Transparency in Nigeria; The Right to Know
Nigeria has suffered greatly from massive corruption which is often due to a lack of transparency and accountability. Before the advent of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, basically, all Nigerian Government information was classified as top secret. Government records that were, to say the least, basic, and some of which were already in public circles were still considered as confidential, and sharing of such information by public workers or receiving and reproducing them by members of the public were considered criminal offenses. Freedom of information should be seen as the perfect tool for unraveling corruption in public offices and holding government accountable. Therefore, the “right to know” needs to be explored by Nigerians, most especially Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and the media if any headway is going to be made in the fight against corruption. Advocacy and journalism should transcend lifting of stories from other sources as is mostly the practice by newsmen, and merely reacting to issues without any action to back them up.
Photo credit; Lynda.com
A proper system of checks and balances, not only between the different arms of government but between the public and government might be the key to solving Nigeria’s corruption problems, which will undoubtedly lead to proper development of the country. Unlimited access to information in Nigeria would further entrench democracy and ensure the well-being of every Nigerian. With major improvements in Information and Communications Technology, especially social media, Nigerians are participating more in public affairs and are getting increasingly conscious of what is happening around them, leading to a higher demand for accountability.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOI) Act, signed into law on May 28, 2011, by the former President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, was seen as a day never to be forgotten in the country’s history, as it seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle that would enthrone accountability and phase out corruption in a nation which lacked transparency and was ravaged by gross financial and institutional recklessness on the part of government officials. What impact has the FOI Act, 2011, had on accountability, fight against corruption, transparency, and how can the Act be fully promoted to foster development in a country where it is needed?
As enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1966, the fundamental right to freedom of expression grants every individual the freedom “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. The FOI Act as stipulated by Nigerian law grants all Nigerians, regardless of age, sex, status, occupation etc. access to information within the control of public institutions. In order to encourage transparency and accountability, the FOI Act makes it mandatory for public institutions to keep records of all dealings for the public’s perusal.
Asides being an integral human right, unlimited access to information can play a fundamental role in aiding development, fostering democracy, promoting equality, and ensuring proper delivery of public services. The Act is undeniably a vital tool which could be used by the public, media, academics, civil society groups, and a host of others to keep government dealings in check. However, recent happenings indicate that it has not been taken full advantage of. This might be due to the fact that Nigerians are either not aware of it, or they seem to be discouraged by the bureaucratic nature of institutions in Nigeria. According to a report prepared by the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, from 2014 to 2016, around 53% of government institutions received only one or no request within the three-year period. This is an indication that the FOI Act is not taken advantage of. Recently, the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), rejected an FOI request made by foremost human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, for information on subsidy payments and turnaround maintenance of the nation’s refineries, saying the request was not supported as the NNPC was not a public institution and was outside the scope and purview of the FOI Act. In his defense, Mr Falana said since the Federal Government had a controlling interest in the NNPC and is utilizing public funds to provide public services, and the fact that its accounts are audited by auditors appointed by the Auditor-General of the Federation’s Office and the NNPC Board reports to the Minister of Petroleum Resources, then the NNPC is indeed a public institution. Factors like this could also discourage those who want to make use of the Act.
Despite the key importance of this Act in the enablement of all other rights to create a fair and equitable society, it is not applicable to state-owned public institutions because state houses of assembly are required to pass it independently. Sadly, only Lagos and Ekiti States seem to have passed the FoI into law. However, in a twist of events in March 2017, the Akure Division of the Court of Appeal while upturning an Ondo High Court judgment sitting in Akure stated that no Nigerian state had the power to reject requests filed under the FOI Act. This came after one Martins Alo’s request for the audited report of Ondo State Government between 2012 and 2014 was denied. Uzo Ndukwe-Anyawu, one of the three judges who delivered judgment wrote, “In a democratic dispensation such as Nigeria’s, the citizens have been proclaimed the owners of sovereignty and mandates that place leaders in the saddle”
To ensure the success of the FOI Act, It is imperative for both the government and the people, which includes the media and CSOs to take advantage of the Act to monitor government activities. Taking advantage here means there should be a mass awareness program on the importance of the FOI Act by government institutions like the National Orientation Agency (NOA), Ministry of Information and Culture, and other relevant agencies, and also on its potential to effect desired change. Due to Nigeria’s low literacy rate, these awareness programs should consider language barriers and carry out campaigns in different languages. Also, disabilities like blindness and deafness should be put into cognizance. Most importantly, states should be encouraged to pass the FOI Act for more transparency and accountability. The media and CSOs also have a major role to play by being relentless in inundating public institutions with requests for access to vital information to discourage recklessness by public officials as is the norm and hold them accountable. Furthermore, government institutions and workers should be subjected to the full wrath of the law in an event where requests for information are rejected. This could serve as a deterrent to others. The proper use of the FOI Act might be the only channel to foster Nigeria’s democracy, boost its development and put her on the same level as other well-functioning countries.