AKEEM NAFIU and TUNDE OYESINA write that five months after the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) published a report, indicting the judiciary as number two after police on corruption radar, another damning report by the Auditor-General of the Federation has again put the third arm of government on the spotlight. This time, the report accused the judiciary of defrauding the federal government of N4.8 billion in three years
Five months after a report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) ranked the judiciary as number two most corrupt institution after police, the third arm of government is again being indicted in another report which spanned three years.
This time, the newest report released by the Auditor-General of the Federation has said the judiciary allegedly defrauded the federal government of N4.8billion in overpaid items and non-retirement advances.
Alarmed at this revelation, lawyers at the weekend were unanimous that a few judicial officers whose activities had branded the nation’s judiciary as corrupt must be exposed and weeded out of the system.
Apparently miffed by an audit report covering about three years by the Auditor-General of the Federation which revealed how the judiciary allegedly defrauded the federal government of N4.8billion through non-retirement advances, some senior lawyers yesterday asked the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen to immediately launch a probe into the alleged N4.8billion fraud.
In August, NBS said incident of bribery in the judiciary came at a close second after the police with prosecutors and judges flagged as being among the most corrupt. Prevalence of bribery in the judiciary especially among prosecutors, judges and magistrates, according to the report put prosecutor at 33.6 per cent and judges and magistrates at 31.5 per cent.
But last month, an audit report prepared by the Auditor-General accused the judiciary of misappropriating about N4.8billion between 2012 and 2015.
According to the report, the alleged N4.8billion fraud was perpetrated through ghost contracts, non-remittance of taxes, failure of senior court officials to retire advances collected for assignments and refusal to repay vehicle loans, the audit report revealed.
Besides, it accused court officials of overpaying for items bought as many payments made were without receipts while discrepancies discovered in transcript and analysis book contrary to extant financial regulation.
For instance, in 2012, the audit report showed that N985 million (N984, 907, 060) was not accounted for.
In 2013, officials could not explain what they did with N71 million (N70, 959, 696) and in 2014, N1.4 billion (N1,446,767,605) was allegedly misappropriated through unlawful insurance policies, failure to pay taxes and missing documents to back expenditure.
The audit report in 2015 showed almost doubled that of the preceding year as the audit report revealed that officials of federal courts could not account for N2.4 billion (N2,389,583,032).
It indicted senior officials of the federal courts of not retiring advances paid to them as they did not retire N265 million (N265, 127, 309) granted as personal advances to carry out repairs or render services.
The report alleged that some officials got as many as 21 advances despite failing to retire previous advances contrary to the provision of Financial Regulation 1405 which stipulated that “accounting officers are responsible for ensuring the prompt repayment of all advances by installment or otherwise.”
It is also stated in Financial Regulation 1420 that “it is the responsibility of all accounting officers to ensure that all advances granted to officers are fully recovered.”
However, the audit report which revealed the alleged N4.8billion fraud in three years came barely five months after the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) published its report that judiciary was the second most corrupt institution in Nigeria.
With the audit report, corruption in the nation’s judiciary has again reared its ugly head. The audit report of the Auditor General of the Federation published said about N4.8 billion was either allegedly misappropriated or unaccounted for by officials of federal courts within three years.
Although the judiciary had dismissed NBS’ report, it admitted that “there is no denial of the fact that there are a few bad eggs in the judiciary, like in every other arm of government; at the same time, there are many honest and hardworking judicial officers and magistrates making the judiciary and the country proud.”
It went on: “The question that should agitate the minds of the people is the criteria used by the UNODC and the NBS to measure the level of bribe taking in the judiciary to grade it as the second largest receiver of bribe.
“For instance, what is the percentage of judges caught receiving bribe out of a total number of one thousand and fifty-nine (1,059) judges in both the federal and state judiciaries? What is the percentage of magistrates caught taking bribe from an estimated total number of four thousand (4,000) in the country?”
However, barely five months after even as the dust generated by the NBS/UNODC report was yet to settle, another report alleging massive corruption in the judiciary had surfaced.
The report which allegedly emanated from the office of the Auditor-General of the Federation covering a 3-year period between 2012 and 2015 alleged illegal spending of taxpayers’ money by court officials in flagrant abuse of the Fiscal Responsibility Act.
