By Kayode Ketefe
It is precisely four years this month that Nigeria joined the comity of nations with a statutory freedom of information instrument. This was achieved when President Goodluck Jonathan signed the FOI Bill into law on May 28, 2011.
It is a law that bestows on every Nigerian a legal right of access to information, records, and documents held by government bodies and private bodies carrying out public functions. The law applies to all arms of government: the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary as well as to all tiers of government.
The expectation when this law was passed was that that it would boost transparency in the public sector and promote good governance.
However, scores of public interest litigation spawned by bids to enforce this law have shown that those in possession of public information are still unwilling to voluntarily embrace the provisions of the Act. There are many cases one can point to in this regard.
It would be recalled that a High Court in Ibadan, Oyo State, made a landmark pronouncement in a judgement that will continue to be a reference point not only for a FoI Act but for all federal legislation, until overruled, if at all, by a superior court.
In the said judgement delivered by Justice S.A Akinteye, the court expands the scope of applicability of the FoI Act by holding that the Act applies throughout Nigeria irrespective of whether it has been passed by the House of Assembly of any particular state.
The kernel of the court’s pronouncement which has resounded throughout the length and breadth of Nigeria since then, is “it is unnecessary for state governments to adopt FoI Act in their respective states before been applicable there”.
The case had been instituted by an Ibadan-based human rights lawyer, Mr Yomi Ogunlola, after the Oyo State House of Assembly had deliberately withheld vital information he had asked for under the FoI Act.
Ogunlola had written a letter to the Clerk of the Oyo State House of Assembly seeking information relating to the foreign trip of the wives of members of the House of Assembly.
The Clerk of the House however refused to supply the sought information on the grounds that the FoI Act was (and is still) yet to be domesticated by the Oyo State lawmakers and therefore the House could not be compelled to supply such information. Ogunlola then went to court to seek an order compelling the lawmakers to supply the information.
In his judgement, Justice Akinteye said, “I wish to say that there is no section in the 1999 constitution which prescribes that a law enacted by the National Assembly has to be adopted by the state House of Assembly to make the law applicable to the state. FoI Act is not the only law enacted by the National Assembly that covers the whole Federation of Nigeria.”
In another case which a civil society group, the Nigerian Contract Monitoring Coalition, filed a against the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, at a Federal High Court in Abuja, it was contended that PHCN refused to release details of a World Bank funded PHCN contract for the supply and installation of High Voltage Distribution systems in its facilities in Abuja, Lagos, and Ibadan.
After the request was turned down, the coalition applied to the court to compel PHCN to provide it with details of the contract.
In a judgment delivered by Justice Adeniyi Ademola, the court granted the coalition’s application. The PHCN behaved responsibly by immediately releasing the requested information after the judgement.
One may also recall the case filed against the Economic and Financial Commission (EFCC) by the late Lagos lawyer, Mr. Bamidele Aturu, who had sought certain information from the commission concerning allegations it made against the leadership of a non-governmental organisation, Committee for Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) and had been refused.
The late lawyer however successfully got an order of court, made by Justice Binta Murtala Nyako of the Federal High Court in Lagos, which compelled the Commission to make available the information.
From the above, it can be seen that some Nigerians have not been sleeping when it comes to invocation of the Freedom of information Act. The Nigerian court has also been helpful to protect the sacred rationale and principles behind the Act. However not much gain could be said to have been recorded as a lot of people still show apathy concerning the rights guaranteed by the Act.
After four years of having this important law as our ally in the fight against corruption one should have expected that we would by now have numerous scandals that were exposed as a result of this law.
The bottom line is that the FOI Act is still being poorly deployed as a veritable tool against opacity, secrecy, illegality and corruption in Nigerian public life. One way to correct this is for the civil society groups to embark on mission to educate large members of the society on the usefulness and importance of the Act.
Ketefe may be followed on twitter @Ketesco
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