• Indicts Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan for concealing facts
A Federal High Court in Lagos has ordered the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari to publish up-to-date information on recovered stolen funds since the return of civilian rule in 1999.
According to the court, the publication should include detailed information on the total amount of stolen public assets that have so far been recovered by Nigeria, the amount that has been spent from the recovered assets and details of projects on which recovered funds were spent.
Justice Mohammed Idris directed Buhari to “ensure that his government, and those of former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, and Goodluck Jonathan account fully for all recovered loot.”
In the landmark judgment delivered on Friday, the judge also held that successive governments since the return of democracy in 1999 “breached the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability for failing to disclose details about the spending of recovered stolen public funds, including on a dedicated website.”
The judgment was sequel to a Freedom of Information suit brought by a group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).
In delivering the judgment, Justice Idris dismissed all the objections raised by the Federal Government and upheld SERAP’s arguments. Consequently, the court entered judgment in favour of SERAP against the government as follows:
• A declaration is hereby made that the failure and/or refusal of the respondents to individually and/or collectively disclose detailed information about the spending of recovered stolen public funds since the return of civil rule in 1999, and to publish widely such information, including on a dedicated website, amounts to a breach of the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability and violates Articles 9, 21 and 22 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act;
• A declaration is hereby made that by virtue of the provisions of Section 4 (a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2011, the 1stdefendant/respondent is under a binding legal obligation to provide the plaintiff/applicant with up-to-date information on the spending of recovered stolen funds, including: Detailed information on the total amount of recovered stolen public assets that have so far been recovered by Nigeria; the amount that has been spent from the recovered stolen public assets and the objects of such spending; and
details of projects on which recovered stolen public assets were spent;
• An order of mandamus is made directing and or compelling the defendants/respondents to provide the plaintiff/applicant with up-to-date information on recovered stolen funds since the return of civilian rule in 1999.
The Federal Government had earlier through its counsel, Sheba Olugbenga, filed a notice of preliminary objection dated March 26, 2012 on the following grounds: That SERAP lacked the locus standi to institute the action, the action was statute barred; and that SERAP’s affidavit evidence offends the provisions of the Evidence Act.
On May 8, 2012, the government filed additional written address in support of its preliminary objection, dwelling most extensively on the retroactive nature of SERAP’s request that is based on the Freedom of Information Act, arguing that the law having been enacted in 2011, does not apply to spending by governments since 1999.
But SERAP countered the government’s position, arguing that the FOI Act is a special species of legislation to liberalise and expand access to information for all Nigerians. The group also stated that the FOI Act does not impose any requirement of locus standi on applicants; that the only relevant limitation period in the case is that which requires filing of suit within 30 days if information is not given; that the right which the FOI Act seeks to protect is that of the public to have access to information which is in custody of a public official or institution; and that the information sought by SERAP is not caught by the law against retroactivity. The group noted that the right in question is such that justifies the granting of access to the requested information on the ground of overriding public interest.
SERAP also argued that “By virtue of Section 1 (1) of the FOI Act 2011, it is entitled, as of right, to request or gain access to information which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution. By the provisions of Section 2(7) and 31 of the FOI Act 2011, the Accountant General of the Federation is a public official. By virtue of Section 4 (a) of the FOI Act, when a person makes a request for information from a public official, institution or agency, the public official, institution or agency to whom the application is directed is under a binding legal obligation to provide the applicant with the information requested, except as otherwise provided by the Act, within 7 days after the application is received.”
Speaking on the judgment, the Deputy Executive Director of SERAP, Olukayode Majekodunmi, said: “The judgment confirms the persistent failure of successive governments starting from the Obasanjo government, to respect Nigerians’ right to a corruption-free society and to uphold constitutional and international commitments on transparency and accountability.”
According to him, the judgment is an important step towards reversing a culture of secrecy and corruption that has meant that high-ranking government officials continue to look after themselves at the expense of the well-being of the majority of Nigerians, and development of the country.”
“This is a crucial precedent that vindicates the right to a transparent and accountable government and affirms the human right of the Nigerian people to live a life free from want and fear,” he added.
Reacting to the judgment, an Abuja- based Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and author, Sebastine Hon, described it as good for the nation’s democracy. According to him, the judgment showed that government, present and past must be held accountable at any time whether in or out of office.
Hon, who fully endorsed the judgment, commended SERAP for taking up the matter.Also, the National President of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) and Legal Adviser, Movement for the Liberation of Southern Sahara, Malachy Ugwummadu, commended the judiciary and Justice Idris for courageously and consistently dispensing justice according to the law.
According to him, Justice Idris does it with dispatch to meet with the exigencies of most national issues, including the one under review.
“I think what the judgment has done is to give credence and effect to the Freedom of Information Act, which is another practical way of empowering the citizens of Nigeria in participating in the government and governance of the day.
“The court’s directive to successive governments to disclose recoveries and make public expenses of the recoveries predisposes an earlier request by the plaintiff. Such a categorical firm judicial intervention leaves no room for speculation as to the rights of Nigerians, albeit organisations to seek information guaranteed by the law,” he added.