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A total of N10.4 billion was released for judgement debt without due process by the Ministry of Justice in 2017, an audit report by the Auditor General of the Federation has revealed.

Judgment debt refers to a monetary award issued by a court to a party in a suit. In this case, they refer to monetary awards against the Nigerian government.

The audit report seen by PREMIUM TIMES, also revealed how the sum of N32.5 million was spent by the ministry’s officials on foreign travels without approval.

The report was signed by the Auditor-General for the Federation, Anthony Ayine. It is the latest by Mr Ayine’s office.

The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, had in October said that while N10 billion was paid in 2017, Nigeria is still owing over N150 billion in judgment debt.

Mr Malami did not speak on whether due process was followed in the payment of the debt but admitted that some of them were fraudulently procured.

When contacted the indictments in the audit report, the AGF’s spokesperson, Umar Gwandu, said: “We will study the report and respond to the issues raised accordingly.”

According to the auditor-general’s report, the committee in charge of managing the disbursement of judgment debt was dissolved in 2013.

The report stated that as at the time the N10.4 billion was disbursed by the ministry in 2017, the committee was yet to be reconstituted.

“Examination of the budget of the Federal Ministry of Justice revealed that the sum of N460.95m was appropriated for the payment of judgment debts for 2016 and N10bn appropriated for 2017, totalling N10.46bn.

“Further examination revealed that the committee saddled with the responsibility of managing the fund was dissolved after the 2013 financial year and is yet to be reconstituted after the 2016 and 2017 appropriations.

“However, the ministry has been disbursing this sum without a committee in place. Lack of control could lead to the loss of public funds.”

He, therefore, recommended that the Solicitor-General of the Federation and permanent secretary in the Ministry of Justice should immediately constitute the committee as required by law. He also ordered that the N32.5 million spent by the justice ministry’s officials on foreign travels without approval should be recovered from those who spent it.

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“Incurring expenditures without necessary approvals could lead to loss of public funds. The Solicitor-General of the Federation and the permanent secretary is requested to recover the sum of N32.35m and pay to Consolidated Revenue Fund and evidence of recovery forwarded for my confirmation,” Mr Ayine said in the report.

“However, the ministry has been disbursing this sum without a committee in place. Lack of control could lead to the loss of public funds.”

Writing further on the N32,35 million, the auditor-general said that he found out the money was paid to officers between March and September 2017 as estacodes and return air tickets without approvals.

Ministry of Justice Nigeria’s Ministry of Justice, Abuja, Nigeria

The inability of the ministry to attach evidence of approval from the Head of Service (in the case of the civil servants) and approvals from the President (in case of a minister) was a violation of the provision of the circular HCSF/CSO/HRM/POL.1420/1 dated January 22, 2015, and HCS/PS/SPSO/244/1/26 of July 25 2016, the report stated.

Mr Ayine stated that the expenditure incurred could not be accepted as a legitimate use of public funds.

More Dubious Expenditure

According to the report, N71.19 million was spent between March and August 2017, allegedly for the payment of 68 vouchers, which were not produced for audit in violation of section 85(2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) and Financial Regulation 108.

“Therefore, I cannot certify the payments a legitimate charge against public funds. There may be a risk of misappropriation and misapplication of funds,” Mr Ayine added.

Mr Ayine’s office has annually produced similar audit reports which are hardly implemented by the federal government as his office lacks the powers to punish erring officials, ministries and agencies of government. A bill that would have given his office such powers was not assented to by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Activists react

Reacting to the audit report, a lawyer, Adam Olori-age, described the revelations as a wrongful act.

“If the report has said the ministry has not followed due process, that is a committee to approve the disbursement of the judgement debt, then it is wrong for them to have paid it, one can now hammer on the fact that for the minister of justice not to have constituted that committee knowing fully well of the implication of individuals and organisation securing judgement against the government, it is very wrong of the ministry, a negligence on their part for them not to have constituted that committee immediately.

“If there is no committee since 2013 and President Goodluck Jonathan spent about two years before leaving after the dissolution of that committee without constituting another one, it was very wrong for Jonathan government and they continued in error by not constituting that committee immediately because those people getting judgment against government can embarrass coherent if their judgment is not paid.

“This is not a kind of committee that should not be in place at every point in time, in fact, the committee ought to be meeting, latest they must be meeting quarterly to look at that judgment and see which one they are ready to pay or concede.

For activist Olarewaju Suraj, “politicians and civil servants have consistently used the judgment debt fund and allocations for self settlements without accountability.

“Sadly, many victims of abuses and beneficiaries of favourable judgment in local courts are rarely paid by the government officials and the agencies. It is also found that cases are deliberately instigated and sabotaged by ministries and agencies to create a debt for government, as it is the P&ID case.

“The latest audit report has provided a valid basis and opportunity for interrogation of the payments and verification of the beneficiaries and associated cases,” he said.

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