The Nigerian legislature has been asked to give the necessary political will and formidable legal framework to the Freedom of Information Act and the proposed Whistle Blower Protection Bill to make it more effective and efficient in the fight against corruption and impunity in the system.
This call was made by the convener of the United Action for Change, Mr Muiz Banire (SAN), while presenting the two bills before some members of the Ogun State House of Assembly in Abeokuta, the state capital.
The organization was in Abeokuta to seek the understanding and cooperation of the state assembly to ensure the two bills are domesticated in the state when passed into law.
They also emphasised the need to critically examine the Freedom of Information Act, which they claimed has not received the expected wide acceptability as a result of many observed lapses in the act.
They recommended amendments to address those lapses.
Reacting to the call for a vibrant legal framework for the bills to be effective, the Speaker of the Ogun State House of Assembly, Suraj Adekunbi, expressed the support of the House for the bills.
He said that everything humanly possible would be done by members to ensure the bills are domesticated in the state.
Answering reporters’ questions at the end of the session, Mr Muiz Banire said that the proposed amendment to the FOI Act and the Whistle Blower Protection Bill are aimed at ensuring good governance, accountability and sustenance of the fight against corruption.
The proposed Ogun version of the bill has 33 sections, with emphasis on Section 20 and 21 which provides for Complaint Commissioner and Appeal Commissioner.
The Nigerian Army has set up a Freedom of Information Office in line with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2011.
According to the Director Army Public Relations, Brigadier-General Ibrahim Attahiru, the implementation of the act is aimed at ensuring transparency, accountability and professionalism in the Nigerian Army.
Attahiru assured Nigerians that prompt responses for access to information relating to the Nigerian Army will be given whenever it is needed.
Meanwhile he assured Nigerians that the Nigerian Army remains resolute and dedicated to dislocating and disrupting terrorist activities in the country.
A member of the House of Representatives, Abike Dabiri-Erewa has accused the Nigerian media of a disappointing lackadaisical attitude to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) passed two years.
Noting that despite the rigours undertaken to get the bill passed and signed into law, she claimed the law has being grossly under-utilized by Nigerians and the media amidst the widespread corruption in the country.
Mrs Dabiri-Erewa made this known at the 5th Wole Soyinka Centre media lecture series on Saturday in Lagos where she challenged the media and civil society organisations to further ask questions on some of the revelations uncovered by the various committees of the House of Representatives.
Where is the money?
Highlighting the $16billion fuel subsidy scam unveiled by an adhoc committee set-up by the House to investigate the fraudulent payment of fuel subsidy, the lawmaker asked “where is the money?”
“We (House of Representatives) brought the fuel subsidy scam to fore by revealing that there was no subsidy, that all we are subsidising was corruption and nobody has asked the question on what has happened to the money.”
The lawmaker, who sponsored the FOIA in the House, described the bill as a gift from the National Assembly stating that “the 7th Assembly has given this bill as a gift to Nigeria’s democracy,” but “nothing has happened afterwards with using the law.”
She claimed that the House Committee on the Implementation of the FOI has also just discovered that a lot of Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs) do not have a FOI Unit to address such request when they are made as mandated by the law and “nobody is asking the questions” she lamented.
“Right now, only 29 MDAs are submitting the annual expenditure and nobody is asking questions.”
She also cited an example of the Joint Admission Matriculation Board (JAMB) which according to her earns about N26billion from the sale of forms to students seeking admission into the nation’s universities, “yet 86 per cent of these students are not given admission and nobody ask what JAMB does with the money.”
She however commended the Nigerian Army for the adequate implementation of the FOIA, saying that House Committee has discovered that the Army and a few agencies have set-up the FOI Unit and also have dedicated phone lines to address any FOI request.
“Let us use this law to know how the nation’s resources are used judiciously or not” she appealed.
In his comments, the chairman of National Human Rights Commission, Dr Chidi Odinkalu, noted that “the tyranny of rights cannot make progress with citizens who want to take responsibility.”
He linked the access to information with access to education as he enjoined Nigerians to demand explanations from government and public servants, who according to him “see access to information as a way to block how government is ran.”
Dr Odinkalu, however called for caution in the expectations of the FOIA, stating that Nigeria got the FOIA in 2011 after 100years of operating a secretive policy imposed by British colonial masters in 1911 and sustained onwards.
Delivering the keynote lecture Prof Biodun Jeyifo, had earlier in his lecture titled: The Freedom Of Information Act and the Dictatorship of Corruption and Mediocrity, decried Nigerians failure to use the FOIA despite some confessions of looting by politicians recently.
He recalled the duel between President Olusegun Obasanjo and Vice-President Atiku Abubakar in 2006, when the former President asked the National Assembly to commence impeachment proceedings against the latter over the blatant looting of the Petroleum Trust Development Fund (PTDF).
The academic stated that the Vice-President did not deny the charges but confessed that the President’s cronies and girlfriends were beneficiaries of the loot and this allegation was substantiated with series of newspaper publications of incriminating documents.
“No FOI action could bring out the information that was voluntarily divulged by Obasanjo and Atiku and till today, nothing has happened to the duo” said Prof Jeyifo.
He described the nation’s type of democracy as ‘dictatorship in democracy’ which is not paranoid or unembarrassed by any allegation of corrupt practices as corruption and mediocrity reigns supreme in this country.”
