Activist Says Access to Education, Active Citizenry Guarantee Effective FOI


Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, a human rights activist and Chairman of the Governing Council of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), has said adequate access to education and an active citizenry will guarantee the operation of an effective Freedom of Information (FOI) system in Nigeria.

Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, Chairman Governing Council of NHRC

He reinforced the statement saying: “We need active citizens to make the FOI Act work”, adding that rather than take responsibility, Nigerians blame God.

Prof. Odinkalu stated this in a paper he presented at an event on July 13, 2013, in Lagos to mark the 79th birthday anniversary of Professor Wole Soyinka. It was organized by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ).

He said three things: informality, silos, or indifference characterize Nigerians attitude to records adding that the Nigerian society is very oral and that Nigerians do not do enough to create records, preserve evidence or crystallize memory.

He lamented that though, people will tell stories about malfeasance, they will also warn that the stories should not be linked to them. He added that public databases do not interface and cannot talk to one another. He said regarding corruption, mediocrity and FOI, “there is enough blame to go round and not enough responsibility”.

According to Prof. Odinkalu, in the absence or destruction of systems, such as effective memory, education and orientation, corruption will thrive and mediocrity will sustain it.

Citing the flooding of the lower Niger River in 2012, Prof Odinkalu said Nigerians have a number of legal instruments which they ought to use to engage with government and ask why it happened but nobody did.

Prof. Odinkalu added that the FOI Act is a symbolism that implements the declaration of Section 14(2) (a) of the constitution which says that “sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria.”

He said the FOI Act is also a framework of how things should be done, adding that: “After 100 years of doing things wrong, the FOI Act lays down how we should now begin to change them.”

He observed that most government institutions and public servants are disdainful of the proactive disclosure requirements of the FOI Act and emphasised that “this is the meat of the law.”He also pointed out that the websites of most government institutions are worse than inadequate.

In conclusion, he said “FOI is also good for our economy. If we operate it effectively, it will reduce transaction costs, increase efficiencies, offer jobs to our young people and make our country safer in a world of competitive value chains in the information sector.”

Prof. Odinkalu suggested that the best line of action to ensure effective work of FOI Act is to promote access to education and transparency in the public service sectors.