ABUJA—A Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, yesterday, aborted moves by the House of Representatives to commence hearing on the allegation that the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison Madueke, spent about N10 billion on chartered private jets.
In a ruling yesterday, Justice Ahmed Ramat Mohammed, ordered the legislative house to shelve its plans to begin probe into the allegation on June 25.
The judge further directed all the parties to maintain status quo till July 3, a date the High Court slated to hear the substantive suit that is challenging the powers of the Public Accounts Committee, PAC, of the House of Representatives to investigate such allegation.
The court order was sequel to an oral application made by counsel to the minister, Mr. Etigwe Uwa (SAN), who, yesterday, informed the court that despite the pendency of the suit, the House, on May 23, wrote a letter to the Petroleum Minister and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, asking them to ensure that they appeared before its probe committee on June 25, 26 and 27.
Uwa told the court that the House had in the said letter threatened that it would not hesitate to invoke its powers and issue a warrant of arrest against the minister should she fail to appear before the committee on the aforementioned dates.
He said: “My Lord, the 2nd defendant in particular (House of Reps), in their letter to my clients, said they noted with dismay that we approached this court in a bid to stop them from performing their constitutional duties. They also boasted that no arm of the government has the power to stop them.”
Letter of undertaking
Besides, Uwa told the court that they had already written a letter to counsel to the House of Reps, Mr. A. B. Mahmood (SAN), requesting him to enter an undertaking that his client would not take any action capable of overreaching or jeopardising the ‘Res’ of the dispute before the high court.
He said: “We sought an undertaking from him that his client will not proceed with the hearing as planned so as not to destroy the ‘Res’ of this suit or make nonsense of the proceeding before this court.
“If they are allowed to conduct the hearing, our suit, which has already been granted an accelerated hearing, will be overtaken by events and thus occasion an irreparable damage on my client.”
The House of Reps, through its lawyer, Mr. Aminu Sadauki, insisted that the court lacked the requisite powers to stop it from going ahead with the planned probe.
According to the House, “we cannot enter an undertaken on behalf of an arm of government carrying out its constitutional duty.
“If my Lordship makes the order as prayed by the plaintiff, it would amount to granting their reliefs even before hearing the substantive suit. I, therefore, urge this court to refuse this application.”
On its part, the National Assembly, which was joined as the 1st defendant in the matter, through its counsel Mr. Obasi Nwabueze, said they were equally served with a letter from the plaintiff seeking the maintenance of status quo.
Nwabueze said his client resolved to leave the issue to the discretion of the court.
Court berates House
After listening to all the parties, Justice Mohammed stressed that though Section 4 of the 1999 Constitution conferred exclusive powers on the National Assembly, he however noted that Section 6 of the same constitution imbued the court with the statutory powers to mediate and adjudicate disputes involving any organ of the government.
He berated the House for accusing the court of attempting to usurp its constitutionally guaranteed oversight function, noting that the 2nd defendant, having already briefed a lawyer and submitted itself before the court, ought to have shown respect to the court by putting its planned action in abeyance pending the outcome of the suit.
Justice Mohammed ruled: “The court has the inherent power to intervene with a view to protecting its sanctity and integrity. Consequently, I hereby direct parties in this suit to maintain status quo from now till the next adjourned date.”
Minister, NNPC’s suit
It will be recalled that the Petroleum Minister and NNPC, in their joint suit, prayed the court for an order of interim injunction restraining the defendants, whether by themselves, their members, committees or agents from summoning or directing them to appear before any committee, particularly PAC, which was set up by the House of Reps to conduct the investigation.
Besides, the plaintiffs sought for an order of the court stopping the House of Reps committee from asking any official of the ministry or NNPC to produce any paper, note or other documents or give any evidence in line with a letter from the House dated March 26, pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice.
They are further urging the court to issue an order of interim injunction restraining the defendants from issuing a warrant to compel the Minister’s attendance, or the attendance of any official of the ministry or NNPC, with regard to the investigation and to also in the alternative, make an order of status quo, directing the parties to maintain the current position with regard to the investigation, as of the date of filing of the suit.