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Access to information is a right, not a privilege — Maxwell Kadiri

September 28, has been globally set aside as the World Right to Know day to promote and enhance the right to information as the basis of open and democratic government. The day was celebrated last Monday and Nigeria was not left out. However, there are issues regarding the celebration that need to be addressed, particularly on access to official information, which the Freedom of Information (FoI) Bill would have addressed, if it had been passed. But even without the FoI,  there are other laws, which guarantees the public’s right of access to public documents.

In this interview, Mr Maxwell Kadiri, Associate Legal Officer of the Open Society Justice Initiative, spoke on some of these laws and the on-going campaign to enforce the laws, which contain guarantees of access to publicly-held information, but have been largely ignored.

He also spoke on dredging of the Lower River Niger, noting that the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has not been complied with by the Federal Government.

He stressed the need for the masses to insist on  the passage into law of the FoI Bill, because  it will benefit majority of Nigerians.
Excerpts:

The struggle for passage of the Freedom of Information Bill is 10 years. What is the way forward?

The advocacy for the Freedom of Information (FoI) Bill is actually more than 10 years old, as its commencement preceded the advent of the 4th Republic in 1999.

However, it is the legislative advocacy for the passage of the Bill in this 4th Republic that is currently 10 years old. It really is sad to know that 10 years after the very strenuous and sustained advocacy for the passage of the FoI Bill into law in Nigeria, we are yet to have an FoI law in place in Nigeria, in spite of all the work that had been done by various groups during this period.

Looking at the history of the struggle for the passage of this bill into law and taking the current dispensation into cognizance, it seems to me that in addition to sustaining the advocacy engagement with the parliamentarians in the National Assembly in the hope that they would eventually come around and pass the Bill like the last National Assembly did in 2007, the way forward would include expanding the advocacy beyond the legislative framework by involving the other arms of government and the generality of the Nigerian people. One way in which this could happen is through seeking to secure the implementation of the right to information provisions in existing Nigerian laws such as the Environmental Impact Assessment Act (EIA) 1992, the NEITI Act 2007, Fiscal Responsibility Act 2007, amongst others.

Through such exercise,  we would then be able to practically demonstrate the inherent benefits of this right to the progress and development of Nigeria and by so doing, hopefully address whatever misgivings the parliamentarians may have against the passage of an all-encompassing FoI law for the benefit of Nigerians.

If the National Assembly still refuses to pass the FOI Bill, what other options do Nigerians have?

My answer to your first question also applies here, because if for example, the judiciary were to through adjudication, re-ffirm the existence of this right in Nigeria under the existing legal regime, then that creates room for Nigerians to fully utilize this right in their various endeavours and effectively puts paid to whatever designs may exist in some quarters amongst people who might want to prevent Nigerians from enjoying this right in whatever form.

A new group, Right to Know (R2K) Movement has just been founded. What are the aims and objectives of this organisation?
From my interaction with the promoters of this institution, I gathered that it was founded to address some of the perceived challenges afflicting the right to information advocacy in Nigeria, particularly that of galvanizing the existing pockets of support for the advocacy into a broad based movement that brings on board all stakeholders in every facet of the Nigerian society into it and utilizes their existing capacity for actively pushing for the recognition and promotion of the right to information in Nigeria.

Its objectives includes to promote public awareness, understanding of and participation in demanding for the right to access officially held information at all levels of public institutions; to engage with all arms of government at all levels capable of transforming the existing culture of secrecy in governance;  to create and coordinate multiple but integrated advocacy platforms and axis at Federal and State levels for advocacy for access to information in Nigeria; and to establish clear legal standards governing access to public records in Nigeria, amongst others.

Asides pushing for the passage of the FOI bill, what other way can we explore existing laws to have access to information that would help us be informed on government activities, which will help us ask useful questions and demand that we are governed well?

Like I said earlier, in the absence of an FoI law in Nigeria, there are other pieces of legislation that have provisions vesting members of the public with the right to access information held by public institutions as well as creating an obligation on certain public institutions to pro-actively publish information that is in their custody for members of the public to be aware of and utilize it where necessary.

An example is the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2007, which seeks to institute a transparent and accountable process for public budgeting, management and disbursement of public funds through public participation and access to information.

It also grants every Nigerian the right to enforce government’s compliance with the provisions of this law.
Others are Section 39 of the 1999 constitution; Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act (1990); the Archives Act; the Environmental Impact Assessment Act (1992); the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency (NEITI) Act, 2007; and the SERVICOM Charter.

What needs to happen is for Nigerians to take advantage of the existence of such pieces of legislation to demand for transparent and accountable governance from our elected and appointed government officials in this country. These laws make access to information held by public institutions a right and not a privilege, like we are being made to believe through the attitude of some of our public officials.

