Nigerian Judiciary Supporting New FOI Law, Group Reports

31 May 2013

Court rulings in Nigeria are consistently upholding the two-year-old freedom of information law, according to a Nigerian watchdog group.

Media Rights Agenda praised the judiciary, saying that most rulings have counteracted refusal to disclose information by public institutions. The May 28 press release cited a number of specific examples.

MRA’s Deputy Executive Director Jennifer Onyejekwe said: “We are heartened to note that in almost all the cases that have gone to court, the courts have unequivocally upheld the right of members of the public to access information under the Act and have accordingly ordered the concerned public institutions to disclose the information requested.”

She also said, “We are even more delighted that despite the notorious slow pace of adjudication of cases in Nigerian courts, all of these cases have been decided relatively speedily.”

Institutions Resistant

Government agencies, however, have brazenly avoided complying with the law, Onyejekwe said. She urged the passage of administrative sanctions to strengthen the law.

“It is regrettable that most public institutions are leaning in favour of the option of being dragged to court, where they proffer ridiculous defences that are invariably slammed by the courts before they are ultimately compelled to disclose information which they have no legitimate reason to hide in the first place.  Such an attitude is costly for citizens and costly for the public institutions themselves. It amounts to an unconscionable waste of public funds and ought to be checked,” she said in the statement.

One indicator of the “very poor” attitude of agencies toward the law is that “only an insignificant number of public institutions submitted their annual statutory reports to the Attorney-General of the Federation, as required by Section 29 of the Act.”

Records it obtained from the office of the Attorney-General  “showed clearly that out of the thousands of public institutions in this country to which the FOI Act applies, only 16 public institutions filed their statutory annual reports for 2011 while only 32 filed their reports for 2012 by the deadline of February 1, 2013.”

Onyejekwe commented: “This level of impunity in the form of a brazen disregard for the Law by institutions maintained with public funds is unacceptable.  We call on the National Assembly and the Attorney-General of Federation, which are given oversight responsibilities by the FOI Act, to institute an administrative sanctions mechanism to enforce strict compliance by public institutions with the provisions of the Law.” 

Although “pleased by the response and attitude of the Judiciary,” the group noted that going to court “would be out of the reach of most ordinary citizens who are wrongfully denied their right of access to information and require effective remedies.” MRA has no tally of the number of FOI cases filed.

Notable Cases Decided

The organization cited some notable freedom of information cases in which the courts have upheld the rights of citizens and organizations. The summaries are by Media Rights Agenda and the links are to the text of the cases. Noted were:

 ?         A Public Institution Cannot Validly Rely on Other Grounds outside the Reasons Stated in a Denial Notice to an Applicant for Information (Legal Defence and Assistant Project vs the Clerk of the National Assembly, in Suit No: FHC/ABJ./CS/805/2011, decided by Justice Balkisu Bello Aliyu of the Federal High Court, Abuja on June 25, 2012)

 ?        Central Bank Governor’s salary not personal information under FOI Act (Uzoegwu F.O.C. Esq vs the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Attorney-General of the Federation, in Suit No: FHC/ABJ./CS/1016/2011, decided by Justice Balkisu Bello Aliyu of the Federal High Court in Abuja on July 5, 2012.)

?          Public Institutions Have No Power under the Law to Keep Mute when an FOI Request is Made to Them  (Mr. Boniface Okezie vs the Attorney-General of the Federation and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), in Suit No. FHC/L/CS/514/2012, decided on February 22, 2013 by Justice M.B. Idris of the Federal High Court in Lagos.)

?       Disclosure of Information About a Contract Already Awarded Cannot Interfere with Rights of a Third Party (The Public and Private Development Centre  (For itself and on behalf of the Nigeria Contract Monitoring Coalition vs the Power Holding Company of Nigeria  (PHCN) Plc and the Attorney-General of the Federation, in Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/582/2012, decided by Justice A.F.A. Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja on March 1, 2013)

Another case pointed out to is: 

 ?         FOI Act Cannot be Applied Retrospectively (In the Ikeja Judicial Division Before Justice Y.O. Idowu (Mrs.) Sitting at Court No. 10, General Civil Division Ikeja Wednesday, 14th March 2012 Suit No. ID/211/2009)

Also listed as favorable rulings were: 

 ?         (Olasupo Ojo, Esq. (for himself and on behalf of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights) vs the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, in Suit No. FHC/L/CS/754/11, decided by Justice B.F.M. Nyako of the Federal High Court in Lagos on March 1, 2012)

 ?         Mr. Boniface Okezie vs the Central Bank of Nigeria, in Suit No. FHC/L/CS/494/2012, decided on October 2, 2012 by Justice M.B. Idris of the Federal High Court in Lagos.

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