Court Orders FG to Name Officials Who Have Returned Looted Funds

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  • Malami: Govt will comply with ruling
  • Says FEC has no locus standi on Senate’s threat to stop confirmation of nominees
  • House c’ttee to invite Jonathan to give evidence in Malabu Oil deal

Tobi Soniyi in Lagos, Omololu Ogunmade and James Emejo in Abuja

A Federal High Court in Lagos has ordered the federal government to immediately release to Nigerians information on the names of high ranking public officials from whom public funds have been recovered and the circumstances under which the funds were recovered, as well as the exact amount of funds recovered from each public official.

Reacting to the ruling, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), said the federal government would comply with the judgment of the court by publishing the names of public officials who have returned looted funds to the treasury.

Also while responding to questions from State House correspondents Wednesday after the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting in Abuja, Malami said the cabinet has no position on the Senate’s rejection of the Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Ibrahim Magu, resulting in renewed hostilities this week between the executive and Senate and its decision not to consider new nominations from the executive.

Malami said no position was taken on the matter, describing it as a trivial issue that FEC would not dissipate its energy on, since it was not decided upon by council.

At the Federal High Court, Justice Hadiza Rabiu Shagari gave the order for the release of names of public official who had returned looted funds, while delivering judgment in a suit challenging the refusal of the federal government to disclose information to a civil society organisation, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), following a request made to it under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

In her judgment, Justice Shagari agreed with SERAP that government had a legally binding obligation to tell Nigerians the names of all suspected looters of the public treasury, past and present.

The Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Muhammed, and the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture were the defendants in the suit.

The judge also declared that by virtue of the provisions of Section 4 (a) of the Freedom of Information Act, government was under a binding legal obligation to provide the plaintiff with up to date information by disseminating, including on a dedicated website, information about the names of high ranking public officials from whom public funds were recovered since May 2015 and the circumstances under which the funds were returned.

In his reaction to the ruling, SERAP’s Deputy Director, Timothy Adewale, who argued the case said: “This is a victory for justice, rule of law, transparency and accountability in this country. The judgment shows the way forward in the fight against corruption and impunity.

“We will do everything within the law to ensure full compliance by President Mohammadu Buhari and Acting President Osinbajo with this landmark judgment.”

The information ministry last year published details of the recovered funds, which showed that the Nigerian government successfully retrieved total cash amounts of N78,325,354,631.82, $185,119,584.61, £3,508,355.46 and €11, 250 between May 29, 2015 and May 25, 2016.
Also released were recoveries under interim forfeiture court orders, which were a combination of cash and assets, during the same period as follows: N126,563,481,095.43, $9,090,243,920.15, £2,484,447.55 and €303,399.17, while anticipated repatriation from foreign countries totalled $321,316,726.1, £6,900,000 and €11,826.11.

The ministry also announced that 239 non-cash recoveries were made during the one-year period.
The non-cash recoveries were farmlands, plots of land, uncompleted buildings, completed buildings, vehicles and maritime vessels.
Subsequently, SERAP submitted an FOI request and gave the Minister of Information 14 days to disclose the names of all suspected looters.

The request read in part: “While we believe that suspects generally are entitled to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction, SERAP opposes blanket non-disclosure of names of high-ranking public officials from whom some of the funds were recovered.

“SERAP insists that the public interest to know is greater than any other legitimate interest that the government might wish to protect. The Nigerian government has an obligation to balance whether the risk of harm to the legitimate aim (that is secrecy of ongoing corruption investigation and presumption of innocence) from disclosure of the names of public officials is greater than the public interest in accessing the information.

“According to public interest test, even if the government demonstrates that the publication of the names of public officials would substantially harm a legitimate interest, it is nevertheless obliged to disclose the requested information if, as it is the case here, the public interest in disclosure is sufficient enough to overweigh the harm.

“SERAP believes that the recoveries, specifically from high-ranking public officials (and not private individuals), are matters of public interest.

“Publishing the names of those public officials will provide insights relevant to the public debate on the ongoing efforts to prevent and combat a culture of grand corruption and the longstanding impunity of perpetrators in the country.

