FOI Act Binds All States In Nigeria – Appeal Court

The Court of Appeal has ruled that Nigerian states have no powers to reject requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI).

In a March 27 decision at the Akure Division, the Court of Appeal ruled that the requests for information, especially around public expenditure, under the FoI, are made in public interest and should be honoured by all states.

The decision came in an appeal filed by Martins Alo, a journalist, against the Speaker of Ondo State House of Assembly and Auditor-General of Ondo State.

Mr Alo had demanded the audited report of Ondo State Government between 2012 and 2014 to properly access how public funds are utilised in the state. But the request was rejected, prompting him to seek judicial redress.

The Akure Division of Ondo State High Court had previously ruled in 2016 that Mr Alo had no right to demand how the state was spending money, saying the FoI was not applicable to states and the request was not in public interest to begin with.

The judge, Williams Akintoroye, also said Mr Alo should pay a damage of N10,000 for wasting time and resources of the state.

But Mr Alo’s lawyer, Femi Emodamori, appealed the ruling on behalf of his client, arguing that Mr Akintoroye erred in his judgment and that his client was acting in public interest.

A three-member panel at the Court of Appeal rejected Mr Akintoroye’s ruling and agreed with the appellant that the FoI was applicable to states and it was in public interest for the state government to release its audited report.

The Court of Appeal judges who sat on the matter included Uzo Ndukwe-Anyanwu, Obande Ogbuinya and Ridwan Abdullahi.

Mr Ndukwe-Anyanwu wrote the lead opinion, saying Mr Alo has a right to act on behalf of the public to obtain the information from state authorities. He also quashed the N10,000 fine imposed by the lower court.

“In a democratic dispensation, such as the Nigeria’s, the citizens have been proclaimed the owners of sovereignty and mandates that place leaders in the saddle,” Mr Ogbuinya said in his concurring opinion.

The citizens have a right to know details of “expenditure of public funds generated from their taxes,” Mr Ogbuinya added.

Several states, including Lagos, Adamawa, Akwa-Ibom and Ondo, have been rejecting FoI requests relating to their activities since the law was signed in 2011 by former President Goodluck Jonathan.

The states argued that the FoI is a federal law and its provisions are simply not binding on their respective jurisdictions, frustrating accountability efforts by media outlets and transparency advocates.

Media Rights Agenda Inducts JAMB Into ‘FOI Hall of Shame’

