An audit report from the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation (OAuGF) has revealed that Nigeria’s Supreme Court spent more than N12 billion in violation of financial regulations over a five-year period.
The report, released in December 2023, highlighted breaches in financial protocols and recommended that the funds be recovered and remitted to the treasury by the Chief Registrar of the court.
While primarily focusing on the expenditures of federal ministries, departments, and agencies for the 2020 fiscal year, the audit report extends its scrutiny to cover significant payments and transactions from 2017 to 2021 within the Supreme Court.
The period under review coincides with the tenure of Hadizatu Uwani-Mustapha as the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court. However, it is noted that Hajo Sarki-Bello assumed the position of Chief Registrar in 2021, succeeding Uwani-Mustapha, who retired from the court in June 2021.
The findings of the audit report underscore the need for transparency and adherence to financial regulations within government institutions, particularly at the highest levels of the judiciary.
Walter Onnoghen, who was the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) between 2016 and 2019, and his successor Tanko Muhammad, who was CJN between 2019 and 2022, oversaw the Supreme Court during the period of the controversial payments and transactions spotlighted by Nigeria’s auditor-general.
Mr Muhammad abruptly resigned from office, citing health issues in June 2022, amid a raging, unprecedented protest from his colleague justices of the Supreme Court about his handling of the finances and other affairs of the court at the time.
Highlights of the issues raised concerning the transactions totalling N12.335 billion in the 2020 audit report include – payments for contracts without budgetary provisions, diversion of government assets for private use, inflation of contract price, irregular award of contracts and overpayment to contractors, among others.
In one of the key violations of extant regulations, the report revealed that the Supreme Court appropriated and received the sum of N645 million for the procurement of broadcast equipment in 2017.
However, the court failed to produce “relevant documents such as vouchers, vote book, store receipt vouchers, store ledger and invoices” for audit.
Following the silence of the court to provide any explanation for its failure to tender the documents, the audit report attributed the “anomalies” to “weaknesses in the internal control system at the Supreme Court.”
Also, the report said, contrary to constitutional provisions and financial regulations, the court funnelled over N10.223 billion through 124 vouchers to “various beneficiaries” in 2020.
But the paid vouchers and other supporting documents were not presented for audit, the report said.
Citing a case of irregular award of contract and overpayment to a contractor, the report requested the Chief Registrar to justify the sum of N826.75 million to the National Assembly.
In addition, it asked the Supreme Court’s chief registrar, who is the accounting officer of the court to recover the N826.75 million and remit it to the national coffers, as failure to do so would attract statutory sanctions in the Financial Regulations (2009).
Narrating the circumstances around the issue of overpayment to a contractor, the report revealed that a contract was awarded for the construction of an access road to justices’ quarters (Yellow Houses) in Abuja in April 2021, the twilight of Ms Uwani-Mustapha’s exit from the Supreme Court.
The contract was awarded at the cost of N990 million (N990,494,207.80 in total). The level of work done was valued at 50 per cent, which should have amounted to N495 million (N495,247,103.90).
But “the contractor was paid N827 million (N827,075,713.04 in total) being 83.5 per cent of the contract sum resulting in an overpayment of N331,815,559.61,” the report said, adding that the court offered no explanation for the violation.
In another instance, the court awarded contracts totalling N371.5 million (N371,541,636 in total) for supplies, works and services in 2017 without budgetary provisions.
However, payments amounting to N112 million (N112,117,106.37) were made in 2018, 2019 and 2020 “with no evidence of appropriation.”
The report also uncovered the sale of four landed properties belonging to the court in Lagos.
The plots of land located at 72 Alexander Avenue, 2 Club Road, 20 Cameron Road and 15 Ikoyi Crescent, all in Abuja, were “disposed of without following due process.”
It added that “evidence of the disposal such as authorisation, report from board of survey, engagement of auctioneers, advertisement, proceeds from disposal, among others were not produced for audit.”
In a case of illegal possession of government property, the report said the Supreme Court paid over N3 billion for 45 vehicles between the 2017 and 2021 fiscal years.
