The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has written to the National Assembly to seek approval for payment of judgment debts owed by the Federal Government to the tune of $566.7 million, £98.5m and N226.2 billion.
The debt when converted to naira using the official dollar rate of N460.78 and N574.3 for pounds amounted to N544bn.
The request is coming five days before the end of the Buhari regime.
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In a letter addressed to the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan; and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, Buhari said the government would make the payment through the issuance of promissory notes.
Lawan read out the outgoing President’s letter to senators at the plenary on Wednesday.
The letter read in part: “The distinguished Senate President may wish to be informed that the Federal Executive Council, at its meeting of March 29, 2023, approved the liquidations of top priority judgment debts and general judgment debts owed by ministries, departments and agencies through the issuance of promissory notes.
“The judgment debts are to be settled through the issuance of promissory notes, which will then be redeemed over time through provisions in the budgets of the Federal Government of Nigeria. Thus, debt securities have been issued for the settlement of the judgment debts and approval of the National Assembly is required for this purpose.
“In view of the foregoing, I wish to request the Senate to kindly consider and approve through its resolution the settlement of the top priority judgement debts and general judgment debts incurred by Federal MDAs in the sum of USD566,754,584.31, £98,526,012.00 and N226,281,801,881.64 through the issuance of promissory notes.
“The Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice; and the Honourable Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning shall provide any information that may be required by the Senate for the consideration of this request.”
But Emeka Obegolu, SAN, expressed the view that the government’s obedience to orders of the court should go beyond those that involved monetary judgments.
He said obedience to the court should extend to other judgments such as those bordering on the fundamental human rights of citizens.
“Monetary judgments are not the only judgments; we urge the government to look into their books and obey orders of courts, whether monetary judgments or injunctive orders without any attempt to subject it to the whims and caprices of the executive.”
Besides, he said outstanding judgments which have not been set aside or which the appeal process had been exhausted ought to be obeyed immediately “unless the judgment debtor is unable to pay for reasons which have to be disclosed.”
Speaking further, Obegolu noted, “If the government has woken up to their obligation to respect the court as an institution of government, we should thank God that as lawyers we are witnessing obedience to orders of the court.”
Weighing in, Bode Olanikpekun, SAN said the orders of the court ought to be obeyed once they were certified to exist.
He advised the government to develop a strategy to handle such liabilities.
He further averred that government is a continuum and if liabilities are left unsettled now, they would have to be dealt with in future.
“Government needs to develop a strategy or plan as to how those liabilities will be met because the liabilities will remain if not set aside or upturned will have to be settled.”
On his part, Kunle Adegoke SAN said, the decision, even though it is executed at the last minute, is welcomed.
“The issue may be why at the last minute? That may not be too important so far these are legitimate judgments of the court,’’ he pointed out.
Besides, he maintained that if there is any suspicion of underhand or shady practices concerning the development, the anti-corruption agencies would handle such an issue.
“The fundamental is that the judgments are real. If the judgments are real, they must be the product of a process of adjudication recognised by our law and to that extent, they must be enforced.
“There may be suspicions as to why at this last minute, and it is sensible to pose that question, but the timing may not be too material if it is shown that these are judgments by our courts. The fundamental is that these judgments are enforceable judgments,’’ he submitted.
On his part, the Chairman of the Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership, Debo Adeniran, urged the incoming administration to set up a technical committee to investigate the veracity of the huge judgment debts, while also suggesting that officials under whose watch the debts were incurred should pay part of it.
The anti-graft activist stated, “What I think the President should do is to actually refer it to the incoming administration, and the incoming administration should set up a fact-finding technical committee to actually verify the veracity of the claims that such huge debts exist because I don’t trust the Minister of Justice/the Attorney-General of the Federation.
‘’Some of the judgment debts could have been contrived. They could have been working to an answer in collaboration with the defence team of the government so that at the end of the day, they can make payments from the coffers of the government and share the loot.”
In the same vein, the Deputy Director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, Kolawole Oluwadare, insisted it was important for the government to ascertain why it had accrued so much debt as well as the context of the judgments.
“We have to understand the context of the judgments themselves, the issues that led to the litigation, the facts and the legal issues before one can make any conclusions as to whether there was neglect or not.
’Be that as it may, obeying the judgment of the court is a primary responsibility of every citizen, government or country. Those judgment debts, are the orders of the court, but it is still within the purview of the government of the country to ascertain why there have been so many judgment debts accrued by various public offices,’’ he concluded.
A professor of Development Economics at Babcock University, Prof Adegbemi Onakoya, justified the president’s action, stressing that Buhari is still in charge till May 29, adding that he had the right to do whatever he needed to do.
However, he noted that the incoming president may review his actions.
Regarding the promissory notes for the debts, Onakoya argued that this meant the government was liable to pay off such debts.
According to him, any self-respecting government must keep its word and honour its debts.
However, he wondered if the debts were extra-budgetary payments.
Professor of Economics at the University of Ibadan, Prof Adeola Adenikinju, emphasized that until its last days, the Buhari regime is expected to seek approval from the National Assembly before dispensing funds for any legitimate debts.