FOI Act as key component of good governance

The Presidential assent on the Freedom of Information Bill has initiated Nigeria into the league of progressive countries with responsive governments that are committed to delivering good governance to their people by being open, transparent, accountable, inclusive and engaging. Nigeria is the fifth country on the African continent to record this landmark, coming after South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Liberia. It is a bold effort that hopefully, will lift us out of the unenviable cauldron of low-ebb countries where corruption is endemic.

Originally sponsored by the Media Rights Agenda (an NGO) in 1999, the Freedom of Information Bill’s journey before it finally became law was tempestous and tortuous. At a time, it was ‘suffocated and killed’, despite making it through the National Assembly. The former President, OlusegunObasanjo, withheld his presidential assent over misplaced concerns about national security until the legislative year and his tenure ended.

However, a group of progressive lawmakers with Rep. Abike Dabiri-Erewa as the arrow-head resuscitated the bill in 2007 on the floor of the House of Representatives for the bill to restart its jagged journey through the parliament. With renewed efforts by the sponsors of the bill, civil society groups and media practitioners, the FOI Bill was passed by Nigeria’s bi-cameral legislature and the President signed it into law almost 12 years after it was first introduced to the lower chamber of the National Assembly.

Much of the opposition that initially stalled the bill’s passage at the parliament emanated from the misconception that it was a Media Bill that will empower pesky journalists to unearth the dark secrets of public servants. To some lawmakers, it was as though they were signing away their ‘rights’ to sharp practices and corruption. Hence, they were determined to stifle the bill.

The ambivalence of politicians towards the press is quite legendary and not novel. They are always quick to court journalists and romance with it for maximum coverage when it suits their purpose and they waste no time to chastise it when the spotlight is turned on them to expose their excesses. It is the responsibility of the press to inform, educate and entertain its audience. It is also widely acknowledged that the press serves as a watchdog on the government by holding it to account. Precisely, it is in the course of discharging its duties as a watchdog on government that the press draws on the ire of politicians. The press has been variously dubbed as “subversives”, “anti-Government”, etc. According to the US Secretary of Defence, “the Press is not the enemy, and to treat it as such is self-defeating”. Journalists are the trustees of the people.

The logjam of misinformation and disinformation that characterised ‘official’ reports of the illness and death of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua cannot be easily forgotten. Public officers and government organs only succeeded in mocking us before the whole world. How they laughed at us abroad! If only we had a Freedom of Information Act then.

Much as the FOI Act can promote better professionalism among journalists, in that verifiable information can now be obtained (hopefully) without hindrance, no other group of people or profession stands disadvantaged by it except those who are inept or innately corrupt, they are the ones to cringe. This Act would make public servants more accountable and ensure politicians have a greater mandate from the electorate just as it places greater responsibility on the journalists.

The Freedom of Information Act is a pro-people law that empowers everybody, researchers, lawyers, librarians, doctors, students, market women and even the unemployed. Citizens now have a right to know what our national budget deficit is or how much our lawmakers at the National Assembly, for instance, earn monthly. Prior to this Act, Nigeria has no laws which guarantee citizens access to records and information as virtually all government information were classified as “Top Secret”.

Additionally, existing laws which protect office holders’ privacy and deny citizens the right to be informed include, among others, the Official Secrets Act; the Evidence Act; the Public Complaints Commission Act; the Statistics Act and the Criminal Code. Defamation, libel and sedition laws coupled with harassment, threats of arrests and detention without trial also inhibit freedom of expression. Also, quite a number of Nigerian laws have secrecy clauses prohibiting the disclosure of information and public servants are made to swear to oaths of secrecy when employed. This entrenched culture of secrecy promotes arbitrariness and nurtures ‘sacred cows’ in government. A review of these statutes and practice is now mandatory.

Now that Nigerians have a statutory “Right to know”, public servants with corrupt intent must be quaking in their baban’rigaagbada and suits. Questions will be asked and answers must be given. The culture of secrecy among public servants appears to be broken and officialdom can no longer simply shrug its shoulders. The Freedom of Information Act is set to fundamentally alter the relationship between government and the people.

The new law is a vital tool to uncover facts and unearth excesses, corrupt and inept officials as well as institutions will be held to account. It is a significant step towards rebuilding trust between government and the people. Governance in Nigeria is now a whole new ball game! It can no longer be business as usual for public servants with corrupt intent.

This is the age of transparency. Governments across the world recognise the need to run an open and inclusive government where the rule of law and absence of corruption obtains so as to bond with the citizens. Access to information underpins good governance. It engenders accountability and all that is good about democracy. Transparency and information, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, are the “currency” of democratic freedom. Without the “Right to know”, all indices of good governance are nothing but sheer buzzwords.

Concerns over possible media misuse of the law are misconceived and premature. There are adequate stop-gaps already in place in our statutes to deal with aberrant users. I know of no one who has ever advocated for the FOI without caveats but if something is true and poses no threat to national security or personal safety, it should be published. The privacy of a public servant cannot take precedence over transparency. Public officers are public patrimony, their conduct both private and in public are subject to public scrutiny. It is immoral for them to say one thing in public but another in private.

The Freedom of Information Act has ushered in a new era of open government in Nigeria. It may well open the government’s Pandora box and it remains to be seen if the ruling elites can live with the truth. Our challenge is to make the law work because the elites have a penchant for side-stepping laws. Citizen’s right to access official information must not be frustrated if the new law is to mean more than a bogus piece of statutory instrument.

The press on its part should, in line with its social responsibility function take up the gauntlet, by promoting awareness among members of the public about the new law. Nigerians should engage in active citizenship by taking shared responsibility to move our country forward. Furthermore, the press should prove its mettle as a veritable watchdog on Government by demonstrating a high sense of professional responsibility so that it will be “thumbs up” for the Watchdog Press and not “thumbs- down” for the government’s lapdog.

Ojo, a London-based independent journalist, wrote from 110, Guinness Square, London SE1 4HP, England via