A few days ago (3rd June), my sister and I visited the Eko Atlantic City showroom on Ahmadu Bello in Victoria Island. The entrance into the compound was surrounded by stagnant water and the place smelt like urine. When we got to the gate, the security guards there looked at us wondering what the heck we were doing here. Even the receptionist seemed taken aback to see us but informed us she would have someone join us in a second. We were just interested; my sister has a Masters’ Degree in Urban Design and I just wanted a few moments to dream. The show room looked like no-one ever entered it, was mildly interested or even worse, like no-one even believed the project would be completed like almost every grand project in this country. Besides the media rights activists and other civil society organizations, it seems like a huge chunk of the country could have gone another 20years without the freedom to information because we are not even interested in the one we do have access to. But I really hope I am wrong.
Just before President Jonathan was sworn in as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, he signed a bill called The Freedom of Information bill which became law on the 1st of June, 2011. This piece of legislation, which makes it possible to hold public officers accountable for every act done and makes it a duty to publish information requested for by members of the public, has come not a moment sooner. In the pendulum of citizen and state, it seems like the power has shifted an inch in our favor. Now we have this power to demand to see what our public officers do with the hopes, dreams and yes, tax we deposit in their care.
The basic stuff about the legislation include: first, your right to request information (written or not) in the custody of any public official or agency is established, you don’t need to demonstrate any specific interest, and you can institute proceedings in court to compel compliance (sections 1 and 3) second, if the public institution refuses to give you access to any record, it must state the grounds in the notice given and if it was wrongful to deny you access, it shall pay a penalty of N500,000 (section 7) which I think is too small though. Third, every public official or institution must ensure it keeps information or records, and if it deliberately destroys any record, the officer will be facing a criminal offence punishable with 1year imprisonment (section 9 & 10). There are certain exemptions though which include International Affairs and Defence, law enforcement and investigation, personal information, and other privileges (sections 11, 12, 14, 16) and others which are reasonable. However, and a big however at that, there is an exception e.g. in Section 12 subsection 2 which says that information shall not be denied where the public interest outweighs whatever injury disclosure may cause. I hate to be this technical but when facing public officials with provisions of the law it helps to be confident about what you’re talking about.
I remember when I heard that the Freedom of Information Bill had finally been given assent, I recalled something ‘Aunty Dora’ said when the late President Yar’Adua was not in the country and everyone was clueless as to what was going on. She said “I am the Minister for Information, but I do not have any information to give to you” or something along those lines. Thankfully, and hopefully, in a freer society like Nigeria is now becoming, no public official will ever be able to make such an excuse again. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States once said “a democracy cannot be both ignorant and free” The framers of the US constitution knew that if they failed to ensure that they provide and share information completely, they ran the risk of finding themselves back in the same situation as being subjects of the great British monarchy. So this right to information is enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which according to James Russell Wiggins consists of (but is not limited to) the freedom from punitive censorship, to collect information and to distribute information and make it directly available to all members of the public without government interference. Gratefully, we also now have our own guarantee of such a freedom in our body of law. We cannot go about rejoicing that our votes cast at the election were counted and reflect our choice and then go to bed and forget about what ‘our choices’ are going to be doing with the power that we have given them.
This is definitely a welcome piece of legislation and a step towards the right path. But the success of this piece of legislation really does lie in our hands – the citizens. It is now our responsibility to demand to know because, according to a popular saying in the legal profession, the court cannot give you what you haven’t asked for. So we must ask, be curious, and be nosy. For a democratic society to function and continue to exist, it must have not just the freedom to express your thoughts and say whatever you want to, but ensure that such criticisms you levy on the government and its officials are educated and not borne out of ignorance. The responsibility of maintaining a democratic society is shared between leader and follower, and thankfully this piece of legislation makes our work a bit easier.