By Bassey Udo
March 25, 2010 03:52AM
The quest by Lutin Investments Limited to get the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) management to pay the $55.3 million (about N8.3billion) judgment debt against it last year, suffered another setback yesterday as the judge of the Federal High Court, Abuja, Justice Garba Umar, withdrew from the case.

Witnesses who turned up at Court 5, venue for the judgment, in the appeal by NNPC against the recent Garnishi order obtained by Lutin against the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the NNPC's six bankers were shocked when Mr. Umar opted to withdraw from the case following issues of bias against him by the NNPC lawyer.

Case to be reassigned
Consequently, the judge said he would direct that the case be returned to the Chief Justice of the Federation for reassignment.

The Garnishi order was obtained on March 11 against First Bank of Nigeria (FBN) PLC, Union Bank of Nigeria (UBN) PLC, United Bank for Africa (UBA) PLC, Zenith Bank PLC, Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB) PLC, and Access Bank PLC to ensure that NNPC's monies in accounts held with them are not tampered with until the judgment debt has been settled.

The order, which became due for execution last week (March 18), followed the continued refusal of the NNPC to comply with the terms of the consent judgment of October 20 it agreed to last year by parties to the case.

Counsel to Lutin Investments Limited, Olusegun Otubela, from Ricky Tarfa Chambers, told NEXT that Justice Umar's decision to disqualify himself from further proceedings in the case does not affect the substantive case against the NNPC, pointing out that it would go ahead on schedule whenever it is reassigned by the Chief Justice of the Federation.

“The implication of Justice Umar's decision does not affect the value of the monies attached to NNPC's accounts in the six banks, which means that such monies cannot be tampered with until the matter has been settled. Even if the case is reassigned, the judge will take it up from where the order was issued,” he explained.

President agrees with payment
The consent judgment option was brokered by President Umaru Yar'Adua in October 2007, following a recommendation by the former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mike Aondoakaa in the wake of NNPC's refusal to pay the initial $55.3million cost award against it.

The Supreme Court had awarded the cost in an unanimous judgment in January 2006, in the case against the NNPC by Lutin over alleged breach of the agreement in a July 1993 contract for the supply of chartered petroleum products vessels under the 1992 NNPC strategic storage reserve project.

Shortly before the dissolution of the Executive Council of the Federation (EXCOF) last week, the then Minister of Justice, Adetokunbo Kayode, had in memo on March 17 to his colleague in the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, Rilwanu Lukman, highlighted the consequences of NNPC's continued refusal to comply with the consent judgment.

“Considering the nature of the consent judgment, and having been brokered by the intervention of Mr. President himself, there is no possibility of any appeal on it,” Mr. Kayode said, urging NNPC to settle the debt “in line with principle of rule of law of this administration.”

Warning against the dire consequence of Garnishi Order obtained against the corporation, including the accounts of the NNPC in the six banks being attached as per terms of the absolute order, the former Minister had pointed out that “further refusal by the NNPC to obey the court judgment in this matter is not only an affront to Mr. President, who intervened, but also a disobedience to court judgment against the principle of rule of law of this administration.” Mr. Adetokunbo's predecessor in office had, in a similar memo on October 23, last year, warned against the consequence of NNPC's neglect to obey the terms of the consent judgment it willingly entered into.