ARE celebrations about the passage of the Freedom of Information Act too early? They seem so. There are checkpoints along the routes to the expected explorations of the new territories the slightly lifted veil on information could provide.
Nobody took it for granted that the law would result in instant access to public information. Some of the obstacles are obvious – the information, where available, may not have been stored in formats that can permit easy access to the public. The nebulous provisions on national security, which have been stretched to include all aspects of the economy, diminish the freedom that the law attempted to grant Nigerians.
More challenges lie ahead. Some lawyers have been quick to state that the law is federal and can only be applicable to States whose Houses of Assembly approve the law. This is the same fate that has made the Child Rights Act, a law since 2003, inoperative, as the States, whose policies bear on the children directly, have ignored the law.
If the Freedom of Information Act has to go through the same route, it is dead. A law that is meant to address the welfare of children – the acclaimed future of the country – has not got attention in eight years. What becomes of a law like the Freedom of Information Act that those in authority dread?
The argument about the States approving the law, if it is to apply in their domain, is hinged on the claim that information is on the Concurrent Legislative List.
The 1999 Constitution awards the National Assembly the powers to make laws for all parts of Nigeria. The relevant portions of Section 4 state, “ (2) The National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation or any part thereof with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive Legislative List set out in Part I of the Second Schedule to this Constitution.
“(3) The power of the National Assembly to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive Legislative List shall, save as otherwise provided in this Constitution, shall be to the exclusion of the Houses of Assembly of States.”
Agreed the Concurrent Legislative List permits the State Assemblies to make laws, Section 4 (5) makes the argument about the legal position of the States in relation to national laws invalid. “If any Law enacted by the House of Assembly of a State is inconsistent with any law validly made by the National Assembly, the law made by the National Assembly shall prevail, and that other Law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void,” it states.
So why would the positions of the States matter on the Freedom of Information Act? Did they, like everyone not have the opportunity, during the public hearings, to make their inputs to the law?
When we are unwilling to enforce policies that would improve the lives of our people, we have excuses as reasons for not making progress in the desired direction. Like the Child Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act will not be enforced unless everyone recognises the new obstacles and removes them.