Activists go to court in Nigeria over fears COVID-19 money may have been embezzled

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Nigeria’s Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has filed a lawsuit asking the Federal High Court in Abuja to order the Federal Government and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to “publicly identify and name Nigerians who have so far benefited from any cash payments, cash transfers, food distribution and other reliefs and palliatives during the lockdown in Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states because of COVID-19.”

In the suit filed last week, SERAP is seeking: “an order for leave to apply for judicial review and an order of mandamus to compel Ms Sadia Umar-Farouk, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disasters Management and Social Development, and Mr Godwin Emefiele, CBN governor, to publish spending details of public funds and private sector donations to provide socio-economic benefits to the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”

SERAP is also seeking “an order to direct and compel Ms Umar-Farouk and Mr Emefiele to publish up-to-date list of donations and names of those who have made payments as per their publicly announced donations; spending details of the N500 billion COVID-19 intervention fund, and the names of beneficiaries, and whether such beneficiaries include people living with disabilities (PWDs).”

The suit followed SERAP’s Freedom of Information (FoI) requests dated 4 April, 2020, expressing concern that: “millions of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people have not benefited from the announced palliatives, donations, reported cash payments, cash transfers and other reliefs.”

SERAP is also seeking: “a declaration that the failure of the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disasters Management and Social Development, and the CBN governor to provide SERAP with the requested information on spending details of public money and private donations and to publish names of beneficiaries amount to a fundamental violation of the FoI Act and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”

The suit filed on behalf of SERAP by its counsel, Kolawole Oluwadare and Joke Fekumo, read in part: “By a combined reading of the FoI Act and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Ms Umar-Farouk and Mr Emefiele ought to be directed and compelled to make public details of those that have benefited from COVID-19 funds and donations.”

“Any perception that the reliefs, funds and donations are not reaching intended beneficiaries would undermine public trust and the integrity of the entire processes and modes of distribution of reliefs/benefits to these Nigerians.”

“Both the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disasters Management and Social Development, and the CBN governor have a legal duty to ensure that information on the details of those who have so far benefited from COVID-19 funds and donations is released to SERAP upon requests, and that the information is widely published. Yet, both have completely ignored SERAP’s requests.”

“SERAP and indeed the general public have a legitimate interest in ascertaining and scrutinizing the veracity of the claims of how the COVID-19 funds and donations have been spent, and to know that the intended beneficiaries actually received any benefits.”

“Ms Umar-Farouk and Mr Emefiele also ought to be directed and compelled to make public details of any plan to provide social and economic reliefs to the over 80 million of the country’s poorest and the most vulnerable people, beyond the 11 million targeted by the Federal Government across 35 states.”

“Democracy cannot flourish in the absence of citizens’ access to information, no matter how much open discussion and debate is allowed. This suit would ensure transparency and accountability in the spending of COVID-19 money and donations.”

“SERAP submits that the principle of disclosure of information in overriding public interest has been internationally reaffirmed, including in the Joint Declaration adopted by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression.”

“The Joint Declaration states that the right of access to information should be subject to a narrow, carefully tailored system of exceptions. Exceptions should apply only where there is a risk of substantial harm to the protected interest and where that harm is greater than the overriding public interest in having access to the information.”

No date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit.

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