The Professor of African Studies and Comparative Literature from Harvard University, decried the media for being “remarkably reticent to compel our leaders to comply with the dictates of the FOI,” as he warned that “the nation’s democracy is averse to the rule of law and on the verge of a failed state.”
The National Coordinator of the Legal Defence And Assistance Project (LEDAP), Chino Obiagwu has said that the hearing for the case filed by the organisation against the Code of Conduct Bureau has been fixed for April 4 2013 by the Federal High Court Abuja.
LEDAP had filed a suit in July 2012 against the Code of Conduct Bureau demanding copies of the asset declarations of all federal ministers, state governors, the President and Vice President.
LEDAP had filed the suit to enforce its request to the bureau under the Freedom of Information Act.
However, the bureau claimed in its response that the Freedom of Information Act exempted it from disclosing declaration of assets of public officials because the asset declaration forms contain personal information about the assets of the officials and of their spouses and unmarried children.
In a letter signed by the Chairman of the bureau to LEDAP in July 2012, the agency said that it would not allow the public to know about the personal information of public officials because it has been exempted under sections 13(1)(v) and 15(1)(ii) of the Freedom of Information Act.
The Code of Conduct Bureau in the letter stated that “we note that Section 1 of the Freedom of Information Act, as a general principle, guarantees the right of any person to access or request for information whether or in written form, which is in custody of Code of Conduct Bureau or indeed any public agency. However, by Section 13(1)(v) of the Act, the Code of Conduct Bureau has power to decline your request as it will constitute an invasion of the personal privacy of the honourable ministers under section 15 of the Act. The asset declaration forms contain personal information about them and their properties, assets and liabilities and those of their spouses and unmarried children under the age of 18 and consequently comes under the exemption under Section 13(1)(v) and 15(1)(ii) of the Act.”
In a statement released to Channels Television, LEDAP’s lawyer, Chino Obiagwu says that the claim by the bureau is not correct under the law. The information that the Bureau says are exempted under the FOI Act are the main target of the asset declaration law.
According to Mr Obiagwu, “the purpose of assets declaration laws is to enable the public and citizens know the worth of its public officials and their close relations so as to monitor how they acquire assets while in office and whether or not public funds are used for such acquisitions. This purpose cannot be achieved if the declarations are not accessible to the public. There is nothing private about the assets declaration. Any person who assumes public office must be ready to face public scrutiny”
LEDAP has now called on the judiciary to decide once and for all on the right of citizens to know the assets of their elected leaders and their spouse in order to monitor and report unlawful acquisitions. There is no way we can tackle corruption in this country if the civil society and indeed the citizens cannot have access to information on assets declared by the public officials and their dependants who they can use for unlawful acquisition of assets from misappropriated public fund”.
The Director General of the National Orientation Agency (NOA), Mike Omeri on Thursday said Nigerians must learn to pay attention to local news media for information that will enhance their lives. Speaking as a guest on Channels Television’s breakfast programme, Sunrise Daily, Mr Omeri queried Nigerians who complained that there are not aware of the activities of his agency.
He said: “I have discovered something, like I said, I have travelled over 20, 000Km since I took office. I have met people who say they have not seen me even in their states but then when I ask them what do they watch? They watch CNN, they are always on DStv watching other programmes; they don’t watch local stations.”
Mr Omeri said because Nigerians are always watching programmes on Digital Satellite television (DStv), the NOA may have to broadcast its information through that channel.
He however advised that “Nigerians must begin to look inward and look at their stations for news and things that interest them and are happening within their communities.”
The Abuja Federal High Court on Monday ordered the National Assembly to within the next 14 days release details of the salary, emoluments and allowances received by lawmakers between 2007 and 2011.
In a suit filed by Legal Defense and Assistance Project (LEDAP), Justice B.B Aliyu gave the ruling on Monday. LEDAP had last year written to the National Assembly management to furnish it with the details of payments made to lawmakers. The NGO made the request on July 6, 2011, citing the Freedom of Information Act which was signed into law in May that year.
Unfortunately the National Assembly refused to respond to the group’s request.
LEDAP filed in its suit last year September, seeking two reliefs which were: an order declaring that the refusal of NASS management to provide the required information was illegal; and an order mandating the NASS management to release the required information within 14 days.
The National Assembly through its counsel, Yusuf Usman, argued that legislators earnings were beyond the purview of the FOI, and that LEDAP had no locus standi to institute the suit.
In giving his ruling, Justice Aliyu disagreed with Mr Usman saying that the payments are of public interest since they were made from public funds.
Justice Aliyu’s ruling is a clear distinction from that made by Yetunde Idowu of a Lagos High Court.
Justice Idowu had ruled that salaries and allowances of lawmakers were personal information, and not covered under the FOI act; in a suit filed by an NGO against the Lagos State House of Assembly.
Counsel to LEDAP Chino Obiagwu, said his client would not relent until all the illegal allowances collected by lawmakers between 2007 and 2011 were returned.
Mr. Chino Obiagwu further added, Legislators are those who made the law on how much each public officer should be paid in salary and allowances, “They are liable to refund any excess money collected beyond approved sum, and we will pursue this issue in the courts until all unlawful over payments to the legislators of the 6th Assembly are repaid to public coffers.”