Giving details of the vehicle purchase, the report disclosed that 18 of the 45 vehicles costing over N515 million were attached to seven justices of the Supreme Court for official use.
But after the justices retired from the court, the official cars attached to them were not returned for inspection, a scenario the report described as “diversion of government assets for private use.”
In the myriad of violations detailed by the audit report, the court management responded to the issue of justices’ retirement with official vehicles attached to them.
“The vehicles are part of Supreme Court justices’ entitlements,” the court responded in the report.
But it kept mum on other egregious violations in the report.
Lawyers and anti-corruption activists have questioned the illegality of the National Judicial Council (NJC) in concealing the judiciary’s budget details from public scrutiny, even sometimes doing so in resistance to Freedom of Information requests.
The extent of NJC’s desperation to keep details of its finances away from the public became clearer in 2022, when the then Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, challenged it to open its budget for the sake of transparency.
Amid the secrecy of the budgets and finances of the judiciary which the NJC helps to sustain, allegations of corruption and mismanagement of funds, sometimes coming from highly placed insiders, hover over the judiciary.
In May 2022, a retiring Justice of the Supreme Court, Ejembi Eko, in his valedictory speech, lamented the corruption in the handling of the finances of the judiciary.
He, therefore, called on anti-graft agencies to probe the financial records of the judiciary.
“Nothing stops the office of the Auditor-General of the Federation, the ICPC and other investigatory agencies from opening the books of the judiciary to expose the corruption in the management of their budgetary resources,” Mr Eko had said.
“That does not compromise the independence of the judiciary. Rather, it promotes accountability.”
It would take just a month after Mr Eko’s invitation to the anti-corruption agencies to probe the finances of the judiciary for internal rumblings about corruption and suspicions of financial mismanagement within the Supreme Court to implode.
In June 2022, in an unprecedented protest letter to then CJN, Tanko Muhammad, 14 Justices of the Supreme Court demanded “to know what has become of our training funds,” and asked rhetorically, “Have they been diverted, or is it a plain denial?”
Later that year in September, one of the justices who authored the protest letter, Abdu Aboki, took advantage of his valedictory speech while retiring from the Supreme Court bench, to press for financial transparency and accountability in the judiciary.
Under the part of his valedictory speech which he sub-titled, ‘My valedictory messages to the nation and judiciary in particular,’ Mr Aboki called on “those in charge of administering the funds allocated to the judiciary” in Nigeria “to be prudent, transparent and accountable.”
In a more direct and critical tone, another Justice of the Supreme Court, Dattijo Muhammad, while retiring as the second most senior justice of the court in October 2023, alleged widespread corruption in the Nigerian Supreme Court and down the hierarchy of the judiciary.
Mr Muhammad was one of the 14 Supreme Court justices who authored the protest letter sent to then CJN, Tanko Muhammad, in June 2022.
But as of the time of Dattijo Muhammad’s retirement in October last year, Olukayode Ariwoola, who led the pack of the 14 protesting justices more than a year earlier, had taken over from Tanko Muhammad as the CJN.
Turning on the handlers of the funds allocated to the judiciary in his valedictory speech last October, Dattijo Muhammad said despite the “phenomenal” increase in the judiciary’s budgets over the years, there had been no commensurate improvement in the welfare of judges.
He similarly called for a probe of the judiciary’s handling of its funds.
He said, “unrelenting searchlight need to be beamed to unravel how the sums are expended.”
With the Supreme Court’s silence over the infractions highlighted in the latest audit report, Nigeria’s auditor-general’s office requested the chief registrar to account, recover and remit the funds into the federation account.
It specifically asked the chief registrar to show proof of compliance with the recommendations to the Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly.
But this is not the first time the office of the Auditor-General of the Federation has indicted ministries, departments and agencies of government over serious violations of financial regulations.
But the recommendations of the audit reports are never implemented by the National Assembly, or taken up by Nigeria’s law enforcement agencies, a development that has emboldened public institutions to perpetrate grand corruption in the form of diversion of public funds.