There is jubilation in Nigeria this weekend about the Freedom of information bill past this last week in Abuja.(After more than a decade of being debated)
But what is this freedom of information bill?
I was in India recently and had to visit a government department in Goa. I was very suprised when at the entrance I saw a sign clearly stating that indian citizens had a right to walk in and demand information from within most state departments. I asked an Indian friend of mine and he confirmed this to be true.
I marvelled at such a concept in a country with a population like Indias , I wondered if this could ever be adopted in Nigeria, took a picture of the sign and forgot about it until this weekend.
Imagine walking into any government ministry in Abuja requesting to view certain information e.g all contracts awarded by the ministry this year, all open tenders etc and then imagine the clerk you meet at the reception handing over a printed A4 sheet of paper with all requested info and going thank you sir , Is there anything else we can do for you today?
In this country, almost everyone you encounter feels its thier God given right to hoard information especially in government ministries.
The freedom of Information (FOI) Bill is a Bill that, gives every Nigerian a legal right of access to information, records, and documents held by government bodies and private bodies carrying out public functions.
It applies to all arms of government: the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary as well as to all tiers of government: Federal, State, and Local governments.
Nigeria has no law which guarantees citizens access to public records and information.
On the contrary, many Nigerian laws have secrecy clauses prohibiting the disclosure of information e.g. the Official Secret Act, the Criminal Code, the Penal Code, etc.
Most public servants are made to swear to oaths of secrecy when employed and the general consequence of these is an entrenched culture of secrecy and arbitrariness in government institutions.
Anyone requesting information need not demonstrate a special interest in the information.
The Bill sets time limits within which government and public bodies must release information requested and provides for judicial review where access to information is denied.
There are certain categories of information that are exempted from the general right of access and these include such information as: Defence/security matters,The conduct of international affairs, Law enforcement investigation, Trade secrets, Financial, commercial, and technical and scientific information of economic value.
Hopefully this bill will impact corruption significantly in the long term, But before all the Jubilation , we should also remember India has succesfully transfered most records to some kind of electronic /digital format, so there has to be some major ICT initiatives here to make this effective in Nigeria and ultimately you need electricity to run these machines so the POWER HOLDISTs Company needs to step up and allow both electricity and information to flow.