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Monday, March 4, 2024

How the Supreme Court made suspicious payments of 12 billion naira

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Nigeria’s Supreme Court spent more than N12 billion in violation of financial regulations over five years, the latest audit report by the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation (OAuGF) has revealed.

The funds should be recovered and remitted to the treasury by the court’s Chief Registrar, the audit report, published in December 2023, recommended.

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The report essentially covers the expenditures and finances of federal government ministries, departments and agencies for fiscal year 2020, but for the Supreme Court, it extends back and forth to address some major payments and transactions executed between 2017 and 2021. .

The current Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Hajo Sarki-Bello, took office in 2021, a year after the alleged breaches occurred under Hadizatu Uwani-Mustapha.

Ms. Uwani-Mustapha, who was the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court for most of the period in which the noted transactions occurred, retired from the court as Chief Registrar in June 2021.

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Hadizatu Uwani-Mustapha

Walter Onnoghen, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) between 2016 and 2019, and his successor Tanko Muhammad, who was CJN between 2019 and 2022, oversaw the Supreme Court during the period of the controversial payments and transactions highlighted by Nigeria’s auditor . general.

Muhammad abruptly resigned from his position, citing health problems in June 2022, amid an unprecedented and furious outcry from his fellow Supreme Court justices over his handling of the court’s finances and other matters at the time.

Tanko Muhammad and Walter Onnoghen, former members of the CJN

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Highlights of the issues raised in respect of transactions totaling N12.335 billion in the 2020 audit report include: payments for contracts without budgetary provisions, diversion of government assets for private use, inflation of the price of contracts, irregular awarding of contracts and excessive payment to contractors, among others. others.

Budgeted funds for unaccounted for transmission equipment

In one of the key breaches of existing regulations, the report revealed that the Supreme Court appropriated and received the sum of N645 million for the procurement of broadcasting equipment in 2017.

However, the court did not submit “relevant documents such as receipts, vote book, store receipt vouchers, store account book and invoices” for the audit.

After the court’s silence when it came to giving explanations for not having delivered the documents, the audit report attributed the “anomalies” to “weaknesses in the internal control system of the Supreme Court.”

Furthermore, according to the report, contrary to constitutional provisions and financial regulations, the court channeled over N10.223 million through 124 vouchers to “various beneficiaries” in 2020. But the paid vouchers and other supporting documents were not presented for the audit, according to the report. .

Citing a case of irregular award of contract and overpayment to a contractor, the report asked the Chief Secretary to justify the sum of N826.75 million before the National Assembly.

He further asked the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, who is the court’s accountant, to recover the N826.75 million and remit it to the national coffers as failure to do so would trigger legal sanctions in the Financial Regulations (2009 ). .

Narrating the circumstances surrounding the issue of overpayment to a contractor, the report reveals that a contract for the construction of an access road to the judges’ quarters (Yellow Houses) in Abuja was awarded in April 2021, in the twilight of Mrs. Uwani-Mustapha’s departure from The Supreme Court.

The contract was awarded at a cost of N990 million (N990,494,207.80 in total). The level of work done was assessed at 50 per cent, which should have amounted to N495 million (N495,247,103.90).

But “the contractor was paid N827 million (N827,075,713.04 in total), representing 83.5 percent of the contract sum, resulting in an overpayment of N331,815,559.61 naira,” according to the report, adding that the court offered no explanation for the violation.

In another case, the court awarded contracts totaling N371.5 million (N371,541,636 in total) for supplies, works and services in 2017 without budget provisions.

However, in 2018, 2019 and 2020, payments worth N112 million (N112,117,106.37) were made “without evidence of appropriation.”

Unauthorized sale of land

The report also revealed the sale of four plots of land belonging to the Lagos court.

The plots located at 72 Alexander Avenue, 2 Club Road, 20 Cameron Road and 15 Ikoyi Crescent, all in Abuja, were “disposed of without following due process.”

He added that “evidence of the sale, such as the authorization, the inspection board report, the hiring of auctioneers, advertising, the proceeds of the sale, among others, were not presented for the audit.”

In a case of illegal possession of government property, the report says the Supreme Court paid more than N3 billion for 45 vehicles between fiscal years 2017 and 2021.

Giving details of the vehicle purchase, the report revealed that 18 of the 45 vehicles costing over N515 million were allocated to seven judges of the Supreme Court for official use.

