Freedom of Information advocates have called for the sensitization of judges in the country about the Freedom of Information Act in response to the situation where many of them are giving “decisions that are inconsistent with the spirit and letters of the Law.”
In a communique at the end of their three-day Freedom of Information Implementers Strategy Meeting, held in Abuja from January 27 to 29, 2015, they also noted that cases are routinely taking more than one year to resolve in the courts of first instance despite the requirement in the Act that FOI cases should be dealt with summarily.
The meeting noted that if the Act is going to be effective, the Bar and the Bench must play a more positive role in its implementation and that effective strategies should be put in place for addressing the legal and judicial challenges.
It therefore resolved that measures be taken to sensitize judges about the provisions of the Act and that agencies like the National Judicial Institute (NJI) and the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS) should be involved in such efforts.
The meeting, organized by Media Rights Agenda (MRA), was sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Democratic Governance for Development (DGD) II Project and attended by 120 participants from across the country made up of representatives of civil society organizations and legal practitioners litigating FOI cases.
The participants were addressed by the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Chief Augustine Alegeh (SAN), who served as Keynote Speaker; and Mr. Kelechi Nwosu, President of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN).
The meeting observed that “there have been tremendous improvements in the implementation of the FOI Act in recent times as a result of their collective efforts as there is now more awareness about the Act as well as a significant increase in the level of usage of the Act by different people.”
It however noted that the level of usage remained far too low, given the country’s population and the issues which citizens ought to be engaging.
The meeting also expressed dissatisfaction with the current situation where it is impossible to tell how many people are actually using the Act, what categories of people use it, or what types of information are being requested, saying that there is a need to collaboratively develop a mechanism for tracking all FOI requests across the country so as to provide reliable data and statistics about the usage of the Law.
The meeting commended the efforts of lawyers providing free legal assistance to individuals and organizations to vindicate their rights of access to information whenever they are wrongfully denied information and called on other legal practitioners to join such efforts.
It also urged the Nigerian Bar Association to come up with an arrangement to provide litigation assistance to citizens around the country who are wrongfully denied access to information.
The meeting noted that “Nigeria’s hope of having a democratic process that is participatory and has the people at its centre depends on systems and mechanisms which enable citizens to engage with those in authority, to ask questions with the assurance that those questions will be answered and to have the belief that they matter,” stressing that the effective working of the FOI Act can help the country to achieve this goal.
The meeting re-structured the Freedom of Information Coalition to reposition it from its original advocacy role to an implementation coordination role and elected a Board of Governors to manage the affairs of the Coalition with a Secretariat to be hosted by Media Rights Agenda until it is able to set up an independent office.
Members of the Board of Governors are: Mr. Yusuf Yakub Arrigasiyyu from the Muslim League for Accountability (MULAC) in Kaduna; Mr. Isah Garba from the Bauchi State Coalition for the Improvement of Public Expenditure Management (BACIPEM) in Bauchi; Mr Terna Yanayka of the Centre for Public Opinion and Media Research (CePOMeR) in Abuja; Mr. Bob Dum Lezina Amegua, a legal practitioner with Karibi-Whyte & Co (Coronation Chambers) in Port Harcourt; Mr. Walter Duru of the Media Initiative Against Injustice Violence and Corruption (MIIVOC) in Owerri; Mrs. Motunrayo Alaka of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) in Lagos; Ms Jennifer Onyejekwe of Media Rights Agenda (MRA) in Lagos.
The oath of office was administered on the new members of the Board by Mr. Adeleke O. Agbola, a legal practitioner and notary public.
Download the communiqué issue at the end of the meeting here Communique_at_the_End_of_the_FOI_Act_Implementers_Strategy_Meeting_held_in_Abuja