Court orders ex-Humanitarian Affairs minister to account for N729bn

The Federal High Court sitting in Lagos, in a landmark judgment, has ordered Ms Sadia Umar-Farouk, former Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disasters Management and Social Development to account for payments of N729bn to 24.3 million 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 last month by Hon. 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. I therefore grant an order of mandamus directing and compelling the minister to provide the spending details of N729 billion to 24.3 million poor Nigerians in 2021.”

Justice Dipeolu ordered the minister to “provide SERAP 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 N13.6 trillion for 2021.”

Justice Dipeolu also stated that, “The minister did not give any reason for the refusal to disclose the details sought by SERAP.

SERAP has reeled out the relevant sections of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 that the minister contravened and has in line with sections 20 and 25(1) of the Act prayed this Court for an order of mandamus to direct and compel the minister to provide the information sought.”

Justice Dipeolu dismissed the objections raised by the minister’s counsel and upheld SERAP’s arguments. Consequently, the court entered judgment in favour of SERAP against the minister.

Justice Dipeolu’s 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.”

SERAP deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare said: “This ground-breaking judgment is a victory for transparency and accountability in the spending of public funds.”

“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.”

Femi Falana, SAN said on the judgment: “SERAP deserves the commendation of all well-meaning people that have agonised over reports of systemic corruption in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disasters Management and Social Development and in other MDAs.”

“This is one of the most patriotic public interest litigation ever undertaken in Nigeria. We call on the Tinubu government to use the judgment as the basis for comprehensively addressing cases of corruption in the ministry and bringing to justice those suspected to be responsible as well as recovering proceeds of corruption.”

In the letter dated 6 July 2024 sent to President Bola Tinubu on the judgment, and signed by SERAP deputy director, Kolawole Oluwadare, the organization said, “We urge you to demonstrate your expressed 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, Disasters Management and Social Development and the office of the Attorney General of the Federation to immediately compile and release the spending details of the N729 billion as ordered by the court.”

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

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

“Immediately implementing the judgment will restore trust and confidence in the independence of Nigeria’s judiciary. SERAP urges you to make a clean break with the past and take clear and decisive steps that demonstrate your commitment to the rule of law, transparency and accountability in the governance processes.”

“SERAP trusts that you will see compliance with this judgment as a central aspect of the rule of law; an essential stepping stone to constructing a basic institutional framework for legality and constitutionality. We therefore look forward to your positive response and action on the judgment.”

The suit was filed against the former Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disasters Management and Social Development. The suit followed 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 help to those impoverished by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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