By Sonala Olumhense
It is two years since Nigeria’s Freedom of Information (FOI) law, a wonderful tool that empowers citizens to seek and receive vital public information, took effect. Here are some of the occasions in which it has been set into motion:
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 itself 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 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, Diezani Alison-Madueke.
On January 17, 2012, Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA), on behalf of SERAP, Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Partnership for Justice, and Citizens Assistance Centre, asked the Minister of Information Minister for relevant documents supporting the controversial subsidy of petroleum products.
On February 19, following an earlier request, SERAP and WARDC sued the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mr. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, for refusing to release requested information and documents concerning the bank’s authorization of over N1.26 trillion as “fuel subsidy” in 2011. Joined in the suit was the AGF, Mr. Adoke.
On June 13, following an ADC plane crash earlier that month, civil rights lawyer Bamidele Aturu requested of the Minister for Aviation information on 36 air accidents, air incidents and/or crash reports in Nigeria between November 20, 1969 and March 14, 2012.
On June 27, SERAP filed a request asking Sam Saba, the chairman of the Code of Conduct Bureau, to release documents on President Jonathan’s assets declaration. That request being ignored, SERAP filed a suit on July 12 seeking an order compelling the CCB to release the documents.
On June 23, human rights advocate Femi Falana wrote to the Minister of Aviation to disclose the name of the VIP who prevented his Arik flight into Abuja on June 19 from landing as scheduled, to enable him sue the individual for endangering the lives of the over 150 passengers on board.
On June 25, the Federal High Court in Abuja ordered the Clerk of the National Assembly to release to the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP), within 14 days, details of the salaries, emoluments and allowances collected by national legislators between 2007 and 2011.
Justice B.B. Aliyu asserted that the FOI Act permitted non-governmental organizations to demand such information, stressing that the information was of public interest because it concerned public funds. He overruled the objections of National Assembly lawyers, saying that every citizen is entitled to public information under the FOI.
The ruling followed a September 2011 suit filed by LEDAP in which it claimed that the legislators were being paid beyond the rate approved by law. LEDAP had previously sent an FOI request to the clerk for the information, but that request was ignored.
On June 26, following President Jonathan’s famous “don’t give a damn” television appearance, SERAP sent an FOI request to him asking for his “assets declaration details between May 2007 and May 2012; it asked him to publish the information widely on a dedicated website.
The group reminded Mr. Jonathan his statement was “a clear violation of the Nigerian Constitution and the UN Convention against Corruption to which Nigeria is a state party, and entirely inconsistent with your oft-repeated promises to prevent and combat high-level official corruption in the country.”
On August 13, SERAP sent an FOI request to Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, the Minister for Health, asking for information on Nigeria’s spending on maternal health care delivery in the country in the previous five years, and that its recent study suggested progress may have been compromised by high level official corruption.
What is happening to these cases? Why are officials of the federal government, including the same president who signed the Act, routinely breaching the law? Why are more citizens and organisations not taking advantage of the FOI? If the press truly understands that its role is to reveal, not conceal, why is it not waving the FOI flag at every public door?
The FOI law is the Nigerian citizen’s most powerful cudgel yet. Dear compatriot: You can scratch with it, lift with it, read with it, ask with it, listen with it, defend with it, attack with it, poke with it, lunge with it, strike with it, dig with it, plant with it, harvest with it, rip with it, puncture with it, yanga with it, lead with it, live with it. I wouldn’t leave home without it.