More than two years after it became law, the Freedom of Information Act is yet to be fully tested
| By Vincent Nzemeke | Aug. 19, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
BEFORE it came into being, many journalists and Nigerians thought the Freedom of Information Act, FOI, was the panacea to the challenges of gathering information in the country. Journalists, civil society groups and other stakeholders pressured the National Assembly into passing the bill and thereafter called on the president to assent the bill in order to make it an Act. But two years after the FOI Act was passed, Nigerians still have difficulties accessing information especially when it concerns government.
The Act which was signed into Law by President Goodluck Jonathan on May 29, 2011 was aimed at empowering Nigerians to demand for vital information that will enable them to actively participate in public affairs, using the information on hand to unravel bad practices while protecting the common good. But despite the celebrations that greeted its signing into law, government and private businesses in the country are still shrouded in secrecy. Bureaucratic bottlenecks and other factors such as the official secret acts used by government officials make it difficult for journalists and other members of the society to access information when they need it, thereby undermining the significance of the FOI Act.
At a workshop held in Lagos recently by the Nigerian Guild of Editors to mark the 2013 World Press Freedom Day, various speakers lamented the fact that obtaining information is a still a difficult task in Nigeria despite the existence of the FOI Act. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, one of the leading voices in the National Assembly, during debates for the FOI Act, said journalists have failed to utilise the Act in the course of doing their jobs.
Dabiri-Erewa described the FOI Act as a gift from government to Nigerians. She also recalled the difficulties and blackmail faced during the debate that culminated in the emergence of the bill and President Jonathan’s eventual assent. The lawmaker also emphasised that journalists must know that the FOI Act is not about them, rather about the society. “It is not political, it has nothing to do with democrats or republicans and journalists don’t need the FOI Act to do their work. It has to do with those involved in research, the civil society, it is not about being vindictive, it is about seeking information on concrete information, it is not about seeking trivial issues, FOI is about how to change our society. It is not the responsibility of the National Assembly to implement the Act; it is the responsibility of the people,” she said.
Similar to Dabiri-Erewa’s views, Pat Utomi told participants that the FOI Act has been under-utilised because the various groups of people who should be using it are not doing so. He said for the law to truly be effective, there has to be an active engagement of different groups particularly, the civil society.
Using the NNPC as an example of how government and its agencies hinder the process of activating the FOI Act to achieve its objectives, Utomi said the NNPC would never respond positively to request for information on its activities. “But it’s different in other countries. The oil industry in other countries is making positive contributions to development.” He said that non-compliance to the FOI Act by organizations like the NNPC “affect our national spirit and the way we live.”
He also emphasised the role of technology in making the FOI Act to work in Nigeria. “There should be technology to help access information as well as institutional arrangement to facilitate access to information.” He charged journalists, civil society groups and, indeed, all stakeholders to create the enabling platform to make the Act work.
Speakers at the 2013 Wole Soyinka Media Lecture which held in May, also expressed disappointment over the under-utilisation of the FOI Act. The speakers, who comprised academia, journalists and civil society groups, agreed that the FOI Act is yet to be fully utilised to accomplish good governance and transparency, pointing out that Act has not been used in controversial issues like the oil subsidy scam, budget allocations to ministries and agencies as well as certain operations of the government where it is most needed.
The discussants, however, blamed the under-utilisation of the Act on prolonged military rule, which had tamed Nigerians from fighting against maladministration as well as the political orientation handed down by the colonial administration, which deals with Official Secrets Act that have become the practice of the present government.
Biodun Jeyifo, a professor from Havard University, United States, said that despite the fact that corruption in Nigeria appears too monumental for the FOI Act, the provisions of the Act should compel the government to be accountable to the people who are being exploited. He added that because of the monumental corruption and unaccountability on the part of the government, people may have lost faith that the FOI Act can address the situation. Jeyifo added that every modern society needed a vibrant press, pointing out that Nigeria got it independence following the activities of a vibrant press.
Chidi Odinkalu, a human rights activist, highlighted the need for a moral rebirth especially in the economic lifestyle which many Nigerians are living and on wrong values and adopting wrong economic goals. He decried the attitude of Nigerians towards a transparent society, saying: “We are happy to tell stories but absolutely unwilling to commit anything to paper, to create a record or a memory that constitutes evidence because we are afraid that somebody somewhere is going to hold us accountable for the rumours we are about to spread.
“And because we love to trade in rumour and unsubstantiated tales and lack the discipline and lack the rigour and the discipline to commit ourselves to paper, we prefer to hold other people accountable for responsibilities we abdicated. We also have a fundamentally informal society. You cannot find records. Even where those records exist you cannot find them because somebody is committed to hiding them,” he stated.
It is not as if the FOI Act has never been used by anyone in Nigeria, the only problem appears to be that of under-utilization. Sonala Olumhense, a columnist with the Guardian newspaper, recently published an article titled: How to use the FOI as a weapon. In the article, he listed some instances where the Act had been triggered by journalists seeking information. For instance, on June 8, 2011, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project SERAP, challenged the governments of Enugu, Kaduna, Oyo and Rivers States to release information and documents on the spending of their States on the Universal Basic Education Commission since 2005.
On July 18, a court ordered the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, to substantiate its allegation that the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights CDHR, compromised and received the sum of N52 million from suspects being investigated by the commission to campaign against it. The decision of the court followed a suit by Olasupo Ojo, president of CDHR, urging the court under the FOI to compel the EFCC to make the requested information available to him. The substantive matter was to be heard by the court two weeks later.
On July 28, 2011, the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy, ACMIL, wrote to the chairman of the ICPC to request for confirmation of a 2006 petition filed by a former chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, Audu Ogbeh, that “a top government official” received a N60 billion gratification in Nigeria’s debt relief deal with the Paris Club. ACMIL requested access to the petition, if it existed, as well as any accompanying documentation. It also asked: What has the ICPC done since the receipt of the petition? Did the ICPC meet with Mr. Ogbeh during its investigation of the said petition?
In the same month, ACMIL filed an FOI request with the CCB for access to the 2007 assets declaration of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan; at the end of his tenure on May 28, 2011; and upon assumption of office on May 29, 2011. In October, ACMIL sued the CCB for failing to comply.
On September 26, SERAP asked the Accountant General of the Federation to disclose “details of the spending of recovered stolen public assets since the return of civil rule in 1999.” In a response dated October 11, the Accountant General, Mr. Jonah Ogunniyi Otunla, said he was looking into the request. That pledge not being honoured, SERAP filed a suit in December against the federal government.
On October 19, SERAP asked the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency PPPRA for up-to-date information on government spending in 2011 relating to fuel ‘subsidy.’ On November 3, following PPPRA’s failure to honour the request, SERAP went to court seeking an order compelling the defendants to disclose the information. Joined in the action were the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Muhammed Adoke, and the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Deziani Alison-Madueke.