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Monday, 12 September 2011

FOI ACT 2011: A TOOL FOR GOOD GOVERNANCE By Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko.

 A lecture delivered at a one day sensitization workshop on "THE FREEDOM of INFORMATION ACT" , organized by LEGAL SERVICES SECRETARIAT, FEDERAL CAPITAL TERRITORY ADMINISTRATION; on September 8th, 2011.
Good Morning gentlemen and ladies. I welcome you to this auspicious intellectual forum during which we are to analyze the essence of one of the most important laws passed in the current democratic order.
The freedom of Information Act of 2011 is one of the most ambitious pieces of legislation that generated lots of comments that bordered on emotion, patriotism and passionate love of good governance essentially on the side of the proponents of this good law. The civil society community in Nigeria and the media sector were the leading canvassers for the passage of this law which took nearly ten years to scale through the National Assembly.
It is a notorious fact that the freedom of information Bill was first sent to the national legislature at the inception of our current democratic dispensation in 1999 but after many years of vigourous advocacy anchored essentially by a coalition of credible civil society groups headed by the Media Rights Agenda, both the then President Olusegun Obasanjo and the National Assembly members failed to give Nigerians, this piece of good law.
An Abuja based public interest and civil Rights lawyer Mr. Kayode Ajulo in his well researched piece titled; “FOI ACT: THE challenge of official secret Act”, identified the chronic fear for openness by those who have ‘skeletons’ in their cupboards as the underlying factor that occasioned the needless delays and rigmarole that attended the passage of this good law for ten years before President Good Luck Jonathan gave Nigerians the good luck of signing it into law even though with several amendments.
Ajulo, the Abuja lawyer narrated the historical excursus of the FOI Act thus; “President Obasanjo in the last days of his administration had refused to sign the bill into law, on the pretence of semantics”.
The legal practitioner however situated the prolonged periods of delay to fear by those who have something ‘fishy’ to hide.
His words; “Delay in the passage of the bill appears to be the fear entertained that the media would be given much power to probe the activities of those in government (precisely) because section 2 of the original draft, which President Obasanjo refused to sign, provides that a concerned citizen did not have to give any reason for seeking access to official information. In the amended version, such a person is required to seek the leave of a High Court before making any request, and he or she will be required to prove that the request does not pose any threat to national security. The revised section 2 would have still inhibited easy access to information; as it seeks to discourage any request for information”.
The freedom of Information Act 2011 came into force with the signing into law by Nigeria’s current President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan on Saturday May 28th 2011. It was conveyed to his presidential table on Friday May 27th 2011. The law became one of the very first to be so endorsed by the current president who emerged elected by overwhelming majority of voters at the April 2011 presidential election.
There are two salient terms that define the beauty of this law and also tell us the essence which in effect is the need for Nigerians to use it as a legal tool for the actualization of transparency, accountability and zero-tolerance to corruption which is at the heart of our developmental challenges as a democracy.
The two key words are freedom and information. The New Webster’s’ dictionary of the English language, International edition, informs us that the word FREEDOM means enjoyment of personal liberty, of not being a slave nor a prisoner and also the enjoyment of civil rights.         
The same dictionary defines information to mean communication of news, knowledge or a fact told or communicated.
For me, as a media/development worker, the interesting dimension of this definition of Information is the mention of ‘knowledge’ which is seen by most thinkers as the basis of development both individually and institutionally. Knowledge they say is “POWER”.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the full implementation of all aspects of the Freedom of Information Act will assist whistle blowers to expose certain “hidden” secrets that have adversely made us a laughing stock in the International Community as a result of high level of corruption and other economic crimes.
My take on this is that the implementation of this good piece of legislation will definitely promote good governance, greater openness, full participatory democracy and good governance and this law has the innate potential of bringing to life the constitutional provision that sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from where persons in public offices derive their legitimacy (Section 14(2) (a) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended).
Section 14 (2) (c) also provides that “the participation by the people in their government shall be ensured in accordance with the provision of the constitution.
Specifically, Chapter four of the Constitution encompass the fundamental rights provisions and sections 38 (1); and 39 (1) clearly state the human rights of all citizens to access information as of right.
A researcher by name Emmanuel Abdullah rightly stated thus; “Freedom of information has long been recognized as a foundational human right ever since the UN General Assembly declared in 1948 [Universal Declaration of Human Rights of December 10th 1948] that “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and a touchstone of all freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated”.
He also stated that; in practice, an effective FOI law legally enshrines:
