The Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), while defending the Ministry of Justice’s 2020 budgetary allocation before the Senate committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters late last year revealed the ministry is battling with unpaid staggering sum of N150 billion as judgment debts.
According to him, the ministry was compelled to take inventory and explore avenues to Judgment debts that were hydra headed to the ministry, saying, “This has arisen because it was only in 2017 that the sum of N10 billion was disbursed for the payment of judgment debts as appropriated. As it stands, the sum of over N150 billion remains unpaid prompting beneficiaries of this sum to keep mounting pressure on the ministry.”
The Minister’s fears therefore raise a number of issues: First, was there no budgetary allocation for the payment of judgment debts in 2018 and 2019, even when it was obvious that the Federal Government incurred costs in courts in form of damages during the period?
If yes is the answer, it means therefore that judgments of various Courts relating to costs and awards for damages arising from breaches of Fundamental Human Rights cases ought to have been paid in the last two years.
Unfortunately, it implies that damages against the Federal Government contained in judgments are yet to be complied with. The grave implications of these are that it weighs down the efficiency of Courts, burden the Judiciary and erode public confidence.
Secondly, how did the Federal Government incur astonishing sum of N150bn as judgment debts? Circumstances surrounding recent and painful contentious P&ID $9.6bn Dollars foreign judgment debt buttressed this pertinent question. If developments around that case are instructive, the Ministry of Justice should further scrutinize the processes that led to some of the judgment debts.
Thirdly, it is obvious that except judgment debts arising from final judgments are settled promptly, the beneficiaries will continue to pile pressures on the system. It should be so after decades of litigation up to the apex court.
For instance, not long ago, Interstella Communications Limited accused the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Federal Government of disobeying a 2017 judgment of the Supreme Court which ordered that $123,189,570 be paid to it with interest.
But surprisingly, the Federal Government in the 2020 Budget asked the National Assembly for the sum of N30bn to be appropriated annually to the Ministry of Justice to mitigate the challenge posed by judgment debts. Now that the Budget has been passed and assented to by President Muhammadu Buhari inclusive of the requested sum for settling judgment debts, it implies that in the next five years, the challenge will remain unresolved with attendant consequences of friction, rising from accrued interest and litigations.
In summary, we implore the solicitor general of the federation and the office of Attorney general of the federation to be more circumspect in engagement of counsels. Considerations of lawyers’ competence and their loyalty to the country should be uppermost in deciding who represents the country in this time of greed and sell-out.