The Federal Government has told the Federal High Court in Lagos that the record of spending of N388.304billion London Paris Club Loan refunds by 35 states released to the states by Federal Government “is protected by professional privilege, and therefore confidential.”
The Federal Government said this through the Accountant General of the Federation Alhaji Ahmed Idris while responding to the suit number FCH/CS/523/17 filed by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).
The Federal Government’s response filed last Friday followed the ruling in June by Justice Muslim Hassan that SERAP could proceed with the legal challenge to unravel how exactly 35 states spent 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.
However, in its defence, the Federal Government is now arguing that “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, the record of the spending of N388.304billion London 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 is also arguing that “The Accountant General does not have custody or possession of the information or record relating to the spending of N388.304billion London Paris Club Loan refunds by 35 states which the government gave them. The Accountant General did not release the funds to the states. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Accountant General argues that assuming we have the information sought, the government is not obliged to comply with the request.”
According to the government, “SERAP has 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 N388.304billion London 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.”
SERAP’s in a statement signed by its Deputy Director, Timothy Adewale on Sunday, November 5, however, challenged the Account- General’s position saying that the Accountant General owes no duty of confidence and that the disclosure of information to Nigerian citizens doesn’t constitute a breach of confidence.
The statement which read in parts said, “The Accountant General owes no duty of confidence to the 35 states but rather to the entire citizens of Nigeria. Disclosure will not constitute an actionable breach of confidence if there is a public interest in disclosure which outweighs the public interest in keeping the information confidential.”
“The FOI Act does not say that the information requested can only be issued to the person making the request nor does it say that SERAP cannot request information for the use of another person, especially when that person is the Attorney General of the Federation who is constitutionally obliged by law to act in the public interest, including in matters relating to the spending of the Paris Club Loan refunds by the 35 states.”
“The intention of the drafters of the FOI Act as shown in its preamble and its sections is to allow access to information, enhance and promote transparency, accountability, openness, justice and development. Therefore, all public officials including the Accountant General ought to strive to ensure the effective implementation of the FOI Act.”
It would also be recalled that the Federal Government released N388.304billion of the N522.74 billion to 35 states as refunds of over-deductions on London-Paris Club loans. The amounts received by the states are as follows: Akwa Ibom N14.5bn; Bayelsa N14.5bn; Delta N14.5bn; Kaduna N14.3bn; Katsina N14,5bn; Lagos N14.5bn; Rivers N14.5bn; Borno N13,654138,849.49; Imo 13bn; Jigawa 13.2bn; and Niger N13.4bn.
Others are: Bauchi N12.7bn and Benue N12.7bn, Anambra N11.3bn; Cross River N11.3bn8; Edo N11.3bn; Kebbi N11bn; Kogi N11.2bn; Osun N11.7bn; Sokoto N11.9bn; Abia N10.6bn; Ogun N10.6bn; Plateau N10.4bn; Yobe N10bn; and Zamfara N10bn. Other states are: Adamawa N4.8bn; Ebonyi N3.3bn; Ekiti N8.8bn; Enugu N9.9bn; Gombe N8.3bn; Kwara N5.4bn; Nasarawa N8.4bn; Ondo N6.5bn; Oyo N7.2bn and Taraba N4.2bn.