Media Rights Agenda (MRA) has commended the Nigerian Judiciary for its unwavering support of the right of citizens to access information under the Freedom of Information Act, 2011, saying it appeared that the effective implementation of the Law would ultimately depend on the courts.
This was contained in a statement issued in Lagos on May 28, 2013 to mark the second anniversary of the signing of the Act into Law. The organization noted that there had been a progressive increase in the number of cases going to court to challenge the refusal by various public institutions to disclose information, as required by the Law.
According to Ms Jennifer Onyejekwe, MRA’s Deputy Executive Director: “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. 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.”
MRA cited some notable freedom of information cases for which the courts have upheld the rights of citizens and organizations as:
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Ms Onyejekwe said although the organization was pleased by the response and attitude of the Judiciary, it was nonetheless concerned that the courts would be out of the reach of most ordinary citizens who are wrongfully denied their right of access to information and require effective remedies.
According to her, “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.”
MRA also noted that the level of compliance by public institutions with the reporting obligations under the Act was very poor as 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.
The organization stated that the records obtained by it from the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation 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.
Ms Onyejekwe said: “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.”
President Goodluck Jonathan signed the harmonised Freedom of Information Bill into law on May 28, 2011 after over ten years of civil society advocacy efforts aimed at getting it passed. It remains the only civil society-initiated bill to have been passed into law in the present civilian dispensation in Nigeria which began in June 1999.