The freezing of bank accounts belonging to 20 Nigerians who advocated for police reforms under the End SARS movement violates their fundamental rights, a lawyer has argued.
In reaction to the demonstrations in October, which called for the disbandment of the notorious police unit, Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor (CBN) Godwin Emefiele had obtained a court order to freeze the bank accounts of some of the protesters and their supporters using counter-terrorism regulations.
By suspending access to the accounts, the CBN cut off financial resources deployed for medical support, feeding, and in supporting journalists to report the activities and experiences of demonstrators.
Human rights lawyer, Timothy Adewale, told HumAngle the arbitrary freezing of accounts infringed on the rights of the protesters to own property alongside other inalienable rights as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution.
“Are you saying they do not have the rights to protest? Are you saying they do not have the rights to freedom of thought and conscience and expression. Why will their account be frozen before leave of court is sought?” he asked.
Access Bank is facing scrutiny and backlash for its role in freezing accounts of at least eight persons, including Gatefield Nigeria, a public strategy and media group.
Bloomberg Africa reported on November 4 that the bank blocked the company’s account on October 15 for promoting media coverage of protests against police brutality in Nigeria.
The CBN, however, only obtained a court order granting its request to free the accounts on November 5, meaning the accounts were frozen by Access Bank over two weeks in advance.
Adewale said the case does not qualify as one where an ex parte application can be made as done by the apex bank. The order to freeze accounts, he argued, violated the account owners’ fundamental right to own property, fair hearing and justice, decent living, and dignity.
“A suspect is deemed innocent until proven guilty,” he said.
“The law said, if you must derogate from those rights, it must be something reasonable. The constitution supercedes the Terrorism Act. There is no way that the order can be justified and that is why the judge said that parties (defendants) can take steps to nullify (set aside) the order. This is something that goes to the root of their fundamental rights.”
The lawyer added that the CBN should have presented prima facie (substantial) evidence against the account owners but failed to do so.
“Ex parte order is to be used sparingly because, by nature, it is against fair hearing,” he explained. “So you can not freeze someone’s account for 90 days using an order that is normally a seven-day standing order.”
In its response to Gatefield on October 26, Access Bank had said it placed the group’s account on PND (Post No Debit) based on directives received from the CBN.
On Friday, the bank again released a statement where it asked that complaints about the freezing of accounts should be directed to the “relevant regulatory and judicial agencies”, adding that it was “compelled to comply with regulatory directives”.
Despite claiming an investigation and inquiry was ongoing during proceedings at the Federal High Court, the CBN rushed to accuse the 20 account holders of financing terrorism.
“The nature of the transactions undertaken through the defendants’ accounts are of suspected terrorism financing in contravention of Section 13(1)(a)and(b) of the Terrorism (Prevention)(Amendment) Act, 2013 and Regulation 31(2)(a)and (3)(b) of the Central Bank of Nigeria Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism Regulations, 2013,” it claimed in its written address.
“There is a grave allegation that the defendants are involved in suspected terrorism financing via their bank accounts in contravention of the provisions of extant laws and regulations,” the bank added.
“The aforesaid transactions undertaken by the defendants, using their bank accounts, can cause significant economic and security harm to the public and the Federal Republic of Nigeria if left unchecked.”
It further argued that freezing the accounts would enable it to conclude its investigations and make recommendations to the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit.
Human Rights Watch on Friday called on the authorities to urgently lift arbitrary restrictions by unblocking the bank accounts of protest supporters, dismissing or reimbursing arbitrary fines, and investigating and appropriately disciplining officials responsible for any abuse of authority.
Meanwhile, there have been calls on social media to boycott Access Bank for its role in preventing End SARS campaigners from having access to their deposits.
Farida Adamu, a data analyst, announced on Wednesday that she was closing her accounts with the bank and urged others to do the same using the hashtag #BoycottAccessBank.
“I am afraid I can no longer trust you with my finances,” she told the bank management.
Obasi Paul Smith, a youth activist also said he and his friends were closing their accounts with Access Banks as a protest for blocking accounted of Nigerian youths who took part in the ENDSARS protest.
“We will continue to ask our fellow youths to boycott access bank till our accounts are unblocked,” Smith told HumAngle.
Youth representatives in the judicial panel set up by the Lagos State Government to investigate acts of police brutality had, last Saturday, boycotted the sitting in protest against the restrictions imposed by the CBN. The panel could not sit because no quorum was formed.
The state’s attorney-general, Moyosore Onigbanjo, appealed to the representatives to resume on Monday, stating that the problem was “not the state’s making”.