Indications were rife at the weekend that the Federal Government has continued to be in judgement debt of several court orders arising from suits filed against it by individuals and groups.
With the recent $8.9 billion (N2.7trillion) arbitration fine awarded against Nigeria by a U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., Sunday Telegraph learnt that such debts, which run into trillions of naira, could wipe off a sizeable chunk of the country’s foreign reserves, derail the 2018 budget and plunge the economy back into recession if the Federal Government honours the obligation.
The debts were said to have been incurred by decisions taken by government officials that were not thoroughly thought out and were challenged in court by aggrieved parties.
Two arbitration awards totaling over $8.9 billion (about N2.7 trillion at CBN’s N306) exchange rate have been made against the country and it does appear that efforts by the Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to dodge payments have failed, leaving it with no option than to honour the judgment obligations.
The fines emanated from the contractual actions of three previous administrations – the Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan’s.
On March 20, 2013, a three-man arbitration panel, constituted under the rules of the Arbitration Act 1996 (England and Wales) and the Nigerian Arbitration and Conciliation Act (CAP A18 LFN 2004), awarded $6.6 billion in favour of Process & Industrial Development Limited (P&ID), an engineering firm registered in the British Virgin Island (BVI).
The dispute between the engineering company and Nigeria went into arbitration after the firm accused the Ministry of Petroleum Resources of breaching a gas supply and processing agreement (GSPA) it signed in 2010 on behalf of the Nigerian government.
The judgment was given after the country failed to show up in court to defend the matter.
The second award of about $21.24 million (N6.5 billion) was in favour of ENRON Nigeria Power Holding (ENPH) Limited, which signed an agreement with the Lagos State Government for the construction of power projects in the state.
The Federal Government guaranteed the agreement and has now been held liable, after Lagos was accused of breaching it.
The award in favour of ENRON, which has been affirmed by both High and Appeal Courts in the United States, has been awaiting settlement for more than a year, since April 26, 2017.
N100million fine for demolished houses in Imo State
Among the said judgements was the one delivered by the ECOWAS Court on July 6, 2018, wherein the court asked the Nigerian Government and the Imo State government to pay N100.09 million as special damages to a family whose property was demolished four years ago in Imo State.
The said property was demolished under a 2009 Imo State Law. The law allowed the government to pull down any property linked to anyone accused of involvement in kidnapping activities in the state.
In suit number ECW/CCJ/APP/13/14, Damian Onwuham and 22 others alleged the violation of their rights to fair hearing and effective investigation; right to presumption of innocence; right to property and right to dignity of the human person as guaranteed in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
They also accused the Imo State Government of failing to carry out an impartial and effective investigation on the owners of the properties.
$75,000 fine over violation of human rights
Similarly, the same regional court had in 2017, awarded the sum $75,000 damages against the Federal Government for the act of violation of fundamental human rights of the son of Retired Wing Commander Danladi Kwasu.
Justice Nwoke Chijoke, who delivered the judgment, held that the right to life of the deceased was violated in contravention of article 4 of the African charter pertaining to right to life.
N15million fine over unlawful detention
Equally, the ECOWAS on October 4, 2016, imposed a N15 million fine against the Federal Government over what it described as unlawful arrest and detention of former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki.
The court also held that the further arrest of Dasuki by government on November 4, after he was granted bail by a court of law, amounts to a mockery of democracy and the rule of law.
Dasuki is facing multiple trials for alleged diversion of $2.1 billion meant for the purchase of arms in the immediate past administration.
N88billion compensation for victims of Civil War
In a similar vein, the ECOWAS court also on October 30, 2017, after an agreement between parties, okayed the payment of about N88 billion by the Federal Government as compensation to victims of Biafra war, which took place about 47 years ago, as compensation for their loses.
A breakdown of the compensation adopted by the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice, as consent judgment for government and the victims, showed that N50billion will go direct to the victims of the war in eleven affected states in South East, South South and part of North Central regions, while the remaining N38billion will be for the evacuation of abandoned bombs and other lethal weapons and construction of schools, courts, churches and mosques among others in the affected areas.
In the consent judgment read by Justice Friday Chijioke Nwoke, the Federal Government is expected to pay the N50billion into the United Bank of Africa (UBA) account with number 1018230076 belonging to Chief Noel Agwuocha Chukwukadibia, the nominated counsel for the war victims and another N38billion to be paid into another UBA account with number 1016296801 belonging to Deminers Concept Nigeria Limited for RSB Holdings Nigeria Ltd and Deminers Concept Nigeria Ltd who are expected to evacuate all the abandoned bombs and other dangerous weapons in the farmlands, schools, churches and mosques of the war victims and to also carry out construction works.
Besides, the Federal Government will, by the consent judgment, establish a National Mine Action Centre in Owerri, Imo State for victims in the South-East region.
Also, the Federal High Court sitting Lagos, in a judgement in a suit filed by Wale Babalakin SAN, against the FG and AMCON, imposed the fine of N3 billion on the defendants.
The case, which was instituted since 2012, was decided in favour of Babalakin as the Court answered all his prayers and ordered AMCON to pay N3billion for damages caused by publishing his name as a chronic debtor in ThisDay Newspaper.
Meanwhile, public commentators, who spoke on the potential impact of the court fines on the country’s economy, were alarmed that apart from its potential threat to the country’s assets abroad, the enforcement of these awards could clean out a significant portion of the country’s foreign reserves.
An investment analyst, Xavier Austin, said such awards could pose damaging consequences to the country’s economy at this time, particularly as the economy is still standing on wobbly legs, barely a year after exiting recession.
Apart from the immediate impact on the country’s economy, Mr. Austin said enforcement of the awards against Nigeria could whittle down the country’s rating and chances of securing lending abroad.
For Lead Director, Centre for Social Justice (CENSOJ), Eze Onyekpere, “If this is true, this will be absolutely be a calamity and disaster for the country, considering that we already have almost N2 trillion deficit in the current budget and debt portfolio that is growing every day.
“The entire 2018 federal budget is equivalent of about $29.9billion. If someone has an arbitral award of about $8.9billion to collect, what will remain for the entire country of almost 200 million people?
“It means they have taken more than one-third of the 2019 budget. The truth is that the Nigerian economy cannot afford to pay that to anybody and still survive. That’s why I say it is a calamity,” Mr. Onyekpere said.
Lawyers condemn FG’s refusal to pay
Reacting to this, an Abuja-based lawyer and rights activist, Levi Chukwuma, noted that failure of the Federal Government to pay Judgement Debts is a bad omen and a disregard to the rule of law.
He said this is partly responsible for why the country continues to wallow in an economic quagmire.
According to him, the government’s penchant for disobeying court orders is scaring off many prospective investors.
Another lawyer, Victor Okereke, while reacting to the issue, stated that parties to whom the judgement favour should take a step further to seek for enforcement of the said fines.
He said, “An enforcement hearing is a useful way to find out about the judgment debtor’s assets and liabilities. This information may assist you when choosing the most effective method of enforcing the judgment debt.”