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Ex-governor of Nigerian oil state escapes arrest

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, March 5 (Reuters) - The former governor of Nigeria’s richest oil state secured a “perpetual injunction” against arrest by the anti-corruption police in a court ruling on Wednesday.

Peter Odili governed Rivers state, which has an annual budget well over $1 billion and where most of the estimated 5 million residents have no power, clean water or access to functional schools and clinics, for eight years until May 2007.

The anti-corruption Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has charged eight out of 36 state governors from the previous administration with corruption since they stepped down in May, losing their immunity from prosecution.

Its fight against corruption in what has long been seen as one of the world’s most tainted countries has won praise from donors and anti-graft activists. Investors are also watching for signs of how seriously Nigeria tackles corruption.

Odili’s wealth and status make him a bigger target than any of the other eight governors for the EFCC.

The anti-corruption body has been investigating his finances and has said he is suspected of embezzlement, money laundering and gross abuse of office. It has been trying to arrest him.

Just before he stepped down last year, he obtained a court injunction preventing the EFCC from probing the Rivers state government finances. The EFCC immediately appealed against the injunction and that appeal has yet to be decided.

The EFCC tried to continue its investigation of Odili regardless of the injunction, arguing that his name did not appear in the document, but Odili has been fighting back in a federal high court in the Rivers state capital Port Harcourt.

“The subsisting judgment of March 2007 by this court is binding on all parties,” said Judge Ibrahim Buba in a ruling delivered on Wednesday.

“Therefore there is a perpetual injunction restraining the EFCC from arresting, detaining and arraigning Odili on the basis of his tenure as governor based on the purported investigation,” he said. Odili was not present in court.

“UNACCEPTABLE”

The EFCC’s lawyer, James Binang, said the decision was “unacceptable” and the force would immediately appeal.

Nigerian ex-governors have sought such injunctions and some have obtained them, although in other cases the EFCC has prevailed in the end.

Anti-graft activists say such injunctions are a sign of corruption and incompetence in the courts and they have no basis in Nigerian law.

Nigeria achieved a ranking of 147 of 179 countries on the Transparency International corruption perception index in 2007 compared to last place of the 90 countries covered in 2000.

Odili’s record in Rivers is one of the most controversial of all the governors whose terms ended last May.

During his eight years in power, the state saw a surge in attacks on the oil industry by militants demanding greater benefits, kidnappings by ransom seekers, political violence and deadly robberies by gangs armed with AK-47 rifles.

The collapse of government in Rivers was documented in detail in a Human Rights Watch report published last year, which said there was nothing to show for billions of petrodollars that had landed in government coffers thanks to the oil price boom.

Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the 2006 state budget. It contained a $65,000 per day travel allowance for the governor’s office alone. (Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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