THE NIGERIA FREEDOM OF INFORMATION LAW: PROGRESS, IMPLEMENTATION CHALLENGES AND PROSPECTS.

Author:Omotayo, Funmilola Olubunmi
Position:Report
 
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Introduction

Information is the stimulus of all the thoughts and actions of living creatures. Information, in its various forms is the prerequisite for the functioning of modern society because success in every area of industry is attributed to the intelligent use of information of the appropriate types. McCreadie and Rice (1999) express that, the vacuum that is ignorance and prejudice needs to be filled with reliable information, insofar as it is possible to provide it. Moreover, information is clearly a commodity that can be generated and manipulated to produce more information and high quality information resource is a prerequisite in the drive for decision making. Hence, countries are implementing strategies and policies that enable them take advantage of the opportunities that are offered by the use of information. Among the strategies are: creating information and communication infrastructure that enables information to flow efficiently and cheaply among their citizens and organizations; developing education and training so that there is a ready supply of appropriately skilled people; supporting the development of the ICT and information content products and services sector to meet the growing demand for information.

Efficient flow, access to, and the use of information have become crucial factors in determining the economic strength of nations. Davis and Davidson (1991) state that nations would prosper or falter depending on their investment in building an information infrastructure and since human knowledge improvement presupposes information flow and sharing, the collective intellectual abilities of a nation, its human capital, will also depend on access to information (Crawford, 1991). Kuunifaa (2011) state that access to information and transparency of governance is essential to ensuring accountability and prevents corruption. Access to information and participation in a democratic society are also mutually dependent. According to Glenn (1990), information can be construed to be the "blood and oxygen" of a democratic society. Whether formalised in a constitution or understood tacitly in the minds of citizens, democracy assumes a basic consensus about its purpose and the nature of its citizenry. In a democratic society, the public is expected to have access to information not only on how they are governed, but also on anything that is of interest to the individual or group. Democracy can only function effectively only when the citizens are fully informed as to how it operates and on what principles.

Democracy is a two-way flow of information between the government and the governed and even though in theory the people govern, in practice, representatives of the governed make decisions. Birkinshaw (2010) point one characteristic of democracy which is the participatory nature of the political process, where the citizen has a right to know and access relevant information and also have their privacy protected.

The provision of information is a key element in citizenship. Citizens need detailed and accurate data and information on the activities of the government to help them contribute meaningfully to the debate on appropriate strategies for socio-economic planning, growth and development. People cannot play their full part in society without access to information. They cannot exercise their rights and claim their entitlements without information, nor can they participate fully in democratic processes. It is in this context that Doctor (1992) opines that improved access to information fuels some of the changes the society is experiencing from information-economy to "information democracy", which he defined as a socio-political system in which all people are guaranteed the right to benefit from access to information resources.

Right to information, and particularly the right of access to information held by public authorities, has attracted a great deal of attention all over the world. The right of citizens to have access to information acquired by public agencies is founded in the ideal political principle that government should be of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Access to information, also referred to as Freedom of Information (FoI), refers to a citizen's right to access information that is held by the state. It is the ability of citizens of a country to have free access to information enabled by legislation. In many countries, this freedom is supported as a constitutional right. FoI obliges government to disclose as much as is possible about its workings. The argument behind this is that if a democracy is to function effectively, its citizens must be fully informed as to how it operates. FoI legislation is not new--Sweden enacted the law as early as 1766 and Finland in 1919. In the past decades, a record number of countries from around the world have also taken steps to enact the legislation giving effect to access right. In doing so, they join those countries that had enacted such laws some time ago, such as Sweden, United States, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada. The spread of laws providing rights to access information reflects the prevailing belief that access to information is one essential pillar in a strategy to improve governance, reduce corruption, strengthen democracy through enhanced participation and increase development (Darch and Underwood, 2010).

In this regard, there are two opposing principles or approaches to disclosure of government information. The first is that government decides both what it shall release to the public and when. This is the official secrecy tradition, where all government information is secret unless the government chooses to release it. The opposing principle is Freedom of Information (FoI), where all government information is available to the public except in those cases where the government must justify why it wishes to restrict access.

The remaining sections of this paper review literature on FoI in Nigeria. It also reviews the FoI Act in Nigeria. It highlights some of the flaws of the Act, the implementation challenges and makes suggestions on strategies that can be put in place to ensure effective and efficient implementation of the Act.

Literature Review

Traditionally, FoI has been regarded as "the touchstone of all the freedoms" (Tomasevaki 1987, p.1), and this belief, prima facie, appears to be the main driving force behind the exceptional recognition that it has received. In its very first session in 1946, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 59 (1), stating, "Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and ... the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated" (United Nations Document E/CN.4/1995/32 para. 35).

The concept of FoI came forth from the basic right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The right is an important aspect of the universal guarantee of freedom of information which includes the right to seek and to receive as well as to impart information. The right is proclaimed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and protected in international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human Rights (UDHR, 1948). Article 19 of the Declaration states that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impact information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. In essence, FoI is a human right guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, and Article 4 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. In Africa, a number of regional developments and successful advocacy campaigns have encouraged the enactment of FoI (Mendel 2001a, 2001b, 2008).

FoI guarantees the right of an unhindered access to public information including information held by all federal government branches and agencies, as well as those of private institutions in which any Federal, State or Local government has controlling interest and those private institutions performing public functions. FoI means having access to government data, information, records, files, documents in any form. In some jurisdictions, it may mean not only allowing access to government documents in whatever form they happen to exist, but also opening up the meetings of governments, their advisory bodies and client groups to public scrutiny--the 'open government' dimension. It may also involve access by individuals to files containing information about themselves and an assurance that the information is not being used for improper or unauthorized purposes (Robert, 2000; Popoola, 2003).

Sebina (2005) examines access to information and their enabling legislation and identified that FoI Acts present challenges, prospects and opportunities for records managers. In the opinion of Sebina, constitutional guarantees of access to information would be fruitless where good quality records are not created, where access to them is difficult, and where procedures are lacking on records disposal. In the same vein, some scholars, Clark (1986); Guida (1989); Hazell (1989); Frost (1999); Arogundade (2003); Wyatt (2003); Hazell & Worthy (2010). Ossai-Ugbah (2012); Anyanwu, Akanwa and Ossai-Onah (2013) have pointed out the benefits, limitations and difficulties of the FoI Act. They are of the opinion that the benefits far outweigh the costs. A major benefit of FoI law identified by them is that it facilitates open government.

Literature on the origins and implementation of FoI in Nigeria is scarce because the law is relatively new in Nigeria, passed only in 2011. However, some...

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