An eerie silence pervaded the Sunshine Hotel Training Hall, Akure as the film rolled and about 40 pairs of eyes watched. It was startling to see in clear terms how access to information could be put to good use in the quest for good governance. Titled – ‘It’s our money, where is it gone?’, the documentary produced by Muslims for Human Rights, MUHURI, a Kenya based Civil Society Organisation, used available information to inquire how the Kenyan Constituency Development Fund, CDF, a yearly allocation of one million dollar to each of its 210 members of parliament was being spent. Kenya however does not have a Freedom of Information Act.
By May 28, 2013, it will be two years since the Freedom of Information, FoI bill was passed by the Nigerian National Assembly and signed into law by the president. Save for a few cases of use, the law remains largely viable on paper. This worrisome dimension was the push for the South-West Zonal Sensitization Workshop of Civil Society Organisations on the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act organised by Upline Resources Foundation, URF (an Akure domiciled NGO pioneering new ways of talking together, working together and building together) in collaboration with the Democratic Governance for Development, (DGD) II project. The latter is a joint donor-funded project managed by UNDP to further the deepening of democracy in Nigeria. The project enjoys joint funding from the EU, the UK Department for International Development, DFID; the Canadian International Development Agency, CIDA; and the UNDP.
The opening remark was given by the duo of Prof. Albert Ilemobade, CEO of URF and former Vice Chancellor, Federal University of Technology, Akure and Mrs Toyin Gabriel of the UNDP. Hon. Justice Oluwadare Aguda, Chairman of URF Board of Directors and Retired Judge of Ondo State High Court set the ball rolling with the keynote address. Justice Aguda pooh-poohed beliefs that the law is not applicable at the state level. He argued that ‘the Freedom of Information Act is binding on public officers and other persons employed by both the Federal and State governments since the law is validly made by the National Assembly for the whole Federation. However, some of the provisions of the Act (notably in its section 3) which seek to impose certain obligations on officials of State Governments may require judicial clarification by the Courts’. Papers on the National, Continental and Global Context of FOI Development; The Public Right to know versus the obligations of public institutions and public officials under the FOI Act; Monitoring the use of scarce public resources and promoting transparent and accountable governance in Nigeria, through the FoI Act were delivered by Maxwell Kadiri of Open Society Justice Initiative and Lanre Arogundade of the International Press Centre respectively.
Olusola Akinbode interacted with participants on the means of advocacy with the various stakeholders involved in ensuring effective use of the FoI Act. The ‘vibrancy of democracy is hinged on the freedom of information and access to information is not determined by legislation but by the practise of democracy.’ 10 African Countries presently have FoI Laws with South Africa being the first in 2000. Niger, Tunisia and Nigeria are the latest countries to have the law. Janet Oropeza Eng of Fundar, Centre of Analysis and Research from Mexico using video conferencing shared experiences of the FOI Act use and model in Mexico and the Latin Americas. According to her, 65% of Latin American countries have a FOIA as against 17% in Sub Saharan Africa. 489,739 information requests were made from 2003-2009 while between July and September 2012, 352 requests were made daily with 97% made electronically.
Arguing that no law is perfect, Maxwell explained that it would be good to have the exemptions reviewed at the state level before enactment and urged that the public should test the power of the law by applying for information under the provisions of the Act. Arogundade pointed at the rights in Article 19 of the universal declaration of human rights – Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers and Chapter 5, Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution which mentions the Right to freedom of expression including the right to receive and impart ideas. He offered that ‘Information is the oxygen of democracy’.
The quest for the FoI Act started in Nigeria in 1993 during the military era but gained footing in 1999 with the return of democracy. It was initially passed in parliament in 2007 but it did not get the president’s accent. It finally did on May, 28th, 2011 after it was passed again in parliament for the second time. Ekiti is the only state in Nigeria to have enacted the law at the state level. The workshop which had representatives of Civil Society Organisations and journalists in the zone had plenary group and breakout sessions on – Developing examples of FoIA request targeting specific public institutions; issues exempted under the FoI Act; advocacy for States to Adopt FoIA amongst others. As part of the strategies, participants shared on the need to use the right language and attitude when dealing with the political class while also building a relationship with the media would help to enrich the advocacy work around it. According to Mrs Gabriel, the training was sensitively aimed at having CSOs scale up their roles in the effective implementation of the already passed FoI Act and have the law adequately tested. Echoed collectively during the workshop was the mantra that – the right to know is the right to live. The workshop held in Akure, the Sunshine State on the 12th and 13th of March 2013. Twitter was deployed for wider reach during the workshop with #FOIAng as the convergence.
The final hours of the workshop saw the review of the action plan and drafting of a communiqué wherein attendees agreed on terms and further activities with which to engage the FOI Act in the represented states and Prof Ilumobade actively charged participants on the need to go back to their states and test the law using knowledge gained during the workshop and drawing from MUHURI which used social auditing, people ownership and even theatre for development to engage with the issues around making information available for Kenyans. The World Right to Know day, September 28 is planned to be commemorated at the various South West states this year.
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