By Kehinde Ayantunji
The Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) emerged today as this week’s inductee into the Freedom of Information (FOI) “Hall of Shame” as Media Rights Agenda (MRA) accused it of consistently failing to implement the FOI Act and to fulfill its obligations under the Law over the last six years.
Between 2011, when the FOI Act was passed into Law, and the present time, JAMB ought to have submitted six annual reports to the Attorney-General of the Federation on its implementation of the Act but it has not actually submitted a single report, MRA said in a statement in Lagos explaining the choice of JAMB for induction into the FOI Hall of Shame.
In addition, MRA noted, JAMB has not fulfilled its proactive disclosure obligations under Section 2 of the Act as it has not published either on its website or anywhere else, the 16 categories of information that it is required by the FOI Act to publish and disseminate widely to members of the public through various means, including print, electronic and online sources.
Other aspects of the FOI Act which MRA accused JAMB of disregarding include Section 2(3)(f) and Section 13 of the Act.  Section 2(3)(f) mandates every public institution to publish the title and address of the appropriate officer to whom applications for information should be sent, which JAMB has failed to do.
Under Section 13, every government or public institution is required to ensure the provision of appropriate training for its officials on the public’s right to access information and records held by the government or public institution for the effective implementation of the Act.  MRA noted that although this is mandatory, JAMB had not carried out any such training for its officials since the Act was passed into Law six years ago.
MRA said it did not have enough information to make a definitive statement on the level of JAMB’s responsiveness to requests for information from members of the public, arguing that JAMB itself is to blame for this situation as it has repeatedly failed make returns to the Attorney-General of the Federation on this issue, as the Law requires it to do.
It observed that JAMB’s blatant disregard for the mandatory provisions of the Act clearly has far reaching negative implications for both the effective implementation of the Law, as it affects both the right and ability of members of the public to request and obtain information from it, as well as the capacity of oversight bodies, namely the Attorney-General of the Federation and the National Assembly, to assess the level of implementation of the Act by JAMB.
MRA’s Freedom of Information Programme Manager, Mr. Ridwan Sulaimon, said: “There can be no doubt that given the functions of JAMB, the destiny of millions of young Nigerians rests with the institution.  Over the years, while millions have been positioned to achieve their lives’ career goals through JAMB, the hopes of millions of others have also been dashed by JAMB. It is therefore not inconceivable that JAMB is a public institution that a lot of Nigerians, especially the youths, want information from for many different reasons, including to enable them to prepare for and achieve their goals in life.”
Illustrating some of the challenges posed by JAMB’s nonchalance towards its duties and obligations under the Act, Mr. Sulaimon stated that “By failing to designate an appropriate officer to whom requests for information should be sent and not publishing the title and address of such an officer, thousands or perhaps millions of Nigerians seeking information from JAMB would not know who to direct their requests for information to.”
Besides, Mr. Sulaimon said, as a result of the failure of JAMB to submit its annual implementation report over the last six years, the vital statistical information which the reports are supposed to provide to members of the public, the Attorney-General of the Federation and the relevant committees of the National Assembly are lost.
According to him, “Owing to the failure of JAMB to submit its annual reports to the Attorney-General of the Federation, we are unable to determine the number of applications for information that JAMB received during each year and number of such applications that it processed; we do not know how many requests for information JAMB has granted or how many were still pending by the end of each year; we have no information about the total amount of fees collected from those seeking information or the number of days it takes JAMB to process different types of applications for information; we also do not know the number of full-time staff that JAMB devotes to processing applications for information, among others.”
MRA stressed that in the light of the far-reaching negative implications of JAMB’s failure to comply with the provisions of the FOI Act for the rights of Nigerians and the fact that its failure to implement the Act amounts to an intentional disrespect for the Law, such behaviour ought not to be allowed to continue.
MRA launched the “FOI Hall of Shame” on July 3 to draw attention to public officials and institutions that are undermining the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 through their actions, inactions, utterances and decisions.

Minister Restates FG’s Commitment To FoI Enforcement

The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed has restated the commitment of the Federal Government to upholding the Freedom of Information, FoI, Act as a necessary instrument in the fight against corruption and promoting transparency in governance.

The Minister made the remarks in Abuja on Tuesday in his message to mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day, which has the theme “Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms: This Is Your Right.”

“We are indeed in a very interesting period, which calls for full support and use of the FOI Act and which recognizes the citizen’s right to know, promote war against corruption and sustain economic development. If activities of public institutions are subjected to scrutiny, it will be easier to measure their efforts against their goals and our expectations,” he said.

Mohammed asserted that the government had taken a bold step further in not just guaranteeing Freedom of Expression but creating access to information.

According to him, “It is apparent that the tide today is to grant freedom of not just expression but also of access to information. However, each nation has to consider its own peculiarities in joining the fray. Since Sweden started the enactment several decades ago, many countries have embraced it and I believe many more are seriously considering the enactment. The fact is that if well utilised, an FOI Act will offer citizens a sense of involvement, belonging and fulfillment.

“It will go a long way in entrenching transparency, which will in turn help curb corruption, promote accountability, good governance, rule of law and service delivery in public office,” the Minister stated.

He observed that for democracy to be entrenched in the country, the culture of transparency and accountability must permeate all the strata of government, and therefore enjoined the media to hold the government to account by exploring the Freedom of Act.

Mohammed commended the media for remaining resolute in the pursuit of liberty, social justice, equality and democracy and assured that the Federal Government will continue to create the enabling environment for the media to thrive.

His words, “Without even prompting, the citizens require full information on how they are represented and governed. The very nature of democratic government implies accountability and transparency, a free press and other democratic checks.

“Interestingly, Nigeria, as a developing nation, has a free and independent press. Its vibrant media have successful exposed corruption in higher places and remained undaunted in the face of victimization, politicization and sentiment expressed in some quarters against their professional stubbornness.”