Court orders govts of ex-presidents to account for $5bn Abacha loot
For failing to provide details of the projects executed or being executed with the $5 billion returned Abacha loot, a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, weekend, ordered the administrations of former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari to account for the funds.
The court also ordered the government of President Bola Tinubu to disclose the exact amount of money stolen by the former Head of State, late General Sani Abacha, total amount of Abacha loot recovered, and all agreements signed on same by the governments of former Presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan and Buhari.
The Minister of Finance and the Attorney General of the Federation and the Minister of Justice were also joined as defendants in the suit.
In September 2022, SERAP had filed a lawsuit against the administration of former President Buhari over failure to publish a copy and details of the agreement the Federal Government signed with the United States for the repatriation of $23 million stolen by the former Head of State, Sani Abacha.
The agreement signed in August 2022 came after the $311 million Abacha loot was returned by America in 2020.
In suit FHC/ABJ/CS/1700/2022 filed at the Federal High Court, Abuja, SERAP asked the court to direct the President and former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami to make details of the contractual agreement with the US public.
According to SERAP, “the repatriated $23 million Abacha loot is vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement.
“Substantial part of the estimated $5 billion returned Abacha loot since 1999 may have been mismanaged, diverted, or re-stolen, and in any case, remain unaccounted for.”
In his ruling following a Freedom of Information suit brought by SERAP, Justice James Omotosho said: “In the final analysis, the application by SERAP is meritorious and the Federal Government, through the Ministry of Finance, is hereby ordered to furnish SERAP with the full spending details of about $5bn Abacha loot within seven days of this judgment.”
‘Disclose details of projects executed with Abacha loot’
He ordered government to disclose details of projects executed with Abacha loot, locations of 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 till date.
Omotosho also ordered 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.”
He said: “The excuse by the Minister of Finance is that the ministry has searched its records and the details of the exact public funds stolen by Abacha and how the funds have been spent are not held by the Ministry.
“The excuse has no leg to stand because of Section 7 of the Freedom of Information Act.”
He dismissed all objections raised by the Federal Government and upheld SERAP’s arguments.
Consequently, the court entered judgment in favour of SERAP against the Federal Government.
Omotosho’s judgment, dated July 3, 2023, read in part: “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 public office, who has custody of such information is fatal to their case under Section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act.
“The ministry cannot use a blanket statement that it did not own the said records of about $5bn Abacha loot sought by SERAP.
“The government failed to provide details of the projects executed with the money. It also failed to provide locations of the projects and the names of the companies and contractors that carried out or are carrying out the projects funded with the money.
“I hold that by the clear wordings of Section 7 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011, access to information about spending details of $5bn Abacha loot was denied SERAP by the Federal Government.
“For the sake of emphasis, possession of locus standi has been the bane of the citizens’ advocates, in the public interest litigation, to query transparency and accountability in governance in Nigeria.
“In a democratic dispensation, such as in Nigeria, the citizens have been proclaimed the owners of sovereignty and mandates that place leaders in the saddle.
“The requirement is a serious fracture of the citizens’ inalienable right to ventilate their grievances against poor governance vis-à-vis expenditure of public funds generated from their taxes.
“The sacrosanct provision of Section 1(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which has ostracised this disturbing requirement, has, admirably, remedied the harmful mischief appurtenant to it.
“I, therefore, hold that SERAP is entitled to the information on the spending details of about $5bn Abacha loot, and need not show any special interest in the information sought.
“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 and the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice must make available the information requested within seven days of the request.”
SERAP tasks Tinubu to obey court order
Meanwhile, SERAP, through its Deputy Director, Kolawole Oluwadare, has urged President Bola Tinubu to obey and enforce the court order “to demonstrate his expressed commitment to the rule of law by immediately obeying and respecting the judgment of the court.”
It said: “We urge you to direct the Ministry of Finance and office of the Attorney General of the Federation to immediately compile and release the spending details of recovered Abacha loot 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 $5bn Abacha loot.
“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.”