The Federal High Court in Lagos has ordered former Delta State Governor Ifeanyi Okowa to account for over N200bn in public funds that were received by the state government during his tenure. The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) had filed a suit demanding disclosure of spending details of the funds, but the government failed to comply. The court ordered the Delta State government to disclose details of budgetary allocations and spending between 2015 and 2019. SERAP’s inquiry highlights concerns over transparency and accountability in government, particularly in relation to the quality of education and welfare of children.
The Federal High Court sitting in Lagos has ordered the former Delta State Governor, Ifeanyi Okowa to account for over N200bn public funds which the State government received under his watch.
The state government, under former Governor Okowa is said to have received funds worth over N200bn from the Universal Basic Education Commission and allocations from the Federation Accounts, according to the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP who had filed a suit before the high court justice.
SERAP, a non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting transparency and accountability in government amongst other values, had in April, 2019 reportedly written to the Delta state government, demanding full disclosure of spending details of the said funds.
This was in line with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
But the government failed to comply with the demands of SERAP and failed to respond to their plea within 7 days as stipulated by the law. Therefore, SERAP, in a suit numbered FHC/L/CS/803/2019, prayed the court to intervene on the matter involving the Delta State government, Universal Basic Education Commission [UBEC] and the Delta State Universal Basic Education Board as respondents.
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Delivering judgement, Honourable Justice Daniel Osiagor on July, 17, ordered the Delta State Governor Sheriff Oborevwori to “disclose details of budgetary allocations and actual spending by the Okowa government between 2015 and 2019″
Justice Osiagor held that “SERAP has cognizable legal right to inquire and know the way and manner public institutions manage public funds. I must say, that every citizen has a duty to demand transparency and accountability in the governance of public institutions.”
In lieu of that, Justice Osiagor ordered the Delta State government to “disclose how the Okowa government spent over N7.28 billion received from UBEC between 2015 and 2017, and N213 billion received from the Federation Accounts Allocation Committee in 2018, at an average of N17.8 billion monthly.”
SERAP’s inquiry has attracted concerns while drawing attention to the recent case of a seven-year-old girl, Success Adegor, who was sent home because her parents could not pay the illegal school fee/levy of N900 and the poor-quality of her Okotie-Eboh Primary School 1. Miss Success had, in a viral video in March 2019 said, “No be say I no go pay, dem go flog, flog, flog, dem go tire.”
In a copy of his judgement made available to newsmen, Justice Osiagor wondered, “Why should a request for details of disbursement and spending of public funds between 2015-2019 by Delta State be a cause of litigation for four years? Public officials are fast developing a state of anomie and cold feet when confronted with request for audit report of public duties and budgets.”
He ordered the Delta State government to “disclose how the Okowa government spent over N7.28 billion received from UBEC between 2015 and 2017, and N213 billion received from the Federation Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC) in 2018, at an average of N17.8 billion monthly.”
To that effect, the honourable Justice is demanding from the government, “details of the primary schools that have benefited from the projects carried out on access to free and quality primary education in Delta State, and information on indirect costs, including uniforms, exercise books, and transport costs to students and their parents” as he ordered the government to “disclose specific details of the steps Delta State Government is taking to improve the overall welfare of children in primary schools across Delta State, including details of government’s fee-free programme, if any, across primary schools in Delta State.”
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Similarly, Justice Osiagor dismissed all the objections raised by the Delta State government, Universal Basic Education Commission [UBEC] and the Delta State Universal Basic Education Board and upheld SERAP’s arguments.
Justice Osiagor’s judgment, dated 17 July, 2023, read in part: “SERAP’s application cures so much disinformation in the public space. The request by SERAP falls within the categories of records accessible by the public.”
However, public institutions are becoming increasingly hysterical upon any request served on them for information bordering on accountability.”
“The arguments of the Delta State government and the Delta State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) that the Freedom of Information Act applies to only Federal Government officials cannot be sustained as public institutions are defined in Section 31 of the Interpretation section to include State institutions.”
“Besides, any State Freedom of Information Law that runs contrary to the Federal legislation to the extent of the inconsistency shall be void. See Section 4(5) of the Constitution of Nigeria, 1999 [as amended]. National Assembly’s legislative powers is for the peace, order and good government of Nigeria.”
“The Delta state government’s reliance on the Delta State Freedom of Information Law, 2019 is inappropriate in this case. The retrospective application of the Delta State piece of legislation is hollow as it cannot divest the vested rights of SERAP.”
“The Freedom of Information Act was the only piece of legislation applying to Delta prior to the filing of this suit by SERAP by the doctrine of covering the field. I am not unmindful of the concurrent powers of legislation between the Federal and State legislatures. There is therefore no feature depriving this court of jurisdiction.”
“Besides, the Delta State procedural step is inapplicable as it was not in existence when this cause of action arose. I therefore hold that SERAP has effectively triggered the application of the Freedom of Information Act by their letters of April, 2019 placing demands for information from the Delta State government.”
“The Freedom of Information Act is a liberalized piece of legislation that did not place a burden on an Applicant but rather to the contrary places a burden on the public institution/official that the request is forwarded to. See Section 1 of the Act which provides: ‘an applicant under this Act needs not demonstrate any specific interest.”
“The piece of legislation therefore clothed SERAP with the firm ground to apply and demand the Delta State government to within 7 days respond to the request. For all I have been postulating herein, I find merit in the application by SERAP and grant all the reliefs as sought.”
The Freedom of Information Act should be commendable in this Democratic dispensation as its implementation becomes a derivative action underpinning Section 39 of the Constitution of Nigeria, 1999 [as amended] of the freedom of expression and holding opinions.