By Tobi Soniyi
The federal government has told the Federal High Court in Lagos that the record of spending of N388.304 billion London and Paris Club Loan refunds by 35 states is “protected by professional privilege and therefore confidential”.
The federal government has released the Paris and London Club refunds to the states in two tranches to, among other obligations, pay overdue pensioners’ entitlements and workers’ salaries
However, in its response to a suit filed by civil society organisation, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), seeking an order of mandamus directing and/or compelling the government to publish details of spending on the first tranche of N388.304 billion allegedly diverted and mismanaged by 35 states of the federation, the federal government through the Accountant General of the Federation Alhaji Ahmed Idris, said it could not make the disclosure.
A statement issued by the Deputy Director of SERAP, Mr. Timothy Adewale, said the federal government’s response was filed last Friday, followed the ruling in June by Justice Muslim Hassan that the CSO could proceed with the legal challenge to unravel how 35 states spent the London and Paris Club loan refunds.
Justice Hassan had while granting leave, stressed that it was important for the authorities “to come and tell us how they spent our money”.
But in its defence the federal government argued: “The relationship between the accountant general and the 35 states is professional and confidential.
“It is a fiduciary one akin to that between a bank and its customer and allied professionals. On that score, record of the spending of N388.304 billion London and Paris Club Loan refunds by the 35 states is exempted from publication, assuming the federal government has the information sought by SERAP.”
The federal government further averred that the accountant general does not have custody or possession of the information or records relating to the spending of N388.304 billion London and Paris Club Loan refunds by 35 states, as the Accountant general did not release the funds to the states.
The accountant general also argued that assuming the federal government had the information sought, it was not obliged to comply with the request.
“States have exclusive control over their revenue and expenditure and the Accountant General of the Federation cannot demand obligatorily from any tier of government, including the 35 states’ information on how they have spent the Paris Club refunds,” the federal government informed the court/
The federal government was however of the view that SERAP had the right to the information sought, but not to request that the information be passed to the Attorney General of the Federation.
“In any case, the accountant general has no record of the spending of N388.304 billion London and Paris Club Loan refunds by 35 states and therefore cannot be compelled to release the record, as the court does not act in vain.
“An order of mandamus should not be issued because it will be unnecessary and not effective and will not serve the purpose.”
But SERAP’s counsel had argued that due to non-payment of overdue pensions and salaries of workers by the states, Nigerian citizens have continued to languish in untold hardship and poverty.
“Therefore, there is compelling public interest in knowing how exactly the Paris Club loan refunds were spent by the 35 states. There is also no professional relationship or privilege between the accountant general and the 35 states as to warrant any duty of confidentiality on the part of the accountant general,” the CSO, through is counsel, told the court.
According to SERAP, “There must be transparency and accountability in the spending of the refund, in line with the principle of Open Government Partnership (OGP) to which Nigeria is a signatory.
“In addition, Section 15(5) of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 provides that the state shall abolish corrupt practices and abuse of power.
“Citizens must be able to assess the performance of government, and this depends on access to records about spending of the refunds by the 35 states.”
SERAP also argued that assuming without conceding that the accountant general does not have record of spending of N388.304 billion London and Paris Club Loan refunds by the 35 states, “nothing stops the accountant general from working with other agencies/ministries to release information on the spending, especially being the Chief Accounting Officer of the Federation and constitutionally charged with the overall responsibility of keeping and managing all the receipts and payments of the federal government”.
On this basis, SERAP held that the accountant general could not therefore say that he was unaware of the spending of the refunds by the states.
“Otherwise, this would mean that the accountant general is lacking in his duty as Chief Accounting Officer of the Federation,” the CSO argued.
The motion on notice had been set for Wednesday, September 14 2017, for the hearing of argument on why the federal government should not be directed and compelled to publish details of projects on which the London and Paris Club loan refunds were spent.
However, the federal government had filed a counter-affidavit and brief of arguments, claiming among others that the matter was confidential.
The federal government released N388.304 billion of the N522.74 billion to 35 states as refunds of over-deductions on London and Paris Club loans.
The states have since demanded that the balance of the London and Paris Club refunds be released before the year runs out.