The Nigerian National Assembly Needs to Follow FOI Law

24 October 2013

By Yemi Ademolekun

Adamolekun is the National Coordinator of Enough is Enough Nigeria. This article was first published Oct. 24 in Punch.

The National Assembly was allocated N150bn ($1 bn) in the 2013 budget. Yes, it’s ONLY three per cent of the total budget of N4.987tn. However, the 469 men and women in the National Assembly were elected to represent 160 million Nigerians and as citizens, we have a right to demand accountability even though they think there are “other” areas of waste. So, whether three per cent or .001 per cent is not the matter. The fact that the National Assembly has oversight functions over budget performance, yet refuses to be accountable with its allocation is indicative of how well it is curbing waste in the other arms of government.

Saturday, September 28 was commemorated all over the world as the International Right to Know Day. As part of the activities to mark the day in Nigeria, various organisations including Enough is Enough Nigeria, Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement, Freedom of Information Coalition and Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund, organised a peaceful protest to the National Assembly with five main demands:

 (1) A breakdown of the 2013 allocation of N150bn;

(2) an account for the N1tn received from 2005 to date;

(3) to make it easier for Nigerians to reach their representatives by providing accurate contact information online;

(4) to make public the voting records on the constitution amendment public hearings; and

(5) to make the attendance lists at plenaries publicly available.

Other issues added were the National Assembly’s position on the lingering strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities and a reminder on the Freedom of Information Request to account for funds allocated to the constitution review process.

Government Resists FOI Law

The Freedom of Information Bill was passed by the Sixth National Assembly on May 24, 2011 and signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan on May 28, 2011. It’s interesting to note that this same government continues to hold in disdain the provisions of the Act. Mr. President himself said he doesn’t “give a damn” about criticisms that he has not declared his assets publicly; the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation has refused to publish audited accounts and the National Assembly is flouting a court order pursuant to the FOI Act compelling it to disclose details of salaries, emoluments and allowances of the Sixth National Assembly members.  Nigerian citizens should indeed be grateful for the good fortune that saw the passing of the Act after 17 years of hard work by various organisations and individuals.

Forgetting that a protest is usually the last resort after other channels such as letter writing, articles in the papers and direct  and online engagement have been explored, Senator Smart Adeyemi said that because the specific details of the protest were received only a day before the day of the protest, they were unable to prepare a proper response. He then went on to say that the FOI Act gives the recipient of the request seven days to respond. What he forgot was that the Act places the responsibility on public institutions to be proactive about making information available to the public.

Specifically, the relevant parts of Section 2 are as follows:

(1) A public institution shall ensure that it records and keeps information about all its activities, operations and business.

(2) A public institution shall ensure the proper organisation and maintenance of all information in its custody in a manner that facilitates public access to such information.

(3) A public institution shall cause to be published in accordance with subsection (4) of this Section, the following information –

a.  a description of the organisation and responsibilities of the institution including details of the programmes and functions of each division, branch and department of the institution;

b.  a list of all –

 i.  classes of records under the control of the institution in sufficient detail to facilitate the exercise of the right to information under this Act,

c.  a description of documents containing final opinions including concurring and dissenting opinions as well as orders made in the adjudication of cases;

v.  information relating to the receipt or expenditure of public or other funds of the institution;

vi.  the names, salaries, titles and dates of employment of all employees and officers of the institution;

viii.   the name of every official and the final records of voting in all proceedings of the institution.

(4)  A public institution shall ensure that information referred to in this section is widely disseminated and made readily available to members of the public through various means, including print, electronic and online sources, and at the offices of such public institutions.

(5)  A public institution shall update and review information required to be published under this section periodically, and immediately whenever changes occur.

(7)  Public institutions are all authorities whether executive, legislative or judicial agencies, ministries, and extra-ministerial departments of the government, together with all corporations established by law and all companies in which government has a controlling interest, and private companies utilising public funds, providing public services or performing public functions.

Need for Proactive Disclosure

In addition to the court order based on the FOI request, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili raised the issue in a presentation on the cost of governance in early August and requested a debate on the issue. Finally, most National Assembly members on Twitter such as Bukola Saraki, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, Femi Gbajabiamila and Olumide Osoba were asked directly to ensure that the rest of the voting records were released as Babafemi Ojudu had released the records for voting on Section 29(4), popularly tagged #ChildNotBride.

None of them responded. How else do they want to be notified?

Abaribe also asked that we write to the National Assembly to request the attendance list of all plenary sessions.

He most likely misunderstood the request.

Some Nigerians think we don’t need both chambers of the National Assembly and in an effort to reduce the cost of governance have suggested that we scrap the Senate. Some have also complained that through pictures and videos, both chambers always appear empty during most plenary sessions. The request is to enable the citizens to track the attendance of their representatives. Having to write a letter every week invoking the FOI Act to access this information would be a waste of time and resources – human and material – on the part of the National Assembly and the requesting party. I’m sure Abaribe would agree that there are more effective uses of time and money and the Clerk of the National Assembly simply publishing the list on the National Assembly’s website every week would be more efficient.

Finally, Abaribe was adamant that contact information for the National Assembly members was readily available online. He specifically stated that had all the information Nigerians needed. As of Thursday, October 10, the site had not been registered.

Nigerians are only directly involved in the selection of individuals for seven public offices – Councillor and Local Government Chairman at the Local Government level; State House of Assembly Representative and Governor at the State level; and Senator, House of Representatives member and President at the Federal level.

It’s high time our elected representatives at ALL levels got used to answering questions. It’s not only Mr. President that was voted into office. As long as you are voted in, we will continue to ask questions.

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