BY DAYO BENSON, OLASUNKANMI AKONI, DAPO AKINREFON , MICHAEL EBOH, Japhet Alakam & Prisca Sam-Duru
NOBEL Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, has challenged President Goodluck Jonathan, to use the Freedom of Information, FoI Act to unravel the intrigues surrounding the  hospitalisation of late President Umoru Musa Yar ‘Adua in Saudi Arabia and how he was brought back to the country under mysterious circumstances.

Prof. Soyinka said that such information, if made available to the public, would be the first true test of the FoI Act pointing out that, this was the way to start its implementation because the information was in the public interest.

However, Niger State governor, Babangida Aliyu, disagreed saying that using the Act to unearth an event that took place before the FoI law came into being would amount to making it a retroactive legislation.

But in a swift reaction, Mr. Tayo Oyetibo, SAN, countered   insisting  that the FoI Act could be used to make the information public as long as it was available.

The three spoke yesterday in Lagos at the Town Hall meeting with the theme: “For the public purpose: Deepening the FoI Act”, organised by Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, NPAN, which held at MUSON Centre Onikan with eminent personalities in the media, legal profession, civil society and the diplomatic community in attendance.

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Among those who attended the event were Lagos State governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, his Ekiti State counterpart, Dr. Kayode Fayemi was represented by his information commissioner, Mr. Niyi Afuye.

Others were Vanguard Publisher, Mr. Sam Amuka; President of Newspapers Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria, NPAN, Mr Nduka Obaigbena; President of the Guild of Editors, Mr Gbenga Adefaye, former president of NPAN, Mr. Ray Ekpu; Alhaji Isa Funtua. Others were  human rights crusader, Mr Femi Falana, Messrs Nduka Irabor, Tunde Thompson, Ms Comfort Obi, Chief Kalu Idika Kalu, John Momoh, Raymond Dokpesi, Bayo Onanuga, Lanre Idowu, Tayo Oyetibo (SAN), Ms Ayo Obe and Frank Aigbogun.

According to Prof. Soyinka, it was not enough for government to use Official Secrets Act to conceal issues of public interest because government is about the general interest of the people, adding that Nigerians should ensure that the letters and spirit of the FoI Act were implemented.

Test the FoI Act, says Soyinka

Soyinka said: “The government should put the FoI Act to test. Nigeria can not deny freedom of information to its citizens if it believes in absolute truth. It is not enough for a government to resort to the Official Secrets Act and it is not enough for the public to continually accept that as an excuse to confuse issues in which public issues are involved. The checks and balances of government must answer to public scrutiny.

“In this country, we have a situation where a whole human being was concealed for several months. This human being travelled to Dubai and Saudi Arabia, as the case may be. This same individual returned to the country, the lights were put off at the airports; this phantom was transported to the seat of power and many other places. This individual was no less a person, but one responsible to the entire country.

Nigerians would like to know how this was possible, who are the people involved, what document was passed as the Appropriation Bill, whose signature appeared on that document. We would like to know  which  members of his family were  involved, the members of the government involved, members of the Senate involved, the foreign powers involved.

“I am aware that President Jonathan has set up a commission of enquiry into the issue. That episode is over, but knowledge is unending and so, I am challenging the government of Jonathan and the public to put this Freedom of Information Act to test with the melodramatic incident that happened in this country for more than one year.

“I have a right to know and I am compelling President Jonathan to proceed with this Act by setting up the proceeding and panel that will find out what happened to the late president within this period”.

Speaking further, he said “any social instrument is incomplete but it is the people that will make it complete. Let us not worry that the document is incomplete but we must test the Freedom of Information Act. If there is no Freedom of Information, then, there will be speculation and if there is speculation, you will have a revolution.”

Can the law be retroactive?

However, while responding to Soyinka, Governor Aliyu wondered whether the Act should have a retroactive effect, saying “Are we saying that the law should be retroactive? Our concern should be educating people to take advantage of the Act in putting the leadership of the country on their toes. We should be concerned about enlightening people and adopting the law in every state of the federation.”

In his   remarks, Governor Fashola stated that the Lagos State House of Assembly was still waiting to harmonise the Federal Government’s version of the Act with its own, before the tenure of Sixth Assembly expired.

On the role of leaders, Fashola said “Governance especially in the public sphere is a matter of public trust and if people pay us to ask us to represent them, they have every right to ask us to explain how we spend their money and time. We recognize that we hold the public trust and those who are not comfortable with the heat should quit the kitchen.

