Monday, July 25, 2011

How to make FoI Act work, by Soyinka, govs, others


Any social instrument is incomplete. It is human beings that will complete it. We should not be worried whether the law would be abused or not because a lot of laws are abused in Nigeria everyday. Even the constitution is abused every day in Nigeria.

EMINENT Nigerians, including Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka and Governors Babatunde Fashola (Lagos), Babangida Aliyu (Niger), yesterday brainstormed on the implementation of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act for national development, urging all stakeholders to make the new law work.

At a roundtable organised by the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) in Lagos, participants noted that though there are gray areas in the FoI Act, its enactment was a good development.

Soyinka, said nobody should be worried about whether the relevant public Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDA) will implement the provisions of the Act or not since it is already in existence, adding that violation of laws is a daily occurrence in Nigeria. According to him, there must be inadequacy in any social instrument, but it is the people that will make it adequate.

“Any social instrument is incomplete. It is human beings that will complete it. We should not be worried whether the law would be abused or not because a lot of laws are abused in Nigeria everyday. Even the constitution is abused every day in Nigeria,” Soyinka said.

According to him, “if there is no freedom of information, there will be speculations. Speculation leads to rumour and that does not augur well for us as a nation. Part of what makes a citizen of any nation is his right to be able to access information on how he is being governed.” He said most of the interviews he listened to about the civil disobedience in the Middle East and North Africa arose as a result of people getting tired of being in the dark as to how they are being governed.

According to Soyinka, a true test of the passed FoI Act would be for Nigerians to know what really happened when the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was concealed with officers who played one role or the other in the process, revealing the parts they played in the whole exercise. According to him, if not for any other thing, it should be for knowledge sake.

Other dignitaries present at the well-attended event include Publishers of Vanguard, Sam Amuka-Pemu; ThisDay, Nduka Obaigbena, and Source Magazine, Comfort Obi; Board Chairman, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Prof. Chidi Odinkalu; Mr. Tayo Oyetibo (SAN); former Finance Minister, Chief Kalu Idika Kalu; former Chief Executive Officer of the Newswatch Communications Limited, Mr. Ray Ekpu; Human Rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana; Head of Department, Mass Communications, University of Lagos, Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye; Chief Operating Officer of The Guardian, Alex Thomopoulos; Canadian High Commissioner as well as the President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Mr. Gbenga Adefeye.

In his comments, Governor Aliyu suggested that for the FoI Act to be more effective, it should be named Freedom of Information and Sanctity Act. According to him, the Act should also provide that the person requesting for any information should also have the powers to verify the accuracy of the information being given.

Governor Fashola stated that he had been operating an open door policy and transparent government even before the Act came into being. According to him, information about the cost of contracts can be obtained freely at the government’s website.

Clarifying that the FoI Act is not a media law, Odinkalu said it was rather designed to ensure equality of access to information and participation of citizens in government.

His words: “The main objective of the law is to ensure that every person who desires to know how government operates can do so with minimum effort and diligence. The rights in the Act can be exercised by both individuals and corporate persons. Hopefully, armed with such information, people can take the necessary steps to work with government, make informed decisions, and organise to hold government and public officials accountable.”

Section 4 and 5 of the FoI Act provides that a public institution must grant access to a request for records or information within a time limit of seven days. But the Attorney General (AG) and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke (SAN), speaking through his senior special assistant, pleaded for the understanding of Nigerians on the possible difficulties that may hinder public institutions from complying with the seven days time limit provided by the law, a plea which drew criticisms from some of the participants who felt that it was too early for the AG to begin to give excuses for the perceived failure of public institutions to comply with the law.

The minister said “the challenges are that some of the information required may not be readily available within seven days,” insisting that the official secret Act should also be looked into with a view to either abrogating or amending it.

The FoI law places the responsibility and obligation for the proper implementation of the provisions of the law on the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation.

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