Three years after the commencement of trial, the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja has ordered the outgoing Muhammadu Buhari administration to “account for the spending of $460 million Chinese loan to fund the failed Abuja Closed -Circuit Television (CCTV) project.”
The court also ordered the government to “publish the total amount of money paid to Chinese and local companies and contractors and specific details of the names of the companies and contractors and status of the implementation of the project.”
Justice Emeka Nwite made the order in a judgement delivered Monday, 15 May, in a Freedom of Information (FoI) suit filed by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).
The suit followed SERAP’s FoI request dated October 25, 2019 to Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning Zainab Ahmed.
The body had expressed “concern that Nigerians are being made to pay for the Chinese loans for failed and abandoned projects, and for which they have not benefited in any way, shape or form.”
The suit was filed on behalf of SERAP by the trio of Kolawole Oluwadare, Opeyemi Owolabi and Ms Atinuke Adejuyigbe.
“Transparency in the spending of Chinese loans is good for everyone, as this would help to increase the effectiveness, legitimacy, and contribution of the loans to the development of public goods and services, and the general public interests.
“The information being requested does not come within the purview of the types of information exempted from disclosure under the Act. The Respondent has no legally justifiable reason for refusing to provide SERAP with the information requested.
“Democracy cannot flourish if governments operate in secrecy. The citizens are entitled to know how the commonwealth is being utilised, managed and administered in a democratic setting,” the suit had read.
Loan, failed contract
The CCTV contract was awarded to a Chinese firm in 2010 by the Goodluck Jonathan administration after then Minister of Finance Olusegun Aganga led a delegation to sign a Memorandum of Understanding in Beijing, China.
The project was to be funded from a $600 million financing portfolio secured as a soft credit loan.
While the project has failed to materialise, insecurity, which the CCTV project was meant to address, had worsened over the years.
In the midst of that, Nigeria continues to service the loan while the Buhari government that inherited the liability refused to provide any information on the project.
“We are servicing the loan, but on the project, we will have to ask the FCT Authority because the project was deployed in the FCTA. I have no information on the status of the CCTV,” Ahmed said while fielding questions from lawmakers during a budget defence hearing at the House of Representatives in October 2019.
She added: “The conditions of the loans that we take from China always will be that a Chinese company will provide infrastructural services. These are loans of 3 per cent (interest rate).”
And following the minister’s refusal to provide information on the project status during the legislative hearing, SERAP sent a letter dated 25 October 2019 requesting detailed information about the project.
The letter was ignored, prompting the organisation to file its suit marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/1447/2019 in 2019 to seek an order of the court compelling the minister to release the information requested.
In its defence, the minister claimed that SERAP’s letter dated 25 September 2019 was not brought to her attention and that all efforts to trace the letter were futile.
SERAP provided evidence of the delivery of its letter through Universal Parcel Services.
The minister also maintained that she knew nothing about the contract, its award and its execution, adding that the role of her office was limited to the signing of the loan agreement on 20 December 2010 under the broad project of the government’s security communication system.
She said the project was executed by the Ministry of Police Affairs, which, according to her, was responsible for negotiating and awarding the contracts for the implementation of the project.
They claimed ignorance of information concerning the contract on the construction of the CCB headquarters.
The Minister of Police Affairs was joined as the second respondent but refused to file any response or send a lawyer to court.
In his judgement, Justice Nwite agreed with SERAP that “there is a reasonable cause of action against the government. Accounting for the spending of the $460 million Chinese loan is in the public’s interest. It will be inimical for the court to refuse SERAP’s application for judicial review of the government’s action.”
“The Minister of Finance is in charge of the finance of the country and cannot by any stretch of the imagination be oblivious of the amount of money paid to the contractors for the Abuja CCTV contract and the money meant for the construction of the headquarters of the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB),” the court added.
…Code of Conduct Bureau
The judgement, therefore, ordered the government “to provide the details clarifying whether the sum of N1.5 billion paid for the failed contract meant to construct the headquarters of the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) was part of another loan obtained from China.
“SERAP’s core objectives are to promote human rights, transparency and accountability and anti-corruption in Nigeria.
“I am of the humble view that there is a reasonable cause of action against the government [through the Minister of Finance], and I so hold that SERAP has made out a case to be entitled to the reliefs sought.
“The law is well settled that where a document or letter is sent by post, it is the law that same is taken or presumed to have been delivered.
“Following this principle of law and relying on exhibit OS2, SERAP’s Freedom of Information request sent to Ms Ahmed is deemed to have been delivered. Therefore, the averment by the government [through her] that they were not served with the letter is hereby discountenance. I so hold.”
The court held that the government’s refusal to release the details of the contract to SERAP was a breach of its right to access under Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution and the FOI Act.
It also ordered the government to provide SERAP with the information on the total amount of money paid to contractors, with specific details of names of companies and local contractors involved, from the $460 million loan obtained in 2010 from China by the Federal Government of Nigeria to fund the failed Abuja CCTV contract.
Specifically, the court ordered the government to provide the details of the local companies and Chinese contractors that received funds from the $460 million loan to finance the Abuja CCTV contract and details of the project’s implementation status.
It also ordered the government to provide the details clarifying whether the sum of N1.5 billion Naira mobilisation fee reportedly paid to the contractors for the construction of the Headquarters of the Code of Conduct Bureau in Abuja was part of another loan from China. This is the judgement of the court.
In its reaction, SERAP, in a statement Sunday through its deputy director, Kolawole Oluwadare, hailed the judge “for his courage and wisdom,” describing the verdict as “a victory for justice, the rule of law, transparency and accountability.”
The organisation said President Buhari, who has about eight days left in office, has the responsibility “to immediately comply with the court’s orders.”
It urged President Buhari and his Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, “to immediately obey the court orders.”
“The judgment shows the way forward in the fight against corruption and impunity of perpetrators. We will do everything within the law to ensure full compliance by President Buhari with this ground-breaking judgment on Chinese loans.
“We call on President Buhari to use the judgment as the basis for publishing details of spending of all Chinese loans and other loans obtained by his government since May 2015.”
Additional reports from Premium Times