“The gravity of the crime of grand corruption, the devastating effects on the socially and economically vulnerable sectors of the population, and the fact that recovery of huge funds from high-ranking public officials entrusted with the public treasury raise a prima-facie case and therefore amount to exceptional circumstances that justify naming those high-ranking officials in the public interest.

“SERAP also argues that Nigerians are entitled to the right to truth derived from the obligations of the government to carry out an investigation of violations of human rights and crime of corruption committed within its jurisdiction; to identify, prosecute and punish those responsible; and to ensure that victims have the simple and prompt recourse for protection against violation of fundamental rights, as well as to ensure transparency in public administration.

“SERAP believes that the right to truth allows Nigerians to gain access to information essential to the fight against corruption and in turn development of democratic institutions as well as provides a form of reparation to victims of grand corruption in the country.

“Publishing the names of public officials involved could go a long way in preventing senior public officials from turning the public
treasury into a private cashbox. SERAP argues that the public interest in publishing the names of the high-ranking government officials from whom funds were received outweighs any considerations to withhold the information, as there would be no prejudice against those whose names are published as long as the information is appropriately framed and truthful.

“There is a general public interest in promoting transparency, accountability, public understanding and involvement in the democratic process. While the government in some limited cases can legitimately place restrictions on the public’s right to access certain information, attempts of the Nigerian authorities to justify the total closure of information related to the names of public officials from whom funds were recovered on the basis of “ongoing criminal investigation” and “presumption of innocence goes far beyond the limitations allowed under international law, and would promote secret recoveries.

“The information being requested is not related to detailed investigatory activities of anticorruption agencies regarding the recoveries so far made. Similarly, the mere fact that the information being requested is related to ongoing investigation does not necessarily mean that the information could not be disclosed. In addition, governmental agency has the obligation to prove that the disclosure of the names of public officials would disrupt, impede, or otherwise harm the ongoing or pending investigations or presumption of innocence.”

In his reaction to the judgment, Malami said that the federal government would comply with the ruling to publish the names of treasury looters.
Malami, however, said the move would be subject to certain conditions.

Malami: Names Will be Published

In his reaction to the judgment, Malami, after the weekly FEC meeting, said that the federal government would comply with the ruling to publish the names of treasury looters.

Malami, however, said the move would be subject to certain conditions.
“The disclosure will definitely be made but it is contingent on reconciliation of associated considerations as they relate to sub judice principles; as they relate to concluding, reconciliation and confirmation of figures,” he said.

He also revealed that council gave approval for a new anti-corruption policy called “Anti-corruption Strategy”, to provide fresh impetus to the federal government’s anti-corruption drive.

Malami said the new policy would among others, establish a new commission to be saddled with the responsibility of managing all corruption proceeds seized from looters.

According to him, the policy was spurred by the necessity for a consensus and collaboration among various institutions of state on the anti-corruption war, pointing out that the policy was aimed at providing guidance to such organs of state including the legislature, judiciary and ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) by spelling out sanctions and their enforcement on anti-corruption.

Malami, who further described the anti-corruption war as one of the major drives of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, said that notable progress had been made in the anti-graft war as a result of various policies churned out by the government to aid the fight.

He listed such policies to include the Treasury Single Account (TSA), whistle blowing and government partnership with relevant institutions, explaining that such policies were geared towards promoting accountability and transparency under the anti-graft drive.
“We realised that there is need for more enforcement of sanctions in the anti-corruption war. The anti-corruption strategy approved today is intended to strengthen the enforcement of sanctions, hence this national anti-corruption strategy.

“It is also intended to be a guide to enhance the enforcement of sanctions. As part of this policy, an asset management commission will be established to manage all the seized assets gotten from corruption proceeds,” he stated.

Answering questions on the position of FEC to the threat by the Senate to stop the consideration of executive nominees, following its failure to remove Magu and Acting President Yemi Osinbajo’s stance that the acting EFCC chairman did not require the confirmation of the Senate, Malami said no position was taken on the matter, describing it as a trivial issue that FEC would not dissipate its energy on, since it was not decided upon by council.

