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Nigeria: Triumphant leap for Freedom Of Information Act

 –  Daily Independent Editorial, November 24, 2013

 A fierce combination of inherited repressive anti-colonial laws, an almost three decades of a succession of virulent military dictatorships, and a rapacious ruling civilian elite have, for 53 years, served Nigeria  with  a tasteless cocktail of unaccountability in every sphere of the polity. It was therefore exhilarating when, after more than 12 years of unrelenting campaigning, the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 was signed into law on May 28, 2011 by President Goodluck Jonathan. It came into force effectively and instantly same day.

 Primarily, the Act which serves as a battering-ram to unlocking Nigeria’s closets of secrecy codifies the right of access to information held by Government and public authorities  and remains a tool for promotion of accountability in governance and the right to freedom of expression. Though only three years old in Nigeria as in Brazil, its vibrant spirit and eternal humanistic import is drawn from the very first session of the United Nations General Assembly. It affirmed in its Resolution 59(1) of December 14, 1946 that: “Freedom of information is fundamental human rights and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated. Freedom of information implies the right to gather, transmit and publish news anywhere and everywhere without fetters. As such, it is an essential factor in any serious effort to promote the peace and progress of the world.”

 Regrettably, the FOI in its first three years seemed to have been the hapless victim of the three decades of repression and impunity bequeathed to the polity by military rule. Public officers kept in  public office by tax-payers’ monies to do public good  are seeking to create, sustain and defend a predators’ paradise of unaccountability  by their sabotage of citizens’ request under the extant provisions of the Act. Their recourse to an unprintable plethora of subterfuge, such as denial of receipt of information requests, effusive but wholly irrelevant excuse pleadings, both unknown to law and the Civil Service Code of Conduct, including undue legal pyrotechnics and outright refusal to abide by determinative and definitive court rulings for the release of sought-after information, is threatening to undermine the effective implementation of this hard-won, noble, public interest legislation.

 As such, the band-wagon benefits envisaged by its enactment, which includes the facilitation of public participation in public affairs and democratic governmental process, enhancing the accountability of government, providing a powerful aid in the fight against corruption as well as being a key livelihood and development issue, are fast becoming receding hopes. And especially for Nigeria, the still customary iron curtain of secrecy has not only made nonsense, the fight against corruption but also ennobled daring and multiple new entrants into the dark, odious zone. The putrefaction percolates at the base of the polity as massive erosion of social capital. Government and its activities are held in utter disdain, refused cooperation no matter how well-meaning, and even deliberately sabotaged since its activities are equally seen to be deliberately shrouded in secrecy.

It is in this wise that kudos must be given to an Oyo  State High Court presided over by Justice S. A. Akinteye which ruled last week that the application of the FOI  is for the entire federation, and does not need  to be domesticated by any state before taking effect in all the states of the federation.

 Akinteye’s judgment fittingly accords with the jurisprudence espoused and affirmed by the Supreme Court of Nigeria when it held in a similar matter between the Attorney-General of Ondo State versus Attorney-General of the Federation and others (2002) NWLR (Part 772) Pg 222 over whether the National Assembly can make laws for the peace, order and good governance of Nigeria, that the National Assembly has the legislative competence  to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Nigeria. The Supreme Court had further held that such law so made is applicable to all states of Nigeria without infringing on the autonomy of the states, if such legislation is designed to correct a malaise plaguing the country. Even so, the 1999 Constitution, which is the basic law of the nation, reposes that power in the National Assembly.

 It is salutary to note that Akinteye’s judgment was given in favour of a suit filed by an Ibadan-based human rights lawyer who had written to the Oyo State House of Assembly seeking to know the source of the funding of the legislators’ wives’ trip to London having regard to the fact that the women were neither public servants nor civil servants. Instead, the Clerk of the House had written him arguing that he could not release the information being sought for because the FOI Act is not presently applicable in Oyo State, claiming that the FOI Act has not been domesticated by the state. This had prompted the lawyer to head to court to seek interpretation. The FOI, it must be noted, is inherently a purely domestic law, and not an international convention that needs be domesticated. It smacks of outright political mischief to think it otherwise.

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