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$8b MTN Fine: HEDA Sues CBN Over FOI Request

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The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) will face legal fireworks over failure to honour requests for the apex bank to supply details of its agreement with communication giant, MTN, relating to payment of $8billion fine imposed over claims of corporate misconduct.

The CBN was last given seven days, as provided under the FoI Act, 2011 to produce the details of the deal or face legal actions.

The Human and Environmental Rights Agenda, (HEDA Resource Centre) had in January this year requested for details of the resolution between Central Bank of Nigeria and MTN Nigeria on the improper repatriation of fund allegations against MTN.

HEDA had invoked the Freedom of Information Act 2011 demanding for the release of details of the CBN agreement with MTN amidst wide speculations that the deal was dotted with questionable clauses.

HEDA in a letter signed by its Chairman, Mr Olanrewaju Suraju in January this year made the request in line with the Freedom of Information Act 2011 which in Section 4 states that within 7 days of the receipt of a Freedom of Information request, the desired information requested for be supplied.

“We are interested in the details of the agreement. It is in the interest of Nigerians to know. The CBN is owned by the Nigerian people.

MTN performs functions that impact on millions of Nigerians. The agreement between the CBN and MTN should not be a secret document. It has to be made public. This is the HEDA position”, Suraju said in the statement issued on Friday.

The Nigerian authorities had asked mobile telecommunications firm, MTN, to pay $8.1 billion. The CBN had accused the South African giant of illegally moving the funds in contravention of foreign exchange regulations.

“The CBN asked the company to return the $8.1 billion “to the coffers of the CBN.” MTN had denied any wrongdoings after which it went to court challenging the fine.

This led to an out of court settlement with the MTN paying about $53million which the group said had ended the four month old row.

In its series of follow-up letters, HEDA asked the CBN to come up with details of the agreement with the communication giant.

In a string of terse acknowledgements, the CBN consistently hinged its refusal to reply to  a lingering court case at the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, (FHC).

In its latest letter, the CBN had stated that ‘In line with the provision of paragraph 12.3.1 of the revised Guidelines on the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 refer to suit FHC/CS/1475/2018 at the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court where MTN had earlier instituted a legal action and the national dailies at the National Library to obtain the information are the public”.

The statement was signed by the Director of Corporate Secretariat, Mr C.O Olonta.

HEDA fired back in another letter in April rejecting the CBN position.

HEDA stated:  “Your correspondence of the 15th January, 2019, only detailed the acknowledgement of our letter and not the requested information. The law is clear on its provisions that the information requested be provided within 7 days and this was not complied with.”

In another letter written by HEDA, the group insisted further:

“Consequent upon the above, we are yet to receive the promised information 2 months down the line.

“We therefore humbly urge you to oblige us with the details of our request in our letter dated the 7th January, 2019 in line with the provisions of Section 4 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011″,  the letter was signed by HEDA’s lawyer, Miss Rebecca David.

HEDA had noted further that the “first and foremost, the section being referred to in Paragraph 12.3.1, Section 26 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 states that “the Act does not apply to- (a)  published material or material available for purchase by the public; (b)  library or museum material made or acquired and preserved solely for public reference or exhibition purposes; or (c) material placed in the National Library, National Museum or non- public section of the National Archives of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on behalf of any person or organization other than a government or public institution.”

It stated “We most humbly state that Paragraph 12.3.1 does not deal with the information being requested for, as it relates to the definition of Section 26 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011”.

HEDA stated further: “Also, it is worthy of note that Chapter 12, particularly, Paragraph 12.3 of the Guidelines which states that.

“There is only one question to be considered when dealing with Section 26. Is the material listed under this section? If it is, then the material is exempt from the Act.

“If the information is not listed in the section, then the public institution should deal with the application in accordance with the Act”.

The group concluded “It is on the above basis that we are making this request, as we believe that the records and details of the said resolution made available will aid the investigations of our Organisation.

“Thus, this application is brought pursuant to the provisions of Section 2, 3, and 4 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011.”

With the outright refusal of the Apex Bank to release the requested information to the civil society group, an action, in accordance with the F0I provisions, was filed by the organisation against the bank before the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court.

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