FOI: What Freedom Of Information?

When the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was signed into law by the Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, many civil society organizations hailed the development as a step towards transparency and accountability in government. Essentially, the FOI guarantees (or is meant to guarantee) public access to information held by public institutions and provides protection for whistleblowers.

An online user of the Open Society Foundations’ website was so excited about the FOI that he commented that for “a country like Nigeria to pass the information law means that we are on our way to greatness. I see a time when changes would be done to the law to improve its workability!” How far from the truth!

Before we get to the Nigerian government and its institutions, let us examine the mindset of Nigerians in the private sector. Every time there is a robbery in a Nigerian bank, the newspapers report that a robbery took place in a general area (e.g. Victoria Island, Ibadan) and in a “new generation” or “old generation” bank. The newspapers have never provided us with a definition of what a new or old generation bank is and no categorisation of existing banks has ever been carried out to help the public. What this means is that a newspaper reader is aware of a robbery but is not entitled to know whether or not that friend or relative who works in a bank in that area may have been affected by the robbery.

Earlier this year, civil society groups condemned the planned arrest of the Chairman, Governing Board, Nigerian National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Professor Chidi Odinkalu, by the police over allegations by the rights activist that police routinely kill scores of Nigerians in police detention facilities in the country every year. Rather than counter the claims as wrong, the Nigerian police resorted to its age-old practice of intimidating people in the guise of “investigations” or the more recently used phrase of “checking irresponsible statements.” Interestingly, what happened to Prof. Odinkalu is not readily available on the internet!

More recently, a popular radio station host (my not stating the name is an indication of fear of intimidation!) told a caller who complained about the renaming of the University of Lagos, that he should not complain about Jonathan but can complain about the president.

Coming back to government, I have noticed that almost every time an event has happened and the newspaper correspondent tries to get in touch with the government agency spokesperson, the standard answer is that “I have not been briefed on the matter. I will get back to you.” This happens even when newspapers are awash with stories on the particular event!

What is instructive from the foregoing is that whilst we have a FOI Act, there is a prevalent atmosphere of fear in the country which makes the Act redundant. In a country where the police can be routinely used to harass or intimidate whistleblowers, there is little chance that people will come forward with incriminating information. Moreover, the government has not shown any commitment towards making Nigerian more informed. For instance, whilst Nigerians have always known how much was budgeted annually by the Federal and State governments, there is an eerie silence on the actual yearly spend.

This is a rallying cry to civil society not to accept government’s barefaced shenanigans at placating critics. Rather, the focus should be on respect for the rule of law and human rights which should be measured by actions and not words. Only then will the FOI be functional and potentially lead to greatness.

Wouldn’t you want to know how Jonathan spends his N847million feeding allowance?

Michael Lawson wrote in from Lagos.

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