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Curious judgment debts too? 

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The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mallam Abubakar Malami (SAN) while appearing before the Senate committee on judiciary, human rights and legal matters the other day disclosed that the Federal Government owed over 150 billion naira in judgment debts. According to the Minister, the figure had arisen because of inadequate budgetary provisions for same until 2017 when only a paltry N10 billion was disbursed for the payment of judgment debt as appropriated. He therefore requested the Senate committee to approve the sum of N30bn to address the recurrent issue, which has caused creditors to mount pressure on the Ministry of Justice. 
 
The Minister’s recommendation are tenable and should be considered by the Senate at any time as not only will this avert the impending peril to the nation’s assets by judgment creditors, but to gain the waning confidence of Nigerians and the international community on the sincerity of the present administration towards the observance of democratic principles and the rule of law. This government’s lackadaisical attitude towards court orders has been a blight on the administration. But perhaps more puzzling on the minds of Nigerians, which requires urgent answers are: what legal actions could have occasioned such an amount in judgment debt? Could some of these awards have been averted? Who are the officers/persons responsible for incurring such debts? What actions (if any) have been taken against such officers/persons where they have been found culpable? And what policies have now been put in place to avert future occurrences? One also cannot help but wonder how much in judgment debts has been accrued since the inception of the current administration, as according to the minister, the N150 billion sum were debts outstanding as at 2015 when the government came into office.  The Minister should clarify what the Buhari government has incurred. It is not enough to just blame the previous administration that handed over since May 2015.  
 
While it is not unusual for court actions to be instituted against the government by parties who feel aggrieved either for a reasonable cause or otherwise. However, a close observation on the incidence of judgment debts against government agencies has shown that most of the actions for which judgments are awarded against the government could well have been averted if due diligence had been taken by the relevant authorities. The Minister, while also speaking at a recent interview, confirmed what had already become an open secret to most Nigerians: that some of these debts were obtained through compromise, fraud and corrupt practices and outright negligence by relevant government authorities. A case in point is the scandalous P&ID gas deal and the ignoble role played by relevant authorities which saw the award of the sum of $9.6 billion against the nation with the attendant international embarrassment, all of which could have been avoided if the necessary actions had been taken at the material time. The noise, which the minister has been making over the time the award was granted and failure to take actions by the authorities in power prior to the inception of the current administration is neither here nor there. Reason is: government is a continuum, and the inaction of the relevant authorities is a poor reflection of the action of the government in like situation. 

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Observers believe that other factors responsible for an increase in judgment debts include the nation’s bureaucratic processes, notably the poor and un-businesslike attitude of public servants to contractual obligations, which often leads to epileptic service delivery and a breakdown of contractual relations. One agent of government that is most notorious for attracting avoidable lawsuits is the police force, often accused of its extrajudicial approach to crime prevention and investigation. This slipshod attitude often triggers actions for enforcement of human rights by aggrieved citizens. Unfortunately and equally worrisome is the fact that the government is more often than not, unrepresented in these matters when they are mentioned in courts, which is almost a guarantee for an award against the state. 
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Besides, government is notorious for taking steps to appeal after judgment sums have been awarded, and all that’s achieved from most of these appeals is an increase of the award sum and the accrued interest during the appeal period.  This is like closing the barn after the horse has escaped. Even where legal representations are made, they are without the expected dexterity and professional competence required in such instances.  
 
Thus the government must do well to address these and other issues leading to the increase in judgment debts. Nigerians are worried about the increase in our foreign debts and so it will be pathetic if about 85% of the national budget for the power sector, for instance, in the year 2020 is expended on liabilities that could have been avoided by the justice ministry. The government should ensure periodical trainings for civil/public servants in efficient service delivery. Meanwhile, our institutions should be strengthened to ensure optimal performance. And where any officers or persons are found culpable, appropriate sanctions should be meted out to deter future iregularities. Whatever course is adopted by the government, it should ensure that all awards duly made by courts of competent jurisdiction are complied with. Attitude of government’s refusal to obey judgment awards reflects poorly on the nation’s reputation and that sends a negative signal to prospective investors who are keenly watching. 

In the main, the nation should also find a way of ensuring that political office holders who prosecute elections petitions after general elections pick their bills as candidates. There is nowhere in most democracies where the state picks the litigation bills of public officers who face judicial actions while in office. The huge litigation bills after general elections at both federal and state levels have become part of Nigeria’s domestic debt data that citizens are not asking questions about. We hope the civil society organisations and indeed the people note this critical debt detail in or money trail. 

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