A decade on, Lagos FoI Act still in the works
27 March 2022 | 2:53 am
Lagos prides itself as the numero uno as far as good governance is concerned. But when it comes to making its books open to public scrutiny (which is a critical ingredient of good governance)
Lagos prides itself as the numero uno as far as good governance is concerned. But when it comes to making its books open to public scrutiny (which is a critical ingredient of good governance), the state is not leading the pack.
One critical point to this is the absence of a Freedom of Information (FoI) law in the state over a decade after President Goodluck Jonathan-led Federal Government put that in place at the national level.
Many had expected the 36 states to quickly take a cue from the Federal Government and pass their versions of the FoI Act, but that has not been the case.
It is in the light of this that Lagos State’s case is one of the curious ones, especially with Abike Dabiri, a former member of the House of Representatives from the state being one of the champions of the Act.
Since the bill was passed, attempts to scrutinize Lagos’ accounts have been unsuccessful, as they are usually faced with all kinds of encumbrances. Indeed, while the Federal Government puts its budget details in the public domain, Lagos does not, and requests from the media and civil society organisations (CSOs) for information are usually not honoured by the state government.
The International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), an organisation committed to good governance and accountability, confirmed that it has written several letters to the state government requesting information, but such requests have been rebuffed, despite quoting sections of the FoI law to support its demand.
Also, Premium Times, an online newspaper, revealed that between 2017 and now, it has submitted eight FoI requests to the Lagos State government with no single response.
It, however, added that sometimes the state government would acknowledge the receipt of the letter, but will not still provide the information being sought.
In May 2018, BudgIT, a CSO filed an FoI request to the state government asking for a breakdown of the state’s education budget between 2015 and 2018.
The state government, through its Ministry of Justice, refused to accede to the request saying: “After a careful review of the FoI Act and the recent judgment of the Court of Appeal (Edo State Division) in EDOCASA V OSAKUE & 8 ORS, delivered on 28th March 2018, it is the advice of this Office that the FoI Act is not applicable to state governments except the FoI Act is domesticated by the state government (being at the discretion of the state to enact a similar law).”
That government’s response, which was signed by Hameed Oyenuga, the then Director of Advisory Services and Judicial Liaison stated, adding: “In view of the above, we further advise that any request in line with the FoI Act should not be acceded to, as Lagos State has not domesticated the law, and as such not applicable to the Lagos State government.”
A peeved Adenike Bamigbade, a development practitioner insists that it is the right of every taxpayer in the state to seek information about government spending and other relevant government data.
“I feel that the Lagos State government does not want to be held accountable considering the huge amount of revenue generated in the state compared to the infrastructure provided by the government. As a taxpayer in the state, I am mandated to make available, all my income sources and other information about myself. So, why should I not be able to request data and information about how the Lagos State government is using my data, revenue, and that of other citizens?” she queried.
On the continuous absence of such a law in the state, she said: “I want to think this is politics playing out. Lagos State is governed by one political party, and the minority is very few to counter the opinion of the majority. In a functioning society, this should not be the state of things. That is why citizens need to stand up and demand what is right.
“We have a state here, not someone’s family house, so things have to be done constitutionally and diverse opinions of the people must be considered. So, withholding the right to FoI to any citizen in a state that claims to be a democratic society is unthinkable.”
She stressed the need for lawmakers at the state House of Assembly to speak on behalf of their constituents: “As a resident of Shomolu Local Council and a taxpayer in the state, I call for the passage of FoI Bill. If my representative at the House of Assembly is saying anything contrary without valid reasons, it shows he or she is not speaking for me.
“Government keeps saying projects are being done and funds that are available are limited. I am not arguing, but just show me the data. Young people are doing amazing things in Lagos State across different sectors, so how can we contribute to the government’s decisions if the government is withholding basic information? We are part of the government as well, and we want to hold the government accountable and also contribute to giving strategic insights and contributions towards a greater Lagos,” Bamigbade said.
Speaking on the non-passage of the FoI Act in the state, the Coordinator of the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), Mr. Chido Onumah, expressed disappointment over the non-passage of the law in the state.
He stated that: “In this era of open government with an emphasis on government accountability, it is said that any government will balk at the idea of passing a sunshine law like the FoI, which ensures that government and its agencies provide open and transparent information and disclosure about their activities to the public, or upon inquiry.”
Bills are introduced to the assembly through two major routes; the private member’s bill and the executive bill. If the executive failed to send a bill to the state assembly for consideration, a member of the assembly can. That the two arms bother less says a lot about the Lagos State House of Assembly?
Onumah said it is unfortunate that the state Assembly is toeing the same line as the executive, which leaves citizens with no choice.
“While it is helpful for the Lagos State government to domesticate the FoI law, I think the current national FoI law should suffice and cover activities in Lagos. Of course, the Lagos State government can pass its version of the FoI law, but citizens in Lagos shouldn’t wait for that. I think they can take advantage of the national FoI law to hold public officers in the state accountable.”
On why the state House of Assembly should place a lot of premium on the passage of the FoI Act, Onumah said the FoI law is important in a democracy because the ability of citizens to have access to timely information is key in ensuring that government and its institutions are accountable.
“It is also important to have to enable laws that protect citizens and their quest for access to information. It will enrich the oversight function of the state Assembly and complement the role of other stakeholders, particularly civil society actors, in the anti-corruption war.”
When the Chairman, Lagos State Assembly House Committee on Information, Strategy and Security, David Setonji, was contacted, he said: “We are working on it and Lagos State has been operating an open system. That notwithstanding, we are still going to enact the law.”
Asked if there is an FoI bill in the assembly since he said it is being worked on, he said: “We are the in the process, and there are two major routes that a bill can be introduced to the assembly. We have a private member’s bill and an executive bill. Whichever form it takes, be rest assured that at the appropriate time, you will get to know about the bill on the floor of the house.”
Still pressed to explain the delay in domesticating the law even as the lifespan of the administration winds down, he retorted: “Even a month to the end of the assembly, a bill can be introduced and passed depending on the exigency. And if the bill is important and germane, we would work on it no matter the time when it is introduced. So, there is no need to be apprehensive. I will not be able to tell you that right now. At the appropriate time, you get to know,” Setonji said.
When contacted the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr. Gbenga Omotoso, promised to get back to The Guardian. He never did. When reached again, he still requested more time to familiarise himself with the issue.