1.1 BACKGROUND OF THE STUDY
The Freedom of Information Act1 (or the “FoI Act”) is Nigeria‟s major legislative response to redress the balance of official secrecy, elitism and non-accountable government. It guarantees a “Right to Know” or a right of access to records and informationin the custody of public institutions in Nigeria; set standards for what the government could protect from access, and fastened a system of judicial review of denial of access to information.
In line with the requirements of the FoI Act, the Attorney-General of the Federation, who is vested with the statutory mandate to coordinate compliance with the FoI Act by public institutions,2has issued an advisory and a guidance note to help public institutions understand their obligations and promote good practice of the FoI Act regime. The advisory is titled the “Attorney General‟s Memorandum on the Reporting Requirements under S.29 of the FoI Act”3 (the “FoI Memorandum”) and requires public institutions to organise their records in a manner that makes them accessible to the public and to publish information using multimedia formats (i.e. print, electronic and online). The “Guidelines on the Implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011”4 (the “FoI Guidelines”) seeks to aid clearer understanding, application and implementation of the FoI Act by public institutions.
The FoI Act was achieved at the end of nearly two decades of public advocacy and exactly one hundred years after the Official Secrets Act5 was first introduced into Nigeria as a colonial Order-in-Council. The idea of a freedom of information law for Nigeria was conceived in 1993 by three different organisations working independently of each other. The organisations, Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), subsequently agreed to work together on a campaign for the enactment of a freedom of information Act.6 The objective of the campaign was to lay down, as a legal principle, the right of access to documents and information in the custody of the government or its officials and agencies as a necessary corollary to the guarantee of freedom of expression.
1Act No. 4, 2011, signed into law on 28 May 2011 by President Goodluck Jonathan.
- S. 29, Id.
3Ref: HAGF/MDAS/FOIA/2012/1 dated 29 January 2012.
4Issued on 15 March 2012.
5Cap. O3, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.
6See, Background to the Freedom of Information, a publication of the Freedom of Information (DOI) Coalition, available on http://www.FoIcoalition.org/publications/FoI_advocacy/background.htm(assessed 14 November 2011).
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A bill7 for a freedom of information act was first submitted to the 4th National Assembly in 1999.8 The 1st and 2nd reading of the bill at the House of Representatives took place on 22 February and 13 March 2000 respectively. The House of Representatives Committee on Information recommended the passage of the bill and the House directed that a public hearing on the bill be held on the 3 and 4 October 2001. However, the bill could not be passed before the 4th National Assembly was dissolved in 2003.
The bill was represented to the 5th National Assembly, in June 2003 and a 9 member joint committee of the National Assembly was set up to review the bill9. The joint committee came up with strong recommendations and submitted its report to the National Assembly.10 By August 2004, the House of Representatives passed the bill and subsequently forwarded same to the Senate.11 The bill, having been stalled in the Senate for two years, was eventually passed in November, 2006 with a consensus vote.12 The two Legislative Chambers then raised a harmonisation committee13 to address differences in the two bills, before it was sent to the President for assent.
Part of the raison d’etire offered by the Senate as to why the bill was delayed, were issues relating to national security. This was notwithstanding the fact that the bill in the main provided safeguards “against unrestricted and unauthorised access to documents of institutions as it relates to national security or ongoing investigations by the Police or other law enforcement agencies”.14 Thus, information that would be injurious to national defence and conduct of foreign policy were excluded from the bill.
ANALYSIS OF THE RIGHT OF ACCESS TO INFORMATION UNDER NIGERIAN LAW