We all stand to gain if through our standing up to demand the effective implementation of these pieces of legislation, our country begins to run well and issues of corruption and misappropriation of public funds are addressed effectively through the budgeting process, amongst others.

The FOI bill has been seen as a media bill. How can we make the bill become more relevant to the ordinary man, so that it does not sound elitist?
The FoI Bill really cannot be said to be vague at all. In simple terms, what it confers on the ordinary Nigerian is the right to access documents and information held by public institutions generally and private institutions performing public functions.

It is one piece of legislation that is not sector specific but rather affects every facet of our national lives, be it agriculture, education, banking and insurance, research, healthcare, public infrastructure development, etc. Particularly if the document or information required relates to public policy making, budgeting, funds management and disbursement, etc. So in essence, this Bill has the distinct advantage of being a cross cutting piece of legislation.

However, one of the problems that the Bill has faced in some quarters (particularly in parliament) is that because the journalism profession focuses on gathering and disseminating information for public consumption and enlightenment, they would be one of the primary beneficiaries of this Bill when it is eventually passed into law, which is why some people have erroneously tagged it a media Bill.  In reality it is not a media bill, because every Nigerian is a primary beneficiary of this Bill, so long as you require information for one thing or the other in our respective location, vocation and otherwise.

To address this erroneous perception in some quarters about the Bill being a media bill or that the advocacy has been too elitist, what needs to happen going forward, is increased advocacy at the grass root level that breaks the content of the bill down for the people to understand how it works, its inherent benefits and how it relates to them individually and collectively.

By so doing, we build linkages between the people and the Bill, which necessarily empowers them to see it as their own and take ownership of it, thus creating the necessary support and increased advocacy momentum for the Bill in public space and at the grass root level that would also assist in transforming the current attitude of the parliamentarians towards the Bill, since it is their constituents in the communities that they represent that would be making the sustained public demand for the passage of this law.

We need to put the power back in the hands of the people and create a very strong public movement around this Bill. This is not to say that there is no public support for this Bill at the moment, there surely is. What I am saying is that it needs to be deepened, particularly at the grass root level.

We need to get everyone on board this advocacy and the benefit of that is that when it is eventually passed, the necessary awareness would have been created all over Nigeria which would make its implementation much easier as people would be aware of its content, how it affects them and how they can utilize it ffectively to create a better Nigeria that we would all be proud to call our home.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Act, 1992 mandates government to take certain steps before some projects are executed, and recently government has said it will spend about N36 billion to dredge the Lower River Niger and from what we hear, there is no compliance with the requirements of EIA. How can we use the laws we have presently to ensure that government complies with the EIA law in executing such projects?

What needs to happen is for Nigerians to demand compliance with the terms of the EIA Act, because under the Act, it is mandatory that before most major public and private work projects are implemented, an assessment of the potential impact of such projects on the environment must be carried out, failing which such projects cannot be implemented.

Even where the EIA assessment has been carried out, the proponent of the project needs to comply with the terms of the report both as it relates to the pre and post, project implementation and remediation work/activities that is stipulated in such reports.

In addition, a key requirement of the EIA process as stated under the law is the full and effective participation of the people living in the communities that would be negatively affected by such projects and also access by these people and members of the public to the EIA report itself and all supporting documents. These requirements are applicable to both public and private work projects are alike.

What has been missing is the lack of sustained public demand for compliance with the provisions of the EIA Act before any major public or private project falling into the category requiring an EIA exercise is implemented and this can be done both through effective public advocacy and through utilizing the courts to enforce adherence to the provisions of this law.
Such projects cannot be implemented if no EIA exercise has been conducted and this is what needs to happen with specific reference to the dredging of lower River Niger project that the Federal government is embarking upon. Groups like the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and some militant leaders like High Chief Government Ekpemupolo a.k.a Tompolo have made this point in their public statements, which is quite valid.

The government contends that an EIA exercise had been conducted, but from available information, this particular EIA exercise in question was carried out 10 years ago when the then government of General Abdulsalami Abubakar gave a N10 billion contract for the dredging of the lower river Niger.

The contract was awarded by Gen Abubakar’s administration even before the conclusion of the EIA exercise and it was fraught with several irregularities, including the lack of effective participation by the communities living on the coastline of the route of the lower River Niger that is to be dredged.

Bearing in mind that this flawed report is 10 years old, how do you then base the current dredging exercise on that report, which at best is now outdated. This is why I would align myself with those who contend that the current dredging exercise has no EIA report supporting it and as such it should be stopped forthwith.


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