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Monday, July 15, 2024

Court orders Buhari’s minister to account for N729 billion

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The Federal High Court sitting in Lagos, in a landmark ruling, has ordered Sadia Umar-Farouk, former Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, to account for payments of N729 billion to 24.3 million poor Nigerians over six months.

The court also ordered the former minister to provide the list and details of beneficiaries who received the payments, the number of states covered and the payments per state.

The judgment was handed down last month by Judge Deinde Dipeolu following a Freedom of Information petition number: FHC/L/CS/853/2021, filed by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP). The certified copy of the judgment was obtained last Friday.

In his judgment, Justice Dipeolu held that “the former Minister is bound by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act to provide information to any person, including SERAP. I therefore grant an order of mandamus directing and compelling the Minister to provide the details of the expenditure of N729 billion to 24.3 million poor Nigerians in 2021.”

Judge Dipeolu ordered the minister to “provide SERAP with details on how beneficiaries have been selected and the mechanisms for payments to beneficiaries.”

Justice Dipeolu also ordered the minister to “explain the reason for paying N5,000 to 24.3 million poor Nigerians, which translates to five per cent of Nigeria’s N13.6 trillion budget for 2021.”

Justice Dipeolu also stated that “the Minister did not give any reason for refusing to disclose the details requested by SERAP. SERAP has cited the relevant sections of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 which the Minister has breached and pursuant to sections 20 and 25(1) of the Act, has applied to this Court for an order of mandamus to direct and compel the Minister to provide the information requested.”

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Judge Dipeolu dismissed the objections raised by the Minister’s counsel and upheld SERAP’s arguments. The court accordingly ruled in favour of SERAP and against the Minister.

Judge Dipeolu’s judgment, dated June 27, 2024, read in part: “Where a statute clearly provides that a particular act must be done or performed in a particular manner, failure to perform the act as provided will not only be construed as criminal conduct but will be construed as a failure to comply with the statutory provision.”

“The Minister filed a preliminary objection to this complaint dated October 4, 2022, and a counter-affidavit to SERAP’s motion for notice. I will first address the Minister’s preliminary objection because it affects the jurisdiction of this Court to hear this complaint.”

“The reasons for which the preliminary objection was filed are: whether this claim is not incompetent for not having been initiated within 30 days after SERAP’s request for information was deemed denied.”

“Having failed to comply with the provisions of Section 20 of the Freedom of Information Act, can this Court assume jurisdiction to hear SERAP’s request?”

“In arguments on both issues, counsel for the Minister submitted that, pursuant to sections 4, 7(4) and 20 of the Freedom of Information Act, subject to statutory exceptions within the Act, a public institution has 7 days to grant a request for information, and failure to do so would be deemed a refusal.”

“SERAP’s application was deemed denied on July 6, i.e. the expiration of the 7-day period. Therefore, SERAP has 30 days in accordance with Article 20 of the Law to file an application before this Court.”

SERAP LOGO (PHOTO CREDIT: @SERAPNigeria)

“SERAP’s 30-day deadline to file this lawsuit expired on August 5, 2021, while the motion for notification was filed on November 9, 2021, outside the 30 days stipulated by law. Consequently, this lawsuit has expired.”

“In response, SERAP’s counsel argued that this lawsuit was not commenced by the notice motion dated November 8, 2021. This lawsuit was commenced by an exparte motion dated July 13, 2021, but filed on July 15, 2021, after the 7-day period required by the Minister to respond to SERAP’s access to information request had expired.”

“This complies with section 20 of the Freedom of Information Act and Order 34 Rule 3(1) of the Federal High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 2019.”

“The above are the arguments of counsel in relation to the Minister’s preliminary objection. I agree with SERAP’s counsel that the Minister did not conduct an adequate search of the file before filing the preliminary objection.”

“It is clear that SERAP initiated this lawsuit through an exparte motion dated July 13, 2021, but filed on July 15, 2021, which is within the time limit for filing this action after the denial of the information requested from the Minister.”

“SERAP complied with section 20 of the Freedom of Information Act in filing this complaint. Therefore, this complaint is not time-barred and I dismiss the Minister’s preliminary objection. I so hold.”

SERAP Deputy Director Kolawole Oluwadare said: “This ground-breaking ruling is a victory for transparency and accountability in the expenditure of public funds.”

“Justice Dipeolu’s judgment shows the urgent need for the Tinubu government to genuinely address systemic allegations of corruption in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development and other ministries, departments and agencies as documented by the Auditor General of the Federation.”

“We commend Judge Dipeolu for her courage and wisdom and urge President Bola Tinubu to immediately obey the court orders.”

Commenting on the ruling, Femi Falana said: “SERAP deserves praise from all well-meaning people who have suffered from reports of systemic corruption in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development and other MDAs.”

“This is one of the most patriotic public interest litigations ever conducted in Nigeria. We call on the Tinubu government to use the judgment as a basis to comprehensively address corruption cases in the ministry and bring to justice those suspected of being responsible as well as recover the proceeds of corruption.”

In the letter dated July 6, 2024 sent to President Bola Tinubu regarding the judgment, and signed by SERAP Deputy Director Kolawole Oluwadare, the organization said: “We urge you to demonstrate your express commitment to the rule of law by immediately obeying and respecting the judgment of the Court.”

SERAP’s letter read in part: “We urge you to direct the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development and the office of the Attorney General of the Federation to immediately compile and publish details of the expenditure of the N729 billion as ordered by the court.”

“The immediate execution and implementation of the judgment by your government will constitute a victory for the rule of law, transparency and accountability in governance processes and management of public resources, including the N729 billion.”

“By immediately complying with the sentence, your government will demonstrate to Nigerians that it is different from the Buhari government, which persistently and brazenly defied the country’s judiciary, and will send a powerful message to politicians and others that there will be no impunity for grand corruption.”

“The immediate implementation of the judgment will restore confidence in the independence of the Nigerian judiciary. SERAP urges them to make a definitive break with the past and take clear and decisive steps that demonstrate their commitment to the rule of law, transparency and accountability in governance processes.”

READ ALSO: SERAP sues Tinubus government for not accounting for loans from former presidents

“SERAP trusts that you consider compliance with this judgment as a central aspect of the rule of law; an essential step in building a basic institutional framework of legality and constitutionality. We therefore look forward to your positive response and action in relation to the judgment.”

The suit was filed against the former Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. The suit was filed following the minister’s decision in January 2021 to “pay about 24.3 million poor Nigerians N5,000 each for a period of six months to provide relief to those impoverished by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Kolawole Oluwadare

Deputy Director of SERAP

07/07/2024

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