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The Quest for Freedom of Information in Nigeria

an article by Ondotimi Songi

The long and tortuous journey of Nigeria’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill finally came to an end when on the 27th May, 2011 the Bill was passed and assented to a day later. The FOI Bill (now Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the longest and most debated Bill in Nigeria but paradoxically the fastest Bill to be assented to. All individuals and organisations that fought and ensured its passage must be commended for a job well-done. However, although the FOIA is a good start in enthroning democratic governance and rule of law in Nigeria, it is not the final bullet.

The FOIA retained its general objective improving transparency in the conduct of public affairs by allowing access to information deemed to be in the public interest. The Act among other things makes public records and information more freely available, protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy, protect serving public officers from adverse consequences for disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorization and establish procedures for the achievement of those purposes. Public institutions are compelled to keep records and information and to organise them in such a way that the public can access them. Appropriate training is to be provided for officials by governments and institutions on the public's right to access information or records held by government or public institutions.

There are, however, grounds on which the Act gives exemptions to the right of the public to know – namely information that could compromise national security, the conduct of international affairs, records that could expose trade secrets, etc. Thus the true test of the Act will come when the courts try to balance these exemptions with the public's quest to exercise the right to know - which is the main thrust of the Act. Interestingly, barely weeks after its passage, the FOIA is being tested in court against the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

Another challenge the FOIA may face is whether it will apply throughout Nigeria because information is under the concurrent list of Nigeria's federal constitution. The argument, therefore, is that the various State Houses of Assembly will have to domesticate it before it can apply in those States, otherwise it will apply only in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. Whether this is legally correct or not will eventually be decided by the Nigerian courts.

DISCUSSION

Question(s) related to this article:


Free flow of information, How is it important for a culture of peace?

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Latest reader comment:

Perhaps the simplest way to illustrate the essential importance of free flow of information for a culture of peace is to discuss the importance of the control of information for the culture of war.

Here are excerpts from an Washington Post investigation two years ago entitled Top Secret America: A hidden world, growing beyond control.  To read the original, click here.

"* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year - a volume so large that many are routinely ignored." . . .

"Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate. . .

Much of the information about this mission is classified. That is the reason it is so difficult to gauge the success and identify the problems of Top Secret America, including whether money is being spent wisely. The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 21/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn't include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs."

As we said in the draft Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace that we sent from UNESCO to the UN General Assembly in 1998:

"98. It is vital to promote transparency in governance and economic decision-making and to look into the proliferation of secrecy justified in terms of 'national security', 'financial security', and 'economic competitiveness'. The question is to what extent this secrecy is compatible with the access to information necessary for democratic practice and social justice and whether, in some cases, instead of contributing to long-term security, it may conceal information about processes (ecological, financial, military, etc.) which are a potential threat to everyone and which need therefore to be addressed collectively."


This report was posted on July 7, 2011.

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