A Federal High Court sitting in Lagos has ordered Former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government to provide information on how the allegedly missing N30 trillion which represents some accruable income to the Federal Government during the last four years of the Administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, was spent.
The judgment was delivered last week by Hon Justice Ibrahim Buba following a Freedom of Information suit filed by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).
SERAP’s suit came after a former Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Charles Soludo, in one of his random articles, claimed that at least N30 trillion “has either been stolen or unaccounted for, or grossly mismanaged over the last few years under the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s watch.”
“Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government have no legally justifiable reason for refusing to provide SERAP with the information requested for. The Court has gone through the application and agrees that SERAP’s application has merits and the argument is not opposed. SERAP’s application is granted as prayed,” Justice Buba said.
He held that Okonjo-Iweala and the FG “should have either supplied the information requested by SERAP or communicate her denial within 7 days of receipt of the letter from SERAP if she considers that the request should be denied”.
The judge said: “Preliminary objection by Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government is misconceived, the court upholds the arguments by SERAP for the reasons stated herein.”
“SERAP commenced this proceeding by way of Originating Summons dated 23 February 2015 and filed 25 February 2015. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government filed a Memorandum of Conditional Appearance, a Notice of Preliminary Objection and written address, all undated but filed on 29 September 2015.”
“The preliminary objection is on the following grounds: that SERAP did not obtain the mandatory leave of the Federal High Court to issue and serve the Originating Summons and other processes outside Lagos State; that there is no mandatory endorsement on the Originating Summons that it is to be served on Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government in Abuja and outside jurisdiction of this Court.”
“The only issue for determination is whether Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government should be heard on their preliminary objection considering the totality of the circumstances of this case.”
“He who wants equity must do equity. This suit was filed on 25 February 2015 and from the record of the court was served on Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government on 3rd July, 2015. It took about 3 months for them to come up with technical response to the simple request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2011.”
“Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government have therefore been caught by Order 29 of the Rules of this Court, which requires that an application shall be made within 21 days after service on the Defendants of the originating summons.”
“If Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government want to raise issues about service, the law does not permit of demurer. The proper route for them should have been to join issues with the originating summons and also file their objections. In the present case by SERAP, the Notice of Preliminary Objection by Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government is incurably defective for not conforming to order 29 of the Rules of this Court.”
“The process adopted by Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government in this suit is to come by way of demurer. This process has long been abolished by the Rules of this Court. By Order 16 Rule 1 of the Rules of this Court, no demurer shall be allowed and rule 2 provides that a party shall be entitled to pursue by his pleadings any point of law and any point of law so raised shall be disposed by the judge who tries the cause at or after trial.”
“The implication of this clear provision of the rule of court is that Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government must join issues with SERAP on the originating summons no matter how flimsy, instead of looking for a technical way out. This technical way out has failed.”
“The concept of demurer as presently raised by Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government is no longer known to law especially the Federal High Court of Nigeria. It is the position of the law that the application of Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government should fail. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government, having failed to file Counter Affidavit to SERAP’s suit, are deemed to have forfeited that option of filing anything again.”
“Having shown why the Application by Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government should be dismissed for failing to join issues with SERAP, the originating process must be moved on the merits.”
“On the issue of failure to obtain pre-requisite consent/leave of Court to issue and serve the originating summons on Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government outside of jurisdiction, Order 6 Rule 31 states that ‘in this Order out of jurisdiction means out of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.’”
“It is also necessary to refer to sections 97 and 99 of the Sheriff and Civil Process Act. The provisions apply to the validity of the service and have nothing to do with the validity of the originating process. On the strength of this clear provision, which Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government did not deny and incapable of denying at this point, their objection is dismissed as the validity of the process is not affected in any way.”
“The main issue in this Court’s view bothers on the legal binding obligation imposed on Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act access to a record of information requested for. In the case at hand, SERAP through its letter of 2 February 2015, Exhibit A, sought the information relating to the spending of the alleged missing N30 trillion, which represents some accruable income to the Federal Government during the last 4 years of the Administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. Exhibit A has been received by them, and Exhibit B is the acknowledgement of receipt of Exhibit A.”
“However Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and the Federal Government have since the receipt of the request letter failed, refused and or neglected to provide SERAP with the information it requested for within their custody,” Justice Buba said.