By Ruben Abating.
Accountant-General of the Federation (AGF) Ahmed Idris has told a Federal High Court in Lagos that the Federal Government has no record of spending of N388.304 billion London Paris Club Loan refund by 35 states.
Idris stated this before Justice Muslim Hassan on Friday while responding to the suit filed by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) against the Federal Government.
Justice Hassan had in June ruled that SERAP could proceed with the legal challenge to unravel how the 35 states spent the Paris Club loan refund. The court had also granted leave to the organisation that it was important for the authorities “to come and tell us how they spent our money”.
SERAP is seeking “an order of mandamus directing and/or compelling the government to publish details of spending of N388.304 billion London Paris Club Loan refunds allegedly diverted and mismanaged by 35 states”.
Although the money was to be used by the states to pay overdue pensioners’ entitlements and workers’ salaries, Idris, in his defence, told the court that the spending “is protected by professional privilege, and therefore confidential”.
The AGF said: “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 refund by the 35 states is exempted from publication, assuming the Federal Government has the information sought by SERAP.
“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 refund by 35 states, which the government gave them. The Accountant General did not release the funds to the states.”
He, therefore, urged the court to decline the request of the organisation for an order of mandamus.
But 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.
The organisation contended that there was a compelling public interest in knowing how exactly the Paris Club loan refund were spent by the 35 states.
It noted that there was 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 refund by the 35 states.
“Assuming without conceding that the Accountant General does not have record of spending of N388.304 billion London Paris Club Loan refund by the 35 states, nothing stops the Accountant General from working with other agencies/ministries to release information on the spending, especially being the Chief Accounting Officer of the Federation, and constitutionally charged with the overall responsibility of keeping and managing all the receipts and payments of the Federal Government.
“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.”
The Federal Government released N388.304 billion of the N522.74 billion to 35 states as refund of over-deductions on London-Paris Club loans.