Judgment debts – The Nation

  • FG has a duty to thoroughly investigate these with a view to ascertaining their genuineness or otherwise

The report by a national daily that a United States District Court in Washington D.C. confirmed an arbitration award against Nigeria, in the sum of $8.9 billion (N2.7 trillion) at the conservative exchange rate of N306 per dollar, deserves a thorough investigation by the Federal Government. While the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami, SAN, had dismissed similar reports in the past, we are alarmed that such reports have refused to go away.

We are also not unmindful that the AGF has been tardy in several respects, and we hope his dismissal of the staggering judgment debts, is not one such hasty reaction. After all, the report listed several other awards made by local courts and the ECOWAS court, wherein the courts awarded huge judgment debts against the Federal Government. Some of the listed awards are clearly self-inflicted, as in the case of El-Zakzaky, whom the courts have held his continued detention as unlawful. Some others are based on terms of settlement between parties, like the case filed on behalf of the victims of the Biafra War.

While government may be on top of the situation with respect to the local debts, it must show clear concern about the alleged N2.7trn, awarded by a US District Court against it. As captured in the report, that sum represents about one-third of our national budget, and if the judgment exists and it is executed, substantial part of our foreign reserve will be wiped off, while the 2018 budget will be derailed and the country back to recession. The report listed the alleged two breaches of contract which resulted in the arbitration, and under which the huge arbitral awards were made.

The first dispute, as alleged, is between the Federal Government and an engineering company which claimed a breach of a gas supply and processing agreement, signed in 2010, by the Ministry of Petroleum Resources on behalf of the Nigerian government. The second arose from a claim by ENRON Nigeria Power Holding, allegedly over a contract signed between it and the Lagos State government. According to the report, the Federal Government was not represented at the arbitration proceeding.

While a party to a contract can dubiously lay claim for huge damages, before a court or an arbitral tribunal; the defendant must however present a robust defence against any such claim. Indeed, by way of a counter-claim, the hunter could become the hunted, and instead of gaining damages or awards, the claimant could be compelled to pay damages for frivolous applications. But the basic requirement in a suit or arbitration proceedings is that a party accused of a wrongdoing must defend the accusation, and where he/she fails, the court or tribunal treats the claim as proven.

Could that be the fate of Nigeria with respect to the troubling report that it now owes N2.7 trillion as damages, against two companies outside the country? We urge the Presidency to order a probe, and not merely rely on the off-hand dismissal of the debt by the AGF. After all, the report claimed that trillions of judgment debts arose from the lackadaisical attitudes of relevant government officials who are either incompetent or careless, in negotiating the transactions.

While Nigerians believe the federal executive is responsible enough not to plunge the country into another round of economic stress, we urge the National Assembly to show interest in the report, and take steps to affirm the state of affairs, through a public hearing. The office of the AGF can also lay the ghost to rest by conducting the necessary search in the United States, and making the result public.

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