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Published On: Mon, Nov 6th, 2017

N388bn Paris Club refund: Why we can’t disclose spending – FG

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By Ese Awhotu with agency report

The federal government has proffered reasons why it cannot disclose how states spent N388.304 billion London Paris Club Loan refunds.
The federal government has told the Federal High Court in Lagos that the record of spending of the London Paris Club Loan refunds by 35 states “is protected by professional privilege, and therefore confidential.”
An online medium, Premium Times reports that the federal government through the Accountant General of the Federation, Ahmed Idris, was responding to the suit number FCH/CS/523/17 filed by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, seeking “an order of mandamus directing and/or compelling the government to publish details of spending of N388.304billion London Paris Club Loan refunds allegedly diverted and mismanaged by 35 states.”
The report notes that, President Muhammadu Buhari recently lamented that despite the refund to states and other bailout funds, many states still owed several months of workers’ salaries and pensioners’ entitlements.
However, 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.”
In its defence, the federal government argued 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, record of the spending of N388.304 billion London Paris Club Loan refunds by the 35 states is exempted from publication, assuming the Federal Government has the information sought by SERAP.”
According to the report, the government also argued that, “The Accountant General does not have custody or possession of the information or record relating to the spending of N388.304 billion 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.”
The government argued that, “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 how they have spent the Paris Club refunds.”
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.”
Responding, SERAP argued that, “Due to non-payment of overdue pensions and salaries of workers by the states, 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.”
According to SERAP, “There must be transparency and accountability in the spending of the refunds, 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 (as amended) provides that the state shall abolish corrupt practices and abuse of power. Citizens must be able to access the performance of government, and this depends on access to record about spending of the refunds by the 35 states”.
“The Accountant General cannot therefore say he is 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.”
Earlier, the motion on notice was set for September 14 for the hearing of argument on why the government should not be directed and compelled to publish details of projects on which the Paris Club loan refunds were spent. But the government has now filed a counter-affidavit and brief of arguments, claiming among others that the matter was confidential.

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