He clarified that the issue of nominations is the prerogative of the presidency, not FEC, so it has no position on it.
“Although the issue came up for discussion at the cabinet meeting, since the cabinet was not particularly connected or reached a consensus to maintain a particular position, it cannot begin to defend what it did not decide on.

“The fundamental consideration about the alleged statement is the fact that at no point ever did the Federal Executive Council sit down to arrive at the decision in one way or the other as far as the issue of nomination or otherwise is concerned.

“So I do not think it constitutes an issue for the Federal Executive Council to make any clarification on because it has never been considered by the FEC. The Minister of Information will throw more light on the matter,” he said.

In his response, the Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed said even though the matter came up for discussion in the meeting, both the National Assembly and the executive have a mechanism for the resolution of their conflicts.

“Clearly, it came up. The fact of the matter is that we have a very excellent mechanism for resolving whatever issue is between us and the National Assembly. That is being addressed.

“Whatever may be the problem between the executive and the National Assembly, we have an excellent mechanism for resolving it. I don’t think we need to go to specific statements as to what was said by A or B.

“We believe that government is not one arm but the legislative, executive and judiciary arms. Whatever might be the problem, we are resolving it and we are addressing it,” Mohammed said.

In his own briefing, the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Malam Muhammad Bello, said FEC approved memoranda on four projects aimed at boosting commerce, infrastructure development, economic growth and employment generation in FCT.
He listed the projects to include the N242 million development of Phase II of Abuja city and a N241 million sewage project.

House to Invite Jonathan

In another high profile corruption probe, the House of Representatives Ad hoc Committee investigating the alleged malpractice and breach of due process in the $1.1 billion sale of Oil Prospecting Licence (OPL) 245 by Malabu Oil and Gas Limited to Shell and Agip in 2011, Wednesday resolved to invite former President Goodluck Jonathan to give evidence regarding his role in the controversial transaction.
Addressing journalists shortly after a meeting of the committee to appraise the progress of its work and the next steps to be taken, the chairman of the committee, Hon. Razak Atunwa, said the secretariat will formally write the former president to demand his response and submissions.

He said the committee has conducted extensive investigations into the OPL 245 saga and was already drawing the probe to a close.
However, Atunwa said the committee was of the view that in the interest of thoroughness, natural justice and fair play, it had become imperative that evidence be taken from the former president whose government oversaw the transaction that has led to corruption trials in Italy and Nigeria.

In arriving at its resolve to invite Jonathan to make submissions after taking into account a number of facts, he explained: “Mr. Jonathan was the president at the material time the ministers brokered the deal that led to the allegation of diversion of funds of $1 billion; Mr. Jonathan’s name featured in the proceedings initiated by the Public Prosecutor of Milan in Italy.”

He added: “A UK court judgment in relation to an application to return part of the money being restrained, castigated the Jonathan administration as not having acted in the best interest of Nigeria in relation to the deal.

“The Attorney-General of the Federation at the material time, Mohammed Bello Adoke, has recently instituted proceedings in court, wherein he pleaded that all his actions were as instructed by former President Goodluck Jonathan.”

Atunwa said pursuant to the provisions of the constitution, the committee decided to request that the former president should explain his role in the transaction.

The invitation provides Jonathan with the option to either appear in person and give evidence or send in his written submissions, Atunwa added.

However, a representative of the South-south lawmakers in the House, Hon. Henry Ofongo, told THISDAY that they were awaiting the outcome of the invitation to the former president.

Ofongo, representing the Southern Ijaw Federal Constituency of Bayelsa State, told THISDAY that they considered the invitation as a witch-hunt because no other president had been summoned in such a fashion.

According to him, “Given that all former presidents have had questions to answer at one point or the other and none has ever been invited, the South-south people take serious exception to the invitation extended to the former president (Jonathan), who is from a minority section of the country.”

Following the corruption probe instituted by the public prosecutor in Milan into the involvement of Italy’s Eni, the parent company of Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC), in the $1.1 billion oil block acquisition, the Nigerian government launched a similar probe in the country this year.

Nigerians being prosecuted by the EFCC include Adoke, former Minister of Petroleum Resources and shareholder in Malabu Oil and Gas, Chief Dan Etete, and Malabu Oil and Gas, among others.