Respite came the way of embattled Petroleum Resources Minister, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, on Thursday as a Federal High Court in Abuja ordered the House of Representatives to halt its planned probe of the allegation that she expended N10bn for hiring aircraft.
The court’s decision was informed by the House’s alleged insistence on proceeding with the probe despite the pendency of the suit by the minister, her ministry and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) challenging the propriety of the investigation. Justice Ahmed Mohammed, who was shown a copy of the House’s letter to the minister, notifying her about its scheduled “investigative hearing” on the matter on June 25, 26 and 27, ordered parties in the case to maintain the status quo pending the next hearing date of July 3. The judge was uncomfortable with the tone of the letter, signed by the Chairman, House Committee Public Accounts, Solomon Adeola, which portrayed the court as a busy body, attempting to usurp the legislative and constitutional duties of the House.
Justice Mohammed held that the court was constitutionally empowered to entertain cases brought before it even when it challenges the exercise of constitutional powers by arms of government.
The judge noted that the House of Reps, by the tone of its letter, portrayed itself as a body that could not be sued in court.
He said the court was created by Section 6(1) of the Constitution and given the judicial powers in Section 6(6) (b) of the same Constitution to determine disputes between persons or between governments and between governments and persons. “In fact the quoted portion of the second defendant’s (House of Representatives) letter is simply saying that the suit before this court is a usurpation of its powers under the Constitution.
“The second defendant (House of Reps) went as far as calling the conduct of this suit by this court ridiculous and disrepute.
“While I agree that the Legislature has constitutional powers to exercise, I cannot, however, agree that, where any of the powers of the Legislature is being challenged in the court of law, the court should turn its back to the plaintiff for fear of being accused of usurping the legislative power of the National Assembly. “The court has inherent power and the duty to intervene to protect its integrity in determining its processes, and the second defendant is bent on interrupting the processes filed in this suit.”I hereby direct parties to maintain status quo in the matter from now (Thursday) till the next adjourned date when the matter will be heard,” the judge held.
The judge’s ruling was upon complaint by plaintiffs’ lawyer, Etigwe Uwa (SAN), to the effect that the House had written to his client and threatened to penalise them should the fail to attend the hearing despite the pendency of the suit.
He prayed the court to preserve the res (subject matter of the case) by restraining the legislators from proceeding with their scheduled hearing. It was his contention that should they be left unrestrained, the lawmakers would have destroyed the rest before parties return on July 3. Responding, lawyer to the House of Reps, Aminu Sadauki, denied prior knowledge of the letter to the plaintiffs, urged the court to refuse Uwa’s application for an order to preserve the res. He argued that it would amount to the court granting the relief sought by the plaintiffs in the substantive suit, while it was yet to be heard.
Sadauki also refused to give an undertaking as requested by the plaintiffs’ lawyer, that he tells his client to halt the probe pending the determination of the suit. “I cannot stand here a give an undertaking that an arm of government will not carry out its constitutional duty,” Sadauki said. In his submission, lawyer to the 1st defendant (the National Assembly), Obasi-Obi Nwabueze also denied being aware of the letter inviting the plaintiffs to appear before the House committee on the stipulated dates