The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has sued the Federal Government over failure to release the names of suspected looters and the circumstances under which recovered stolen public funds were recovered.
The suit filed last Friday at the Federal High Court Ikoyi followed a Freedom of Information, FOI, request to the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Muhammed asking him to use his good offices to “provide information about the names of high ranking public officials from whom public funds were recovered and the circumstances under which funds were recovered, as well as the exact amount of funds recovered from each public official.”
The originating summons with suit number FHC/CS/964/2016 was brought pursuant to section 4(a) of the Freedom of Information Act, and signed by SERAP executive director Adetokunbo Mumuni.
Joined as defendants in the suit are the Minister of Information Alhaji Lai Muhammed and the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture.
The Plaintiff is arguing that, “By a letter with reference No MJ/FOI/GEN/014/1/54 and dated 21 June 2016, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami, SAN confirmed that the FOI request by SERAP was brought to the attention of the Defendants for handling. However, since the receipt of the FOI request and the confirmation by Mr Malami that the request was brought to the attention of the Defendants for handling, and up till the filing of this suit, the Defendants have so far failed, refused and/or neglected to provide SERAP with the details of the information requested.”
SERAP is asking the court to determine the question “Whether by virtue of the provision of section 4(a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2011, the Defendants are under an obligation to provide the Plaintiff with the information requested for.”
The suit reads in part: “By virtue of Section 1(1) of the FOI Act 2011, the Plaintiff is entitled as of right to request for or gain access to information which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution. Under the FOI, when a person makes a request for information from a public official, institution or agency, the public official, institution or agency to whom the application is under a binding legal obligation to provide the Plaintiff/Applicant with the information requested for, except as otherwise provided by the Act, within 7 days after the application is received.”
“The information requested by SERAP does not come within the purview of the types of information exempted from disclosure by the provisions of the FOI Act. The information requested for, apart from not being exempted from disclosure under the FOI Act, bothers on an issue of National interest, public concern, social justice, good governance, transparency and accountability.”
“The Defendants will not suffer any injury or prejudice if the information is released to the members of the public. It is in the interest of justice that the information be released. Unless the reliefs sought herein are granted, the Defendants will continue to be in breach of the Freedom of Information Act, and other statutory responsibilities.”
“While the suspects generally are entitled to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction, the FOI Act implicitly prohibits blanket non-disclosure of names of high-ranking public officials from whom some of the funds were recovered.”
“It is further submitted 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.”
Earlier in its FOI request, the Plaintiff said that “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 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.”
SERAP is seeking the following reliefs:
A declaration that by virtue of the provisions of Section 4 (a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2011, the Defendants are under a binding legal obligation to provide the Plaintiff with up to date information relating to the following: To widely disseminate 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 stolen public funds were returned.
No date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit.
It would be recalled that the Ministry of Information recently published details of the recoveries, which showed that the Nigerian government successfully retrieved total cash amount N78.3 billion; $185 million, £3. 5 million and €11, 250 between May 29, 2015 and May 25, 2016.
Also released were recoveries under interim forfeiture, which were a combination of cash and assets, during the same period: N126.56 billion, $9 billion, £2.48 million and €303,399.17.
Anticipated repatriation from foreign countries totaled: $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 are-farmlands, plots of land, uncompleted buildings, completed buildings, vehicles and maritime vessels.