THE Federal High Court in Abuja ruled on Tuesday that information on the amount Nigeria expended on President Muhammadu Buhari’s treatment in London, the United Kingdom, last year, could not be released under the Freedom of Information Act without the President’s consent.
Delivering judgment in the suit filed by a civil society group, Justice John Tsoho held that the information sought related to personal information of an elected person, the President, which fell under the exemptions in section 14(1)(b) of the FoI Act, 2011.
The President was away in London receiving treatment for an undisclosed ailment for 103 days in 2017.
Alleging that the President’s overseas medical expenses were paid from the Nigeria’s treasury, the civil society group, Advocacy for Societal Rights Advancement and Development Initiative, had, on the strength of the FoI Act, 2011, written a letter dated October 19, 2017 to the Central Bank of Nigeria and its governor requesting information on government’s spending on the President’s medical trip.
The group had also specifically requested information on what it cost the country to keep the presidential aircraft and crew for 103 days at the Stansted Airport in the United Kingdom while President Buhari’s medical treatment lasted.
When the CBN failed to yield to its demands, the group filed a suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/1142/2017 before the Federal High Court in Abuja, praying for an order compelling the apex bank to release the information sought.
But delivering judgment in the suit on Tuesday, Justice Tsoho struck out the suit on two grounds, one of which was that the information sought was “personal information” that could not be released without the consent of the person it related to.
The judge also held that the CBN and its Governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, could not be held liable for not disclosing the information, having transferred the plaintiff’s October 19, 2017 request to the Office of the Chief of Staff to the President.
The judge held that the plaintiff ought to have followed up on its request at the Office of the Chief of Staff, but refused to take advantage of it, thereby depriving itself of a categorical answer from “the public institution to which the request was transferred.”
The judge ruled, “By virtue of section 14(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, such information ‘shall be disclosed’ if the individual to whom it relates consents to the disclosure or if the information is publicly available.
“In this instant case, however, there is no evidence of the President having consented to the disclosure of the personal information relating to his health and the information is certainly not publicly available which was why the applicant sought it.
“I therefore hold that the information sought by the applicant from the 1st and 2nd respondents (the CBN and Emefiele) is exempted by virtue of section 14(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Act.
“But more importantly, the 1st and 2nd respondents never pleaded exemption nor refused the application of the applicant.
“The 1st and 2nd respondents absolved themselves of that responsibility as statutorily permitted. It is the applicant that deprived itself of the categorical response from the public institution to which its request was transferred.
“In essence, therefore, the applicant’s application for review against the action of the 1st and 2nd respondents is misconceived and misguided; it is therefore bound to fail.
“By necessary implication, the applicant’s claim to damages is defeated. This is because the applicant has not proved to this court that it suffered any physical injury or pecuniary loss to warrant being compensated.
“I therefore hold that the applicant is not entitled to damages in this case. On the whole, the applicant’s suit is not sustained and it is struck out.”
Earlier, the judge struck out the name of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, as the third defendant on the grounds that “no reasonable cause of action” was disclosed against him.
He had however dismissed the preliminary objection filed by the CBN and its governor who had argued that the case was incompetent.
The plaintiff, ASRADI, had in its suit filed on its behalf by its lawyer, Chukwuwike Okafor, stated that the CBN and its governor refused to honour its request contained in a letter of October 19, 2017 asking for information on the amount released for Buhari’s medical treatment in London and the amount paid on behalf of the Nigerian government as parking fees for keeping the presidential aircraft and crew in the UK while the President’s treatment lasted.