Nigeria Law One of the Best Says Advocate Edetaen Ojo

14 June 2011

The freedom of information bill that finally emerged in Nigeria is one of the best in the world, according to a key figure in the successful campaign for a FOI law in Nigeria.

Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda, gave an extensive interview to The Independent with Emma Maduabuchi, Assistant Features Editor.

Ojo called the new law “a major achievement” adding, “which, in fact, I look at as something akin to a revolution.”

Proper implementation will be critical, Ojo said, speaking of the need for “a lot of public enlightenment about the existence of the law….” He continued:

So, we would need to do a lot of work, and we are thinking of ways in which we can achieve that and make sure that a large number of Nigerians are familiar with the provisions of the law – whether they are literates or non-literates; whether they are working as professionals, or whether they are artisans.

Monitoring efforts also are being planned, he said, along with litigation support “so that those who are denied information will not be in a situation where they walk away and cannot challenge wrongful denial”

Good Provisions

Ojo praised the law, stating, “We have some very good provisions in the law that will make it very effective. One is that there is a mandatory requirement for public institutions to train their officials to implement the law. There is also sanction for wrongful denial, that every public official who wrongly denies information is liable to N500, 000 naira fine. I think that would be an incentive for people not just to summarily refuse to give access to people.”

Addressing concerns that the ultimate bill was watered down, Ojo disagreed. He said:

No! I very intimately worked with the process right unto the end. Now what has happened was that the House of Representative which passed its own version on February 24 passed a very good law in many respects. The Senate version that was passed on March 16 was not so good. It had a few good provisions which require public institutions to train its officials to implement the law. It also had the provision of wrongful denial of information.

What happened in the harmonisation process was that the conference committee took best parts in the House version, and all the best parts in the Senate version, and brought them together. So, what happened is that we have right now as the final law is better than either the House version or the Senate version. The freedom of information law we have is better than any around the world.

No Supervisory Body Not Seen as Weakness

The possible weakness of the new law, Ojo said, is the lack of a supervisory body to coordinate implementation. “And the reason for that was deliberate, because when you have such a body incorporated in the law, you also require government to set up that body before the law can be implemented. And if government is unwilling to implement the law, then they would be slow in setting up that body,” he said, citing adverse experiences in Uganda and Liberia.

“That is why” Ojo said, “while that may be seen as a weakness ordinarily, we find that it can constitute an obstacle to implementation, and that means that for us, it is a strength that we don’t have to contend with lobbying again for government to set up that body”

Other good features of the law, he said, include that:

–  The government has just seven days to respond,
–  that all residents can use it, not just citizens,
–  that only copying charges may be assessed, and
– And that it applies to private bodies performing public functions.

“So, when you look at all the parameters that is used to assess freedom of information laws, it is a very good law, and it is not watered down in any way. I have done a comparative study of the Nigerian law and laws from other countries, ours is way up there.”

Crediting many groups with the success, Ojo concluded:

So, I don’t think we should be selecting one group against the other as to take the greater glory. I think Nigerians should just be proud that we joined that of nations that have freedom of information laws that enabled their citizens to get access to information and to participate a bit more effectively in governance. We must therefore commit ourselves to really using this law, because if we do not use it, it will not make a difference.

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