·        The public’s right to request information from the government and even private bodies in some cases;
·        The duty on the government to supply the request information, unless defined exemptions apply; and
·        The duty on the government to disclose proactively information that is of general public interest without the need for requests from its citizens.
Freedom of information law he stated, provides a practical mechanism for achieving the good governance principles of transparency, accountability and public participation. In particular, they can strengthen a country’s democratic processes.
This remarkable scholar affirmed thus; “The right to information has a crucial role in ensuring that citizens are better informed about the people they are electing and their activities while in government. The public can regularly access information on the government’s activities and policies, thus making the governments directly accountable on a day-to-day basis rather than just at election time.”
According to him; “Indeed, an effective freedom of information law can even make elections much more meaningful. The underlying foundation of the democratic tradition rests on the premise of an informed constituency that is able, thoughtfully, to choose its representatives on the basis of the strength of their record and that is able to hold their government accountable for the policies and decisions it promulgates.”
He said further; “With an FOI law in place, constituents have more information on which to assess the government and are thus better equipped to make an informed decision at the ballot box. Voters rely less on political propaganda and may well be less inclined to fallback on their ethnic, religious, or geographic affiliations when voting….”
The FOI Act 2011 to all intents and purposes is “a break through amid the culture of secrecy”, to borrow from a material posted on April 1st 2011 on the website of the center for Independent Journalism (CIJ), based in Malaysia.
The former Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, who is credited for laying the foundation for a sustainable banking reforms, Professor Chukwuma Charles Soludo gave a graphic picture of what Nigeria used to be before some of these good laws including FOI Act came to be.
In his lecture titled; “Law, institutions And Nigeria’s Quest to join the first world economy”, Professor Soludo stated thus; “In the old order, many people (especially rent-seekers) made a lot of money and profited enormously from Nigeria’s state of disorder. In order to make progress, therefore, this class of Nigerians and their collaborators either has to be up-rooted, displaced or compensated to give way. One thing is certain: they are not going to give up without a fight. A prodigious battle is currently raging between the old and new order, with the entrenched ‘business as usual’ school fighting vigorously to overturn the ongoing economic and social reforms.”
Dominic Liche of Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection, Lusaka, Zambia on March 8th 2011 wrote a piece whereby he supported the popular view that strict implementation and enforcement of the FOI Act can deliver good governance.
His words; “Freedom of information benefits both the Government and the people. On the part of Government, there is more efficient and responsive public service delivery, and transparency and accountability. On the part of the general public, freedom of information allows the public, media houses, and interested groups (such as nongovernmental organizations) free access or access at a small fee to public information “.
He also stated; “First, individuals can access information that they need. This information can be on how to access information on applying for a passport, a piece of land, or any information that can be of social benefit to the individual. For example, “in India, individuals often use the Right to Information (RTI) Act to find out about progress in the processing of an application they have lodged, such as a passport, licence, social benefit or even criminal charge. Because implementation of RTI is robust, such requests for information often resolve the problem of delay in their main application.” Such provisions where citizens can directly access necessary information promote accountable and responsible administrative processes in the public sector.”
For want of time, let me wrap up by saying that the passage of FOI Act 2011 has tried to repair some of the damage inflicted on the psyche of the ordinary Nigerian who had had to live under the draconian regime of official secrecy Act which amounted to total contempt for the citizenry.
Dan F. Hahn in his book; Political Communication; Rhetoric, Government, and citizens,” stated that; “Another outgrowth of governmental contempt of citizens is to keep them ignorant. Of special interest to the field of communication is the fact that secrecy “insulates” bureaucrats and thereby affects their subsequent persuasiveness. Obviously, those who have information have advantages over those who do not have it. Less obvious, but equally important, is the effect of information in allowing government authorities to talk as “experts” to an audience of uninformed citizens.”
As communication scholar Eugene Garver points out, “the persuasion of experts claims not to be persuasion but something else, demonstration or instruction,” which creates in the audience a feeling “that they have no choice…that they are bowing to necessity.” Secrecy, therefore, lifts its holders (government officials) to the category of “experts,” while simultaneously lowering the audience (citizens) to the level of “learners.” The resulting relationship is hardly to be desired in a society supportably designed so the citizens can be the masters.”  
As public servants, we must understand the tenets embedded in the FOI Act of 2011 so that we can help the current and future administrations to build a great nation whereby good governance will become the order of the day. God bless you for listening.


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