Most of the money was reportedly said to have been siphoned through ghost contracts, non-remittance of taxes, failure of senior court officials to retire advances collected for assignments and refusal to repay vehicle loans.
Court officials were equally said to have overpaid for items bought and in other instances, many payments were made without receipts while wide discrepancies were also discovered in the transcript and analysis book, in contravention of the extant financial regulation.
A breakdown of the alleged fraud showed that in 2012 court officials could not account for N984, 907,060.
N70, 959,696 was said to have been misappropriated in 2013 while in 2014, the sum of N1, 446,767,605 was misappropriated through unlawful insurance policies, failure to pay taxes and missing documents to back expenditure.
However, in 2015, the audit report revealed that officials of federal courts could not account for N2, 389,583,032.
A common scheme said to have been employed by officials to steal funds was the award of ghost projects. Funds were released for projects that were either not executed or partially executed.
An instance was said to be in 2012, when the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal paid N20, 125,416 to five contractors for the supply of food supplements to judges and head of units.
However, an audit of the payment vouchers and distribution list made in respect of the supplements discovered that of 2,199 units of food supplement allegedly received; only 479 were distributed. Officials could not account for the balance of 1,720 units of food supplements valued at N15, 038,950.
The missing supplements were not included in the distribution list. They were also not physically available in the store as at the time of the audit.
The report indicated that on the whole, the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal could not account for N159, 906,776.
Also In 2012, officials of the Federal Capital Territory High Court were said to have charged contractors only half of the withholding tax for the N446,738,199 contract awarded for consultancy services for the construction of the FCT High Court Headquarters Complex, Wuse, Abuja.
“An examination of the relevant payment voucher revealed that instead of the 10 per cent mandatory Withholding Tax (WHT) for companies of N44,673,819 expected to be deducted at source and paid to the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS) as directed by extant Financial circular, only 5 per cent withholding tax meant for individuals was deducted. Even the 5 per cent WHT was not fully deducted. Instead of N33, 336,909.00 only N21, 273,247.00 was deducted leaving a shortfall of N12, 063,662.00. On the whole, the sum of N23, 400,572.00 was under-deducted, thereby causing a loss of revenue to the government in violation of Regulation 234″, the report indicated.
The report also showed how contracts worth millions of naira were awarded in the judicial sector without Value Added Tax (VAT) and Withholding Taxes (WHT) deducted as statutorily required. About N47, 473,270 due taxes in this respect was said to have been unpaid within the period under review.
Apparently shocked that there could be a report indicting the judiciary, major stakeholders in the nation’s justice system including senior lawyers have expressed worry on whether the judiciary can truly live above board.
The lawyers – Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), Wale Adesokan (SAN), Dr Abdul Mahmud, Emeka Okpoko (SAN), Chief Adeolu Okesiji, Monday Ubani, Mr. Ebun Adegboruwa and Mohammed Fawehinmi were unanimous that an immediate probe must commence with a view to ridding the judiciary of bad eggs and bringing culprits to book.
Ozekhome said those behind the N4.8billion fraud should be exposed, investigated, derided, excoriated, prosecuted and punished adequately so as to serve as a lesson to themselves and others that crime was uncharitable even as no one was above the law.
He said: “The era of impunity should be over in the judiciary. Instead of taking a joint blame, any judicial officer that committed an offence should be made to face the music of such offence.
“For the coming year, the report showed that there is more work to be done by the judiciary so as to ensure that the integrity of the arm is sustained.”
Mr. Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria said judicial officers allegedly involved should be prosecuted and made to account for the missing funds.
He said: “Judges are not the accounting officers of the courts. The accounting officers should be made to account for the missing funds and prosecuted if it is established that the funds have been criminally diverted.”
To Adesokan, “the report is not conclusive. When an audit query is received, it is answered. Has the queries been answered? When an audit of an organization is done, questions that require answers were generated. So, as far as I am concerned, the audit report has generated questions in respect of the N4.8 billion which must be answered. Has it been answered? If yes, what were the answers? This is what we should address our minds to before jumping into any conclusion.
“I am not saying that there was no fraud but the audit queries must be answered and it would be on this basis that we would know how to react.”
