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Starving nation, virgin resource: A sad tale of Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act

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foiIT does appear Tony Robbins was correct when he said, “We are not in an information age yet, we are in an entertainment age”; or how does one comprehend a generation of massive information with a level of experimentation that is too low to quantify?

There was a Nation! There was a Nation whose people were on a daily basis dying of extreme hunger and poverty; commerce did not thrive, economy was unheard of and it took your all, just to survive; expectant mothers hopelessly hoped for healthy maternity, young and old walked miles to get their daily breads, roads were not tarred, clothes were tattered, children were vulnerable and banditry reign; it was a state of hazard: nasty, brutish and poor.

There existed in that Nation, an island wrapped in danger and filled with treasures. The people had hired some warlords to guard, protect and nurture the island and equitably distribute its proceeds to the natives proactively and also based on needs and requests. These warlords personalised the treasures and patrolled the place with guard animals, thereby preventing every other persons except the warlords themselves from accessing the Treasure Island.

On the Island, hoards of gold were buried under rock, numerous agricultural produces were begging for harvest, part of its south was all oil, even generations to come could feed on it with just little effort and above all, its entries were wide open; then, the guards: all routes leading to the treasures were surrounded by the ‘more equal’ animals, the smallest of them were the different species of tigers, other routes were blocked by smaller animals like lions and leopards, while sharks and crocodiles lived overcrowded jungle life in the surrounding waters, they were only friends with the warlords.

All these were facts that were part and parcel of the people of that Nation; these facts were part of their history, their orientation and their socialisation. Thus, out of the long-standing fears of challenging the animals, the people of that Nation lived in abject poverty for years, even when they had a treasure that if explored, could save a generation.

Their destiny took a turn when a saint who had been in coma for many years, suddenly woke up and saw the many sufferings of his people, he motivated them to struggle even in their empty bellies. They consistently fought the wild animals for about three hundred months: the first two hundred and fifty months, they fought in different groups and under different platforms, many of them grew old and others were injured, while a few others died.

Just before they were finally daunted, it occurred to them that they were in hundreds of folds more than the wild animals and the warlords altogether, they made a collective move and took on the wild animals in the ratio of a hundred able-bodied heavily armed persons to one animal. For another fifty years, they fought and won, the rest is tale.

Since their guard animals were dead, captured or neutralised, the warlords who had grown potbellies and had no strength for fight anymore, had to surrender and renegotiate their terms, banking on their experience and familiarity with the terrain. Now, they would only be there to supply the people with everything and anything they needed from the Island, all the time; they would be there to gather the harvest and make it readily available for its owners, the people. The people were happy with the new terms; they popped palm wine and celebrated with series of cocktail reception. After that night, they all went to bed, woke up the next morning and continued their usual life. Four years after that historic achievement, the people still wallow in hunger and abject poverty, they hardly go to their treasure land to ask for what was meant for them, they forgot their struggle and the labour of their heroes… they forgot. The history of Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act is just as sad.

When the Freedom of Information Act was signed into law in May 2011, we thought we had unlocked the door to official secrecy and corruption. We celebrated and felicitated that our struggle of over two decades finally paid off. I have heard it on different occasions that, after the 1999 constitution, the most important law in Nigeria today is the Freedom of Information Act. Yet, four years after its passage into law, it does appear that we only unlocked the door; we rarely enter the room to find the skeleton.

A deconstruction of the Attorney General’s Implementation Reports for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 shows that many of the Institutions that submitted report (as much as 30 and 40 per cent in 2013 and 2014 respectively) did not receive any request for information in a whole fiscal year. In fact many institutions have been submitting reports but have never received any requests at all over the years. These include the Debt Management Office, the Federal Character Commission, Nigeria Football Federation, Office of the National Security Adviser, Nigeria Investment Promotion Commission, Ministry of Police Affairs, Police Service Commission etc, just a few to mention. This does not include the over 500 public institutions that have never submitted any report at all. Does our silence and not-asking questions about and from these Institutions imply that we agree that ‘all is well’?

According to the account of Media Rights Agenda in a publication titled “Unlocking Nigeria’s Closet of Secrecy”, the struggle for a Freedom of Information law in Nigeria took over two decades of blood and sweat of NGOs, activists, the press and other well-meaning Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike, all to make sure that we all have access to government-held information. During the struggle, many partakers had the reputably authoritarian government of Sanni Abacha to contend with, especially at a time when General Abacha was known for his unalloyed anti-freedom-of-expression stance and he made the Committee of Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) list of the worst enemy of the press and freedom of expression. General Abacha attained the number one position as the worst enemy of the press in 1998 before he died in office after having made the list for four consecutive years. That was the military context of the struggle.

Also, another publication titled: “Campaigning for Access to Information in Nigeria”, authored by Media Right Agenda further indicates that, after strenuous legislative advocacy from 1999 to 2007, the two houses passed the Freedom of Information bill, but it was not signed into law by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and that took the struggle back to base by the time the Yar’Adua-Jonathan administration resumed office. The advocates took no rest and began another round of legislative advocacy from the House of Representatives to the senate before the bill was passed and finally signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan on May 28, 2011. This was another context within which the Freedom of Information Act was born.

I had to cut-short and euphemise the prices that were paid, just to minimise words. Each of the stages to this achievement came at no-small human, intellectual, material and even political costs to the civil society organisations, the media and other well-meaning Nigerians who were in the struggle. So if we can afford to watch our own labour lie in vain due to negligence and lack of effective use of the much fought-for and much desired Freedom of Information Act, then I wonder if we ever mean the constant call we make and teach our children about, every time we recite the National Anthem – that ‘the labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain’.

The fight against the cankerworm of corruption is not just about the government, but also about doing everything we all can, albeit within the limit of the law to expose corrupt practices; and one of those ways is by effectively utilising the Freedom of Information Act: asking questions and requesting for information from public institutions in the interest of discouraging official corruption and encouraging accountability.

Put in the words of Tavis Smiley: “We can’t be in an ideological battle to redeem the soul of this country if we don’t have the facts”. Therefore, we cannot fight corruption without information and collective efforts.

Let me submit on this note: Vivek Waxhaw noted that “An open-minded and diverse population that readily shares information (and) encourages experimentation… is what makes Silicon Valley the successful hub that it is.” This is a wakeup call for Nigerians.

God bless Nigeria.

Ridwan, is a Writer and Research Consultant; Programme Officer, Media Rights Agenda, Ikeja – Lagos. Tel: +2347031042977

Email: sulaimon@mediarightsagenda.org


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