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Lagos Court Orders Buhari’s Minister To Account For N729bn

A Federal High Court sitting in Lagos, has ordered a former Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disasters Management and Social Development, Sadia Umar-Farouk, to account for payments of N729bn to 24.3m poor Nigerians for six months.

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

The judgment was delivered by Justice Deinde Isaac Dipeolu following a Freedom of Information suit number: FHC/L/CS/853/2021, brought by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP). The certified true copy of the judgment was obtained last Friday.

In his judgment, Justice Dipeolu held that the former minister is compelled by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act to give information to any person including SERAP, and therefore granted an order of mandamus directing and compelling the minister to provide the spending details of the N729bn.

Justice Dipeolu ordered Umar-Farouk to provide the organisation with details of how the beneficiaries have been selected and the mechanisms for the payments to the beneficiaries.

Justice Dipeolu also ordered the minister to explain the rationale for paying N5,000 to 24.3 million poor Nigerians, which translates to five percent of Nigeria’s budget of N13.6trn for 2021.

The judge, who stated that the minister did not give any reason for her refusal to disclose the details sought by SERAP, dismissed the objections raised by her counsel and upheld SERAP’s arguments.

The judgment, dated 27 June, 2024, read in part: “where a statute clearly provides for a particular act to be done or performed in a particular way, failure to perform the act as provided will not only be interpreted as a delinquent conduct but will be interpreted as not complying with the statutory provision.

“The minister filed a preliminary objection to this suit dated the 4th of October 2022 and a counter-affidavit to SERAP’s motion on notice. I will first deal with the minister’s preliminary objection because it bothers on the jurisdiction of this Court to entertain this suit.

“The grounds upon which the preliminary objection was filed are: whether this suit is not incompetent having not been commenced within 30 days after SERAP’s request for information was deemed to have been denied.

“Having not complied with the provision of section 20 of the Freedom of Information, whether this Court can assume jurisdiction to entertain SERAP’s application.

“As arguments on both issues, the minister’s counsel submitted that by the provision of section 4,7(4) and 20 of the Freedom of Information Act, subject to lawful exceptions within the Act, a public institution has 7 days to grant a request for information, failure of which would be deemed denial.

“SERAP’s request was deemed denied on 6th July, which is the expiration of 7 days. Therefore, SERAP has 30 days pursuant to section 20 of the Act to apply to this Court.

“SERAP’s 30 days within which to bring this suit expired on 5th of August 2021, whilst the motion on notice was filed on the 9th of November 2021, outside the 30 days stipulated by the Act. Consequently, this suit is statute barred.

“In response, SERAP’s counsel argued that this suit was not commenced via the motion of notice dated 8th November 2021. This suit was initiated by a motion exparte dated 13th July 2021 but filed on the 15th of July 2021, after the expiration of the 7 days period required of the minister to respond to the FOI request by SERAP.

“This is in compliance 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 submissions of counsel as regards the preliminary objection by the minister. I agree with SERAP’s counsel that the minister did not carry out a proper search of the casefile before filing the preliminary objection.

“It is obvious that SERAP commenced this suit via a motion exparte dated 13th of July 2021 but filed 15th of July 2021, which is well within the time to file 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 suit. Therefore, this suit is not statute barred and I dismiss the minister’s preliminary objection. I so hold.”

Reacting to the judgment, SERAP Deputy Director Kolawole Oluwadare, described it as a victory for transparency and accountability in the spending of public funds.

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

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

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