But after the justices left the court, the official cars they had attached were not returned for inspection, a scenario the report described as “diversion of government assets for private use.”

The court’s response

In the myriad violations detailed in the audit report, the court’s leadership responded to the issue of magistrates’ retirement with official vehicles attached to them.

“Vehicles are part of the rights of Supreme Court judges,” the court responded in the report.

But he was silent about other egregious violations in the report.

How opacity breeds corruption in the finances of the Nigerian judiciary

PREMIUM TIMES had reported on the opacity that defines the budget and finances of the Nigerian judiciary in general.

Lawyers and anti-corruption activists have questioned the illegality of the National Judicial Council (NJC) in hiding the judiciary’s budget details from public scrutiny, sometimes even doing so in resistance to Freedom of Information requests.

The extent of the NJC’s desperation to keep the details of its finances out of the public’s hands became clearer in 2022, when the then Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, challenged it to open its budget in favor of of transparency.

Amid the secrecy of judiciary budgets and finances that the NJC helps maintain, accusations of corruption and mismanagement of funds loom over the judiciary, sometimes coming from high-ranking individuals.

In May 2022, an outgoing judge of the Supreme Court, Ejembi Eko, in his farewell speech, lamented corruption in the management of the finances of the judiciary.

Therefore, he asked anti-corruption agencies to investigate the financial records of the judiciary.

“There is nothing stopping the office of the Auditor General of the Federation, ICPC and other investigative bodies from opening the books of the judiciary to expose corruption in the management of its budgetary resources,” Mr Eko had said.

“This does not compromise the independence of the judiciary. Rather, it promotes accountability.”

Ejembi Eko, retired judge of the Supreme Court

It would take just a month to implode following Mr Eko’s invitation to anti-corruption agencies to investigate the finances of the judiciary for internal rumors of corruption and suspicions of financial mismanagement within the Supreme Court.

In June 2022, in an unprecedented letter of protest to the then CJN, Tanko Muhammad, 14 Supreme Court judges demanded “to know what has become of our training funds” and asked rhetorically: “Have they been diverted or is it a simple fraud?” denial?”

Later that year, in September, one of the judges who drafted the protest letter, Abdu Aboki, used his farewell speech as he retired from the Supreme Court, to push for financial transparency and accountability in the judiciary. .

Judge Abdu Aboki

In the part of his farewell address which he subtitled “My farewell messages to the nation and the judiciary in particular”, Mr Aboki called on “those charged with administering the funds allocated to the judiciary” in Nigeria “to be prudent , transparent and responsible.”

In a more direct and critical tone, another Supreme Court judge, Dattijo Muhammad, while retiring as the court’s second most senior justice in October 2023, alleged widespread corruption in the Supreme Court of Nigeria and in the hierarchy of the judiciary. .

Honorable. Justice Dattijo Muhammad (PHOTO CREDIT: Supreme Court of Nigeria)

Muhammad was one of the 14 Supreme Court judges who wrote the protest letter sent to the then CJN, Tanko Muhammad, in June 2022. But at the time of Dattijo Muhammad’s retirement in October last year, Olukayode Ariwoola, who led the protesting group of Fourteen Judges had more than a year earlier replaced Tanko Muhammad as CJN.

Former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola

Dattijo Muhammad, in his farewell speech last October, attacked those managing the funds allocated to the judiciary and said that despite the “phenomenal” increase in judiciary budgets over the years, there had been no improvement proportional in the well-being of the judges.

He also called for an investigation into the handling of his funds by the judiciary.

He said that “a spotlight needs to be shined incessantly to unravel how sums are spent.”

Auditor General demands reimbursement and testing, amid poor enforcement

With the silence of the Supreme Court on the violations highlighted in the latest audit report, the office of the auditor general of Nigeria asked the chief secretary to account, recover and remit the funds to the federation account.

It specifically requested the chief registrar to present evidence of compliance with the recommendations before the Public Accounts Commission of the National Assembly.

National Assembly

But this is not the first time that the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation has accused government ministries, departments and agencies of serious violations of financial regulations.

But the recommendations of the audit reports are never implemented by the National Assembly, nor adopted by Nigeria’s law enforcement agencies, a fact that has emboldened public institutions to perpetrate large-scale corruption in the form of diversion of funds. public.

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