Two of Nigeria’s top lawyers, Itsay Sagay and Mike Ozekhome, have warned the Federal Government against paying the N8billion Zaki Biam massacre victims’ funds to the Benue State Governor, Gabriel Suswam.
The lawyers, both Senior Advocate of Nigeria, kicked against attempts by the Benue State Government to receive the judgment debt under the guise of defending the interest of victims of the massacre.
Zaki Biam was overrun in 2001 by Nigerian soldiers on the orders of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, after suspected Tiv militia killed 19 soldiers there following skirmishes with their Jukun neighbours.
In response, Mr. Obasanjo ordered an invasion of the communities spanning four Benue Local Government Areas in retaliation for the killings.
On October 22, 2001, hundreds of troops ransacked border communities in Logo, Ukum, Kwande and Katsina Ala, killing several men, women and children and razing several communities.
Months after the massacre, a local activist, Alexander Gaadi, led 13 other victims and a consortium of lawyers including Messrs Hon, Ulegede and Alashi, to sue Mr. Obasanjo and the Nigerian Army.
After six years of legal battle, a Federal High Court in Enugu on July 5, 2007, ruled in favour of the victims and awarded N41.8billion damages against the government.
With the government rejecting the ruling, both sides later agreed a compromise deal of N8 billion shortly after Mr. Gaadi’s death, and after Mohammed Adoke, one of the government’s counsels, became Attorney General and Minister of Justice.
Following Mr. Gaadi’s death, Governor Suswam reportedly initiated moves to receive the judgment debt.
At a press conference on March 4, 2013, the governor told journalists how the state government sued the Federal Government over the Zaki Biam killings and how the Appeal Court awarded it N40 billion in compensation.
Mr. Suswam claimed meeting Mr. Jonathan and the Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, whom he said complained of paucity of funds but agreed to pay N8 billion after all.
“We are almost being paid. We took the Federal Government to court and we got judgment of N40 billion,” Mr. Suswam was quoted as saying.
But Messrs Sagay and Ozekhome in separate interviews with PREMIUM TIMES insisted that neither Mr. Suswam nor the Benue State Government has the right to claim even a kobo from the funds since they were not party to the case.
“If you were not a party to a case, there is no way you can be involved in the implementation of the ruling unless the judges specifically makes the person a beneficiary,” said Mr. Sagay, a professor of Law.
“There are only two circumstances in which Benue State Government could have sought to have that money paid to it.
“One is if it was a party. Secondly, if the judge at the original court and in this case, the Federal High Court made Benue State Government the beneficiary and ordered that the money be paid to the government.
“But if those two circumstances don’t exist, then Benue State Government has nothing to do in the matter. The damages should be paid directly to the claimants and to the Benue State Government.”
Mr. Sagay said it is neither the business of the Benue State Government or Mr. Suswam to determine how the litigants use the proceeds of the court judgment adding that the issue is strictly between the Federal Government and the litigants.
He described the attempts to corner the funds by the state government and Mr. Suswam as another case of impunity that can only be possible in Nigeria.
By not being a party and not being made a beneficiary by the trial court, Benue State Government and Mr. Suswam have no connection with the case and should not in any way make any claims to the money.
“The President of Nigeria, being the head of the executive arm of the government is bound by the law to pay the money to the claimants and any money paid to Benue State Government or Mr. Suswam does not in any way constitute the damages for the case in question.
“They claimants should obtain an order restraining the federal government from paying the money to Benue State Government or Mr. Suswam as the case may be,” Mr. Sagay said.
On his part, Mr. Ozekhome argued that it is illegal for an entity that was never a party to a court action to lay claim to the proceeds of the court ruling.
“If the Benue State Government thought that it was an interested party, it should have applied to the court while the case was still being considered, to be joined to the procedure,” the outspoken legal practitioner said.
“But if they never applied to be joined and they were never joined, it means that the gains of losses will entirely belong to the litigants.
“It could have been an entirely different if the people who went to the court were suing for themselves and the entire Zaki Biam communities that were devastated by the military, it means that the money is for all of them and the state government can come in and rightly intervened and see how equitably and fairly the money can go round everybody.
“But if that was not also the case, the state government cannot come suddenly and claim to the judgment debt. It is illegal and should not be condoned.”