In a historic decision, the Federal High Court in Abuja mandated that the governments of former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan, and Muhammadu Buhari disclose their spending of the approximately $5 billion in Abacha loot.
The court commanded FG to “disclose the exact amount of money stolen by General Sani Abacha from Nigeria, the total amount of Abacha loot recovered, and all agreements signed on the same by the governments of former Presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan, and Buhari.”
Following a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) with case number FHC/ABJ/CS/407/2020, Justice James Kolawole Omotosho issued the ruling last week.
“In the final analysis, the application by SERAP is meritorious,” Justice Omotosho wrote in his decision. “The Federal Government, through the Ministry of Finance, is hereby ordered to furnish SERAP with the full spending details of approximately $5 billion of Abacha loot within 7 days of this judgment.”
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“Disclose details of the projects executed with the Abacha loot, the locations of any such projects, and the names of companies and contractors that carried out or are carrying out the projects since the return of democracy in 1999 until today,” Justice Omotosho ordered the government.
Justice Omotosho of the Federal High Court Abuja also instructed the government to “disclose details of specific roles played by the World Bank and other partners in the execution of any projects funded with Abacha loot under the governments of former presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan, and Buhari.”
Justice Omotosho added, “The Minister of Finance’s justification is that the Ministry has searched its records and does not have the specifics of the public cash stolen by Abacha and how the funds have been used. In light of Section 7 of the Freedom of Information Act, the justification is invalid.
Justice Omotosho affirmed SERAP’s arguments and rejected all of the Federal Government’s objections. As a result, the court granted SERAP judgment against the Federal Government.
The following was a quote from Justice Omotosho’s ruling from July 3, 2023: “The failure of the Minister of Finance to write to SERAP informing it of where the said information exists or to transfer the request to a public office that has custody of such information is fatal to their case under Section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act.”
“The Ministry cannot claim categorically that it did not have the records of the $5 billion in Abacha theft requested by SERAP. The government omitted to give specifics about the projects funded by the money. Additionally, it omitted to give the addresses of the projects as well as the names of the businesses and contractors that completed or are finishing the projects paid for with the money.
“I hold that the Federal Government denied SERAP access to information about spending details of $5 billion in Abacha loot, in accordance with the plain language of Section 7 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011,” the claim reads.
“The Federal Government had filed a 14-paragraph counteraffidavit deposed to by Abah Sunday, Litigation Officer in the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation, arguing that SERAP’s suit is frivolous as it has not shown that the government has denied it the information it seeks.”
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Additionally, the Federal Government said that SERAP had not sufficiently demonstrated interest in its application. The government pleaded with the court to drop the case.
To emphasize, having locus standi has been the downfall of citizens’ advocates who have questioned Nigeria’s government’s openness and accountability in public interest litigation.
“In a democratic system, like that of Nigeria, the people have been declared the owners of sovereignty and the powers that appoint leaders.”
“The requirement is a serious breach of the citizens’ inalienable right to air their grievances against bad governance with regard to how public funds obtained from their taxes are spent,” said one citizen.
“The sacred clause in Section 1(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which has shunned this unsettling demand, has admirably remedied the harmful mischief attached to it.”
“It is obvious that Section 1 grants a person the right to access any material from any Nigerian governmental entity. SERAP is a legally recognized entity because it is a registered organization in Nigeria. In order to be granted access to the information about the $5 billion in Abacha loot expenditure data, SERAP does not need to have any particular interest in doing so.
“I hold that SERAP is entitled to the information on the spending details of approximately $5 billion in Abacha loot and need not show any special interest in the information sought,” the author writes.
“The provision of Section 4 of the Freedom of Information Act is quite clear and mandates that public institutions or public officers, such as the minister of finance, the attorney general of the federation, and the minister of justice, must make the requested information available within 7 days of the request.”
Kolawole Oluwadare, the deputy director of SERAP, signed a letter dated July 8, 2023, that was addressed to President Tinubu regarding the ruling and stated, “We urge you to demonstrate your expressed commitment to the rule of law by immediately obeying and respecting the judgment of the Court.”
The following is an excerpt from SERAP’s letter: “We urge you to direct the Ministry of Finance and the office of the Attorney General of the Federation to immediately compile and release the spending details of recovered Abacha loot in accordance with the court’s order.”
If your government immediately enforces and implements the ruling, it will be a victory for the rule of law, transparency, and accountability in the governance procedures and management of public resources, including the $5 billion Abacha theft.
Your government will be demonstrating to Nigerians that it is different from the Buhari government, which obstinately and brazenly disobeyed the nation’s judiciary, and sending a strong signal to politicians and others that there will be no impunity for grand corruption by immediately adhering to the ruling of the court.
“Immediate implementation of the ruling of the court will reestablish faith in the judiciary’s independence in Nigeria. You are urged by SERAP to sever all ties to the past and take firm actions that show your dedication to the rule of law, openness, and accountability in the governance processes.
“SERAP believes that you will view adherence to this ruling as a key component of the rule of law and as a necessary first step in developing a fundamental institutional framework for legality and constitutionality. As a result, we anticipate your favorable response and implementation of the verdict.
The Attorney General of the Federation, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Finance are all named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Justice Omotosho of the Federal High Court Abuja issued the following mandamus orders against the Nigerian government:
The Federal Government is hereby required by an Order of Mandamus to provide and reveal the following information to SERAP through the Ministry of Finance, the Attorney General of the Federation, and the Minister of Justice:[a] The precise amount of money General Sani Abacha stole from Nigeria, the overall amount of Abacha loot recovered, and all agreements made regarding it since democracy was restored in 1999 up to the present day [a] Information about the projects carried out with the money recovered, including their locations and the names of the companies and contractors involved in their completion or ongoing work [c] Specifics of the World Bank’s and other partners’ contributions to the implementation of any initiatives funded by Abacha wealth since 1999
The Federal Government is hereby ordered and compelled by an Order OF Mandamus to:
Refer any claims of corruption regarding the execution of projects funded by Abacha loot to the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission (ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for investigation.[a] If there is pertinent and sufficient admissible evidence, see to it that anyone accused of engaging in alleged corruption in projects funded by Abacha plunder is brought to justice.