Freedom of information as means to an end
The Freedom of Information Act is an expansion of section 39 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended and was signed into law on May 28, 2011 by Goodluck Jonathan administration. The purpose of the Act is to make public records and information more freely available, provide for public access to public records and information, protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public officers’ rules. The right of any person to access or request information which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution, whether or not such information is contained in written form, is recognized and established by the Act. This right is not to be prejudiced by the existence of other contrary laws or regulation. In order to facilitate the unimpeded exercise of this right, all public institutions are required to keep records of all their activities, operations and businesses, in such a manner as to enable the public to gain access to it should the need arise. In addition, certain categories of information in the possession of the public institutions are to be widely disseminated and made readily available to members of the public through various means, including print, electronic online sources and physically at the offices of such institutions.
The FOIA provides that where the disclosure of information has overriding public interest, the public interest outweighs the protection of privacy of the individual to whom such information relates. Based on the foregoing, it is the fundamental right of citizens to hold government accountable and some citizens-driven organisations exist for such purpose.
Disclosures of information on asset declaration of public officials are accountability tools utilised as a preventive measure against corruption. The access to the declaration of assets of employees and appointees of government is one of the tools citizens can use to demand for checks and balances of public officers. The Code of Conduct Bureau has a mandate to make all FOIA requests on asset declaration available to citizens who has vested interest on accountability in governance.
With the advent of the Act, it is expected that the lack of transparency and accountability in public administration and impediments to the right of ordinary citizens to access public records and information will be a thing of the past. The Act provides a veritable framework for the civil struggle against corruption, incidents of abuse of government power and facilitates the establishment of a responsible government, as it enables Nigerian citizens to exert some degree of control over the actions of national leaders and monitor the use of public resources. The scope and remit of the Act is not however limited to its social justice objectives; it encompasses a broad spectrum of issues impacting on education and socio-cultural development. It is important that the law is implemented in such a manner as to brings real benefits to people’s daily lives.
A vital step would be to sensitise the general public to the implications of the Act. In this regard, the media and civil society organizations have key leadership roles in ensuring a successful implementation of the Act. The courts also have a very significant part to play in guaranteeing that the objectives are realized. Their ability to balance the exceptions in the Act against what constitutes ‘public interest’ in each given case would be the measure of their position as the last recourse of ordinary citizens.
Making the FOI Act work in practice is the responsibility of the government on the one hand, and citizens and civil society groups on the other hand. Government should provide resources to create the system that will permit information requests to be responded to timely. Citizens and Civil society groups must generate requests and actually use the Law. This will ensure that the right of access is firmly established in the law for all. Overcoming all these challenges will be a process requiring efforts of all stakeholders in adopting the strategies recommended above in the implementation of the Act.
On its own, the FOI Act is not a panacea. However, with political will, it can lay the foundation stone around which can be built a fairer, modern and more successful society in fulfilment of the lofty goal of the Nigerian Constitution.
Chioma is a student of Mass Communication, Anchor University, Lagos