Media Rights Agenda (MRA) on July 3, 2017 in Lagos launched the “FOI Hall of Shame” aimed at focusing attention on public officials and institutions undermining the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, 2011 through their actions, inactions, decisions or utterances.
MRA named Justice Doris Okuwobi of the Ikeja High Court as the first inductee into the FOI Hall of Shame on July 3 and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) as the second inductee on July 10.
Announcing the initiative, MRA’s Executive Director, Mr. Edetaen Ojo, said: “six years after the Act was enacted into Law, it has become clear that there is a concerted effort by some public officials and institutions, cutting across all arms and all levels of government, to ensure that it does not work and that it does not achieve its objectives. We intend to call them out in the court of public opinion.”
He disclosed further that: “every week, MRA will induct into the FOI Hall of Shame a public institution or public official who, by its, his or her action or inaction, decision, utterance or in any other way is undermining or has undermined the effective implementation of the FOI Act and we will provide ample justification for our decision regarding such an institution or official.”
Explaining the choice of Justice Okuwobi as the first inductee into the FOI Hall of Shame, Mr. Ojo said her ruling on an FOI suit on June 19, 2017 is “one of the most ridiculous decisions ever given by a court anywhere in the world”, adding that the implication of the ruling is that if a public institution ignores a freedom of information request by failing to respond to it, it can never be sued, despite the clear provisions of the Freedom of Information Act to the contrary.
He recounted the events leading to Justice Okuwobi’s ruling, from November 4, 2016, when MRA made a Freedom of Information request to the Ojodu Local Council Development Area (LCDA), by a letter with the subject: “Request for Records of Water Works Plans for Araromi Zion Estate”; the LCDA refusal to respond to the letter; and MRA’s December 6, 2016, application filed at the Ikeja Judicial Division of the Lagos State High Court seeking leave to compel the Council to comply with the provisions of the FOI Act and provide MRA with the information requested.
Continuing, Mr Ojo said it took the court more than seven months just to list and hear a simple motion ex parte for leave and when Justice Okuwobi finally heard the application for leave on June 19, 2017, she held that MRA’s failure to show evidence of a written notice by the Council denying it access to the information was fatal to its case.
Although the FOI Act gives public institutions seven days to provide the information requested and requires an applicant who has been denied access to information to approach the Court within 30 days after the public institution denied or is deemed to have denied access to the information, Justice Okuwobi held, more than seven months after MRA made its request for the information, that the application to the court was “premature” because the Council had not given MRA a written notice that it would not grant access.
In effect, the judge used the Council’s disregard of its duties and obligations under the FOI Act, against MRA, the victim, which had come before the court for redress.
Mr. Ojo said: “It beats the imagination that a judge will condone and actively encourage such an act of impunity by making it impossible for those whose rights are so flagrantly and wantonly violated to approach the courts to vindicate their rights. The Judgement does not only constitute a deadly impediment to the effectiveness of the FOI Act, it also brings the Judiciary to disrepute and diminishes citizens’ confidence in it.”
In a similar vein, on June 10, 2017, MRA named the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) as the second inductee into its Freedom of Information (FOI) Hall of Shame for the organisation’s “persistent and unjustifiable violation of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act over the last six years.’’
MRA’s Executive Director, Mr. Edetaen Ojo, said in a statement: “It really should not be a surprise to anyone that the NNPC has become a cesspool of corruption over the years, having opted for a corporate policy of lack of transparency while resisting all attempts to hold it accountable to both the people of Nigeria and political authorities.”
According to MRA, “In the six years since the enactment of the FOI Act, the NNPC has not submitted any annual report to the Attorney-General of the Federation as required by Section 29(1) of the Act; it has persistently failed to comply with its proactive disclosure obligations under Section 2(3) and (4) of the Act; and has repeatedly refused to disclose information to requesters, opting instead to pay millions of naira in public funds to lawyers to implement its corporate strategy of lack of transparency and accountability.”
MRA accused the NNPC of not only violating the provisions of the FOI Act, but also disregarding with impunity all the directives contained in the Guidelines for the Implementation of the FOI Act, issued by the Attorney-General of the Federation.
It called on the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN) and the National Assembly to take “urgent measures to check this unacceptable level of impunity” on the part of the NNPC, saying they have the primary responsibility for ensuring compliance with the FOI Act by all public institutions.
Mr. Ojo said: “It is a matter of serious concern to us that no official or institution of government seems able to call the NNPC to order or to hold it accountable despite numerous reports and audits attesting to the most egregious violations of the provisions of various laws, including the FOI Act, by the corporation. What we see instead is the inexplicable waste of public funds by the NNPC to retain the most expensive lawyers to help it resist any request for information, even of the most mundane type.”
According to him, “it is difficult to understand how it is possible that even in the midst of a blistering war against corruption and despite the various audit reports which have detailed the NNPC’s sharp business practices, violation of regulations, illegal deductions of funds belonging to the Government, failure to account for several billions of naira that should have gone into the federation account and over-deducted funds in subsidy claims, which it has not been able to account for, not a single person in the NNPC has been punished or charged with any offence.”