The euphoria of joy that trailed the enactment of Freedom of Information Act is giving way to the real business of implementing the legislation that is expected to bring about transparency and accountability in governance
THIS concern was the focus of the Town Hall meeting with the theme: For the Public Purpose: Deepening the FoI Act, organised by Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN) which held at MUSON Centre, Onikan attracting eminent personalities in the media, legal profession, civil society and the diplomatic community.
In his opening address, the chairman of the occasion, Alhaji Ismaila Isa Funtua dismissed the impression created by Nigerians that the FoI Act was meant for the media alone, one challenge, which, he stressed, delayed the passage of the bill.
“Many have the wrong impression about the Freedom of Information Act, they regard it as a media act, but it is not true, the Freedom of Information Act is meant for the public. Some of us know what we went through to get the bill passed into law. Some of us went to prison especially when they tried to introduce the Press Council Bill during the late General Sani Abacha regime,” he said.
Funtua, as Chairman, Nigerian Institute of Journalism explained that, “we know the security risks we took in ensuring that such a bill (Nigeria Press Council law) did not see the light of day. We were eventually saved by the law courts, they were wrong, we were right. The same thing cannot be said about the broadcast media because today,” as the impression is that the broadcast sector is over regulated, “as a result of the bad law.”
The Niger State Governor, Dr. Babangida Aliyu, said: “We should be concerned about enlightening people and adopting the law in every state of the federation. The FoI Act is not only for the media but indeed for Nigerians.”
He charged the media and civil society to mount continuous pressure on the government to implement the FoI Act, pointing out that the nation’s government must be prepared to fund the implementation of the Act for it to be effective.
In her presentation, Canadian Information Commissioner, Ms. Suzanne Leagault, emphasised the central role of the leadership to achieve effective implementation of the FoI Act, adding that the implementation must be well-funded.
She harped on the need for the media to play a frontline role, though strongly warned against the impression that the FoI Act “is only enacted for the media. It is meant for the entire people of Nigeria”.
She also highlighted the role of the judiciary, the media, the business community, civil society and leadership in all walks of life, without which she said the implementation of the FoI Act would be elusive.
She shared her experience with a crop of the country’s leaders at a forum recently, when she said most of them expressed a view that the FoI Act would address all the issues that Nigeria “is facing, especially the issue of corruption”.
She explained that all the people she engaged at the forum on the subject of the FoI Act mentioned the issue of political intervention as a major challenge to the implementation of the Act, while the same set of people expressed fear that the legislature was a main opponent to public disclosure.
She also spoke on the cost of obtaining public information, which she said “is appropriate to measure... It will cost Nigeria money. But it is a decision that Nigeria has to make, if the FoI Act must succeed”.
According to her, the media would not be sufficient to put pressure on the government. The entire people of Nigeria must be involved to ensure that the FoI Act works.
To make it work, institution-building, training, leadership and organisational public information will be essential to make the Act work, she said.
Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola (SAN) noted that governance is a matter of public trust, that the people “have rights to ask questions on how we are spending their resources. The FoI Act is not the legislation for the press alone. It is for the people of Nigeria. But the press and civil society organisations will be at the vanguard of the implementation of the Act.
“The leadership will have a role to play too. The judiciary, especially, is central to the FoI Act. Justices must not be just familiar with the FoI Act, but also to societal happenings. I have already directed the Office of the Head of Service to run training for all the public servants on the FoI Act,” he explained.
The governor also said the State House of Assembly had started the process of replicating the FoI Act, a development which he said demonstrated the will of his administration to implement the Act.
He urged the public to be patient with the public officials in the process of seeking some vital information, which according to him, costs time and resources before their request could be addressed.
Mohammed Bello Adoke, Attorney General of the Federation, who was represented by Professor Akpe, identified some challenges in the implementation of the law which include the application and use of right by the citizens, saying, “if the right of the citizen is abused or used frivolously, it will pose a challenge to the law.
“With the state of record keeping in the country, it might be very difficult for public officers to meet up with the stipulated seven days in the Act. Some of the information that might be requested by people might not be easily available within seven days, as stipulated by the Act.
“The government is thinking of a way of restructuring the courts to make them cope with the expected barrage of litigations that will arise as a result of the Act and ensure that they still discharge their duties effectively.”
He revealed that the Ministry of Justice had dedicated a department, the Citizens Rights Department, to begin sensitizing people on the workings and implementation of the Act.
He also observed that it might not be possible to provide information within seven days as stipulated by the law, as some public records are not in proper shape. Adoke stressed that retrieval of some information may take more days, as it is the case in the USA, where access to the Information Act requires 20 working days.
In his submission, Anslem Chidi Odinkalu, the African Programme Director of Open Society Initiative, lamented that public interest had been undermined by public officers. “We can’t therefore give out what is public interest. FOI has ended the monopoly of the hoarding of information under the pretext of public interest,” he declared.
Tayo Oyetibo, legal adviser to NPAN pointed out that the public information officer position was absent in the law. According to him, applicants may be confused on whom to address their applications to and who should be held accountable for failure of provision of information.
Another challenge of the law, he said, “there is no provision for verification or authentication of information supplied.” Oyetibo explained that all information at the possession of government, whether the event happened before the Act came into law or not could be asked for.
On deepening the FOIA, former President of Civil Liberties Organisation, Ms Ayo Obe said Nigerians are standing on one leg. She called for openness in governance and the office of the AGF should be proactive and not allowed to be sued to court on violation of FOIA.
“We need the openness and objectiveness of government to deepen the Act. Public officials must ensure that information on their activities are properly compiled and documented, so as to ease dissemination.”
Prof. Wole Soyinka, the keynote presenter said “the government should put the FoI Act to test. Nigeria can’t deny freedom of information to its citizens if it believes in absolute truth. It is not enough for a government to resort to the Official Secrets Act and it is not enough for the public to continually accept that as an excuse to confuse issues in which public issues are involved. The checks and balances of government must answer to public scrutiny.
He explained that, “in this country, we have a situation where a whole human being was concealed for several months. This human being travelled to Dubai and Saudi Arabia, as the case may be. This same individual returned to the country, the lights were put off at the airports; this phantom was transported to the seat of power and many other places. This individual was no less a person, but one responsible to the entire country.
“Nigerians would like to know how this was possible, who are the people involved? What document was passed as the Appropriation Bill? Whose signature appeared on that document? We would like to know, which members of his family were involved, the members of the government involved, members of the Senate involved, the foreign powers involved.
“I am aware that President Jonathan has set up a commission of enquiry into the issue. That episode is over, but knowledge is unending and so, I am challenging the government of Jonathan and the public to put this Freedom of Information Act to test with the melodramatic incident that happened in this country for more than one year.
“I have a right to know and I am compelling President Jonathan to proceed with this Act by setting up the proceeding and panel that will find out what happened to the late president within this period”.
Speaking further, he said “any social instrument is incomplete, but it is the people that will make it complete. Let us not worry that the document is incomplete but we must test the Freedom of Information Act. If there is no Freedom of Information, then, there will be speculation and if there is speculation, you will have a revolution.”
Fashola later commended the NPAN leadership saying that “one must commend the leadership of NPAN led by Nduka Obaigbena and our perspective of it is demonstrated by our partnership with the initiative within. Now that the law has been enacted, we must begin to sensitize Nigerians about the right that is conferred upon them and the duty that it imposes on them.“And this is one of the very first of what I believe should be many of the steps that would further bring the impact of the legislation home to our people and expose the many myths that surround it.”