeal to be devoid of merit. It is hereby dismissed,” she ruled.

Background
Mr Abacha died as the Nigerian Head of State on June 8, 1998, but funds looted by him and members of his immediate family in millions of different hard currencies, were still being recovered and repatriated by the Nigerian government as of February 2020.

Then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, on December 23, 1999 delegated the power to freeze the Abacha family’s foreign accounts under the Banking (Freezing of Accounts) Act to ex-Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Kanu Agabi, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

Under the mutual legal assistance triggered by Nigeria’s requests, the family’s bank accounts were subsequently frozen places like the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Jersey.

Following the attorney-general’s letter in October 2003 requesting the transfer of all the funds in the frozen accounts in the foreign countries to Nigeria, the Abachas, including Ali and Abba, had filed different suits at the Kaduna Division of the Federal High Court to challenge the move.

Abacha family wins in trial court
On April 16, 2004, the office of the AGF filed a preliminary objection against the Ali Abacha’s suit, contending that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the suit on the grounds that it had become statute-barred by virtue of section 2(2)(a) f the Public Officers Protection Act.

In a judgment delivered on September 24, 2004, the judge, A. M Liman, dismissed the AGF’s preliminary objection on the grounds that the Public Officer Protection Act was not applicable.

Mr Liman ruled that the Federal Government had no authority to write the letters for a request for mutual assistance because the Banking (Freezing of Accounts) Act of 1983 upon which the request was based had been repealed in 1999.

AGF appeals judgement
The Federal Government won at Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

The Court of Appeal in its judgment delivered on July 19, 2010, set aside the Federal High Court’s verdict, holding that “the suit was statute-barred and incompetent.”

Dissatisfied with the Court of Appeal’s judgment, Ali Abacha further appealed to the Supreme Court through a notice of appealed filed on May 9, 2019.

The appeal was heard by the Supreme Court on October 26, 2020 and dismissed on Friday.

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