Okpoko expressed concern over the delay in releasing the audit report.
He said: “Why would the Auditor-General wait till 2017 before releasing the report? Is that how things are done?
“Judiciary is an arm of government and corruption is not a peculiar thing to it. Corruption also happens in the other two arms of government- executive and legislature. I am not only bothered that this is being reported in the judiciary but also concerned that corruption is happening everywhere.
“You cannot single out the judiciary for vilification because it is a product of the Nigeria’s system. The rot is everywhere. Therefore, if there is any alarming situation, it is not only happening in judiciary, it cuts across.
“What is happening is a reflection of the deficiency in the orientation of the people. If corruption is going on in the judiciary, be assured that it is also happening in other arms of government. So, we should be alarmed at the rot everywhere and in every circle not only in the judiciary.”
Mahmud said the report had highlighted one of two things that must be looked into.
He said: “First, the corruption of the Judex, which is deep, goes beyond bribery of judges and magistrates. Here, we have a more serious case of criminal theft of revenues of the state by men and women who send ordinary citizens to prison for stealing things as small pots of soup. Don’t they have conscience?
“Second, that this revelation simply tells us that all facets of our national life, all branches of government, have their hands soiled. But, for the judiciary, all hands must be on deck to show corrupt officers the way out of the system. This will enhance sanity of the system.”
Adegboruwa said although it was the duty of relevant statutory law enforcement agencies to study the report and deal appropriately with those indicted, President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration had failed to do a thorough job by stopping at 2015 in the report coverage.
He said: “There seem to be a deliberate attempt by the present administration to paint the judiciary in bad light and keep it in the bad books of Nigerians. As it is clear from the report, it covers 2012 to 2015, cleverly excluding the period of the life of this administration.
“In a situation whereby the Buhari regime has been asking Nigerians to assess it based on its own performance, one would have loved to see the performance index of the judiciary under this dispensation.
“It is clear to me by now, that the preference for impunity has pitted this administration against the judiciary, which is the most potent organ of government, established to check impunity and the excesses of the executive.
Okesiji noted that although he was yet to see the report, he said if the report was true, the judiciary should sit tight in 2018.
He said: “What this report portrays is that corruption is still in the system. I know the present CJN had commenced some anti-corruption campaign. To my mind, such campaign should not just be a lip-service but should be followed by serious implementation.
“The judiciary which meant to be the last hope of the common man should not be seen as otherwise else there may be a breakdown of the system where everyone will resolve to self-help.
“I think everything still stops at the table of the CJN. My Lord should look into the report critically and take necessary actions against those indicted. The judiciary is known for a self- cleansing mechanism, whereby it punishes anyone within its system that is found guilty of wrong doing.
“The judiciary should start the year 2018 on a new slate.”
Ubani said: “I think it is alarming that the audit report is coming out in 2017. I am wondering what the Auditor General’s office is doing in the area of accounts auditing. This is because this audit report is supposed to be made available every year.
“But what I found out and heard, though not confirmed, is that most times, all these agencies settle the Auditor General’s office to overlook all the lapses, stealing and corruption in the system. It is worrisome that despite the existence of the office of the Auditor-General, corruption still pervades everywhere in this country. I think, that office is not veritable to check incessant cases of corruption that are killing this country.
“Therefore, that an audit report, covering 2012 and 2015 was released in 2017 is an indictment on the Auditor-General. If it is true that it was discovered that this huge sum of money was misappropriated by federal courts in Nigeria between those years and we are just hearing about it, it’s an indictment on the Auditor’s-General office. If I have my way, I will solicit that the man should be prosecuted for aiding corruption.
“Then secondly, if it is actually true that such money was misappropriated, it portends great danger.”
Fawehinmi urged the Auditor-General to publish the accounts from where the reports were procured and individuals involved.
“The judiciary still remains the most underfunded among the three arms of government. The Auditor-General must have procured his reports from a particular set of accounts and I want to urge him to publish those accounts.
“Besides, he should also indicate which courts are involved. This is because as it is now, I know that at the Federal High Court in Lagos, apart from the renovation being done there, the Annex has been under construction for years and it seemed abandoned. So, it is necessary that we know those who took that money without any exception,” he said.
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