Lagos’ version of information law… still in the works five years after
One policy that drives government to be truly above board and accountable is access to information by the citizens, which gave birth to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Law. Though the law is relatively new in Nigeria, as it is just five years old, it nonetheless has a long history. It took about 12 years for its passage. Since Nigeria is operating a democratic system of government, one would have expected that the law passed by the National Assembly should be accepted by the states, especially since the country operates a presidential federal system, or at most, the states would quickly pass a version of its own FOI Act, taking into consideration some of their peculiarities.
But that has not been the case, as many of the states are neither willing to adopt the one passed by federal government nor willing to pass its own version of the law.
Ironically, a state, which has stood out in terms of leading the pack in the area of policy formulations, Lagos State, is being counted among the states with no FOI Law. Efforts to ensure that the state has its own version or adopt the one passed at the federal level had not yielded fruit. It should be noted that before the law came into fruition in Nigeria, one of the champions of the bill, Honourable Abike Dabiri, was a legislator from Lagos State.
A member of the Lagos State House of Assembly, Hon. Tunde Buraimoh commenting on the non-consideration of the bill by the House, said that the bill did not come as an executive or legislative bill but from the public who were agitated and wanted a better platform to get information.
Buraimoh maintained that the state is not averse to having a Freedom of Information Law. “We know it is desirable for good governance. It is in the chambers, awaiting legislative action. And this is because we have a lot of bills and motions outlined for deliberation. The passage of a bill into law requires a very lengthened stage and when we had some emergencies, we have to face those ones first.
“Sometimes, what we list on the order paper is abridged because matters of national importance and personal observations, which are urgent issues, take overriding interest. This is because if there are security issues somewhere in the state, we have to attend to such matters. The bill is there and as we resume now for legislative action, we would put it in the front burner.”
When asked if the FOI Law is not of national importance? Buraimoh insisted that the most basic function of any government is security and any government that failed in the protection of lives and property has failed in everything, because there is nothing like economy when the security of the state failed.
According to him, the House will deliberately not do what it ought not to do. “And it is a two-way thing, if the government is not doing it, what is the civil society doing, labour and what are you doing as a person too. You can bring it to the fore. The public can bring bills to the House, as it is not the exclusive preserves of anybody. If you bring a bill, we shall consider it, as there is a provision in our constitution for you to bring a bill to the House.”
The issue of security challenge was just some few months back, but the FOI Act has been in existence for about five years now and one of those who championed it, Abike Dabiri, is from Lagos. Considering that, the thinking would be that Lagos would be the leading light among those that will pass the act? Buraimoh said that the bill is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end.
“What is the importance of the bill, when there are equivalent legislations? Lagos State has a sophisticated criminal code. For example, someone said why couldn’t we make a bill to protect public properties from being vandalized, but the criminal code has provisions for that. A member talked about making a law on rape, but when we look at the state criminal code, all these things were catered for. It is because people do not explore them. All these things about our people having access to information, they are already contained in some other laws. It is just that they are not in concise and compact form, the way people would have wanted it to be.
“When things are right, nobody remembers, but when things are wrong, everybody remembers, when we came into governance, that was the time people were shouting about robbery in traffic and the governor quickly brought a re-order to the budget to re-position the security of the state that helped drove these people out of the streets. I am not giving excuses. This thing (the bill) is there, but when we have urgent matters to consider, which are about the safety of lives and properties, we would rather take that first. When the people are not secure or they are dead, they cannot access information, as they do not have the peace of mind to look for information.”
With some of the bills already considered by the House and pushed forward for accent by the governor, which shows that the House is a very responsive one, should the people be looking at the FOI bill coming out of the present House for assent by the governor? Buraimoh said that, definitely, at the full turn of the circle, the bill would be considered, as it is already in for consideration. He said that the people should know that it is not the only bill waiting for consideration.
“The FOI bill will be made a law in the state because there is no reason for us not to have it. Like you have said, it will aid our work, oversight function. And I know that the governor of the state is a true democrat and the speaker is a highly experienced legislature, a lawyer. And there is so many things we have done here that showed what we wanted is participatory and inclusive governance, but Rome was not built in a day.”
He was not willing to commit to having a time frame for when the bill could be passed into law. He nevertheless assured that the FOI Act would be domesticated in the state as soon as possible. According to him, the House is taking its time because it does not want to adopt the one already passed by the Federal Government without taking a critical look into its content.
The Executive Director of Media Right Agenda, (MRA) Mr Edetaen Ojo, said that the only logical inference that anyone can make from the refusal by the Lagos State Government to implement or enforce the Freedom of Information Act, passed by the National Assembly in 2011, while also failing to pass its own State Law on the subject is that the government does not want residents and indigenes of the state to ask questions about how they are governed and how their resources are managed.
“This is not only disappointing, but truly tragic, given that the amount of money managed by Lagos State every year is not only the highest by any state in Nigeria by far, but is also more than the resources available to many national governments in Africa and, indeed, around the world.
“The situation is particularly inexcusable in the light of the fact that the state has consistently be governed since 1999 by political parties that have touted themselves to be progressive. There is absolutely nothing progressive in a political party, which is lacking in transparency and accountability in the manner it governs in a democracy.”
Ojo maintained that it is a contradiction that the state and its leaders claim to belong to the progressive camp, yet it is not willing to subject itself as a government to the basic tenets of transparency and accountability.
“The situation in Lagos State and the position of the Lagos State Government on this issue deprives the people and residents of the state of their right of access to information, which is recognised under international law as a fundamental right of all people and one of the cardinal pillars of good governance. It should not be tolerated by the people,” Ojo stated.
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