A teeming section of the socially conscious population of Nigeria had believed that with the passage of the Freedom of Information Act into law, opportunities would arise to unlock and access most of the information that have hitherto been esoterically sheltered up in public offices.
Since the aim of the Act is to make public records and information more freely available and also to protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and protection of personal privacy, it has given Nigerians the long awaited opportunity to request for information from public offices. According to the act, where such request is turned down, the public institution owes it as a duty to state the reason under the law. The refusal letter must also contain the name, designation and signature of every official involved.
The Freedom of Information also seeks to protect serving public officers from any adverse consequences of divulging certain kinds of official information without authorization, and to establish procedures for the achievement of these purposes.
With that, for access to any information in an establishment, one can simply write to the office and ask for the information. The person or organization making the request is entitled to a response within seven days. If the establishment fails to respond, it could be taken to court while an order to compelling such establishment to reveal the information would be obtained. It is also in the Act that any official caught trying to doctor the records would be liable to a criminal prosecution and may be jailed if found guilty.
One advantage of the FoI Act is that any public officer that makes information available under the Act is not liable, same for the applicant for the information.
Under normal circumstances, the Act should usher in a new era, where files that were hitherto bore the inscription “Top Secret” in government offices would be made available for the average Nigerian.
If properly utilised, the FoI is an Act that will promote transparency and accessibility. For instance, when Government officials know that nothing is secret, there will be less corruption in the system. The Press too stands to enjoy more freedom under the Act as there will be better access to information. Before the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, all government information remained top secret, thus making it extremely difficult to get information from government agencies. Journalists were denied access to necessary information that would expose corruption.
The main antagonist of the Freedom of Information Act however remains a legislation called the “Official Secret Act”. The Official Secret Act is one of the laws that protect civil servants from divulging official facts and figures. Under this Act, it is an offence for any civil servant to give out government information, it is also an offence for anyone to receive or reproduce such information. Other laws that provide restrictions for the release of public information include the Public Complaints Commission Act, Evidence Act, Criminal Code and Statistics Act. Street Journal’s findings have revealed that with these kinds of Acts still in existence, accountability and transparency may never be attained in the country.
When information is required, corrupt officials simply state that they have good grounds of refusal because Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act (Cap 03, Law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2004) makes it an offence for anyone to transmit, obtain, reproduce or retain any classified matter. Since 1962 when the Act was established, civil servants have always sworn to keep official transactions secret. Though the Act was established to protect vital government information, it has become one of the basis of corruption in many places.
Findings have revealed that for the FoI Act to work unhindered, the Official Secrets Act would have to either be repealed or amended.
Though lawyers have opined severally that the provisions of the FoI Act have tactically rendered the Official Secret Act ineffective, the fact that it continues to exist over a year after the signing of the Freedom of Information Act into law is an indication that some things are not right. The legislative arm of government has promised to repeal it but till date, nothing has been heard.
In the opinion of Kayode Ajulo, a lawyer, “the FoI has constitutional flavour in the sense that it derives from and has its foundation from Sections 22 and 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Section 1 (3) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is clear on this that where any enactment is inconsistent with the provisions of the constitution, the constitution would prevail and that other law would be null and void to the extent of the said inconsistency”.