Fashola commends NPAN

Speaking  to reporters after the event, Gov. Fashola commended the NPAN leadership saying that “one must commend the leadership of NPAN led by Nduka Obaigbena and our perspective of it is demonstrated by our partnership with the initiative within. Now that the law has been enacted, we must begin to sensitize Nigerians about the right that is conferred upon them and the duty that it imposes on them.

And this is one of the very first of what I believe should be many of the steps that would further bring the impact of the legislation home to our people and expose the many myths that surround it.”

The public should  use  it responsibly – Attorney-General

Representative of the Attorney-General of the Federation, Professor Akpe, said the first challenge was how the public will use the act in a responsible manner and ensure easy access to information.

He said “with the state of record keeping in the country, it might be very difficult for public officers to meet up with the stipulated seven days in the Act. Some of the information that might be requested by people might not be easily available within seven days, as stipulated by the Act.

“The government is thinking of a way of restructuring the courts to make them cope with the expected barrage of litigations that will arise as a result of the Act and ensure that they still discharge their duties effectively.

The ministry of Justice has dedicated a department, the Citizens Rights Department, to begin sensitizing people on the workings and implementation of the Act.”

Act won’t end corruption –  Legault

In her  own contribution,, the Canadian Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault commended the government for passing the Act but noted that the act might not stop corruption in Nigeria contrary to general expectations.

According to her, Nigerians should expect political interference in the implementation of the Act, while the real information sought by people on the activities of government will not be proactively disclosed.

She noted that leadership remained important to implementing the Act, pointing out that the judiciary, civil society, the media and business community had an important leadership role to play in ensuring a successful implementation of the Act.

While comparing her country’s experience, Legault said “the FoI Act was passed in Canada in 1983, soon after the passage, the performance of government improved tremendously. But 28 years after the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in Canada, government performance has declined and this is as a result of the fact that there have not been healthy debates as the one you are having in Nigeria. I want to commend Nigerians for having such debate because the continued debate will ensure the Freedom of Information Act works.”

Legault enjoined government to ensure that access to information with the implementation of the law did not come at any cost to the people, saying it was the fundamental right of the public to have this information for free.

Act is for the public — Funtua

Earlier in his opening remarks, Chairman of the town hall meeting, Alhaji Ismaila Isa Funtua dismissed the impression created by Nigerians that the FoI Act was meant for the media alone.

His words: “Many have the wrong impression about the Freedom of Information Act, they regard it as a media act, but it is not true, the Freedom of Information Act is meant for the public. Some of us know what we went through to get the bill  passed into law. Some of us went to prison especially when they tried to introduce the Press Council Bill during the late General Sani Abacha regime.”

Funtua, who is the Chairman, Nigeria Institute of Journalism said, “we know the security risks we took in ensuring that such a bill (Nigeria Press Council law) did not see the light of day. We were eventually saved by the law courts, they were wrong, we were right. The same thing cannot be said about the broadcast media because today, the communication commissions can switch any television or radio on or off when they feel like, it is as a result of the bad law.”

Nigerians should not give up –  Odinkalu

One of the panelists, Dr Anslem Chidi Odinkalu, said “Nigerians should not give up their rights. According to him, “Judges should be groomed to understand the Act, especially in what constitutes public Interest.”

Ms Ayo Obe, a rights activist, called for openness and transparency on the part of the government adding “we need the openness and objectiveness of government to deepen the Act. Public officials must ensure that information on their activities are properly compiled and documented, so as to ease dissemination.”

Also Mr. Oyetibo (SAN) in his remarks said “the law addressed the issue of public interest. The law states that in the case of conflict over public interest, the public officer is required to present the document to the courts, who will determine if the release of the information is in the interest of the public.”

The legal luminary added that “on the issue of the Act being used retroactively, the law states that if the information required is in the possession of the public officer, it should be made available to the public, even if the information had happened in the last five years.”

Speaking on some of the lapses in the law, Oyetibo said that “the Act should have provided for the appointment of a Public Information Officer in every government office.

It is these officers that will be held criminally responsible for the failure to present a document, since the governors and president are protected by the immunity clause.

There is also the conflict of definition of public office. The law states that any private organization, undertaking public activities should be seen as a public officer and is liable, if it fails to abide by the tenets of the Act.”

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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.