Do you want to know how much Nigeria spends on importing petroleum products and who the contractors are? Simple. All you have to do now is write a letter to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to request the information.
Within seven days, you are entitled to a response. If not, you can take NNPC to court and get an order to compel the corporation to reveal the information.
It may even get better: if any NNPC official attempts to destroy or doctor the records, he or she will be liable to a criminal prosecution, which may result in a one-year prison term.
Welcome to the age of Freedom of Information in Nigeria where many files marked “top secret” by government officials can now be made available to ordinary Nigerians under the Freedom of Information Act, which was signed at the weekend by President Goodluck Jonathan after passage by the National Assembly last week.
This is expected to promote transparency and accountability in government.
The Bill was sent to the president on May 27, 2011 and he assented to it in 24 hours, thereby ending a long, tortuous journey that started on December 9, 1999 when it was first gazetted. It was the oldest legislation in the works in Nigeria’s legislative history.
Under the Freedom of Information Act 2011, any Nigerian is free to apply to a government institution to request access to public information and records.
If this application is not granted in seven days, it would amount to refusal, except the institution seeks additional seven days because of the volume of the records requested.
If the request is to be turned down, the public institution must state the reason under the law. The refusal letter must contain the name, designation and signature of every official involved.
Failure to respond within the stipulated number of days would amount to a denial of access, which is punishable with a fine of N500,000, according to Section 5(7) of the Act.
Section 10 prescribes a minimum of one year imprisonment for any officer or head of any government or public institution “to which this Act applies to wilfully destroy any records kept in his custody or attempt to doctor or otherwise alter same before they are released to any person, entity or community applying for it”.
All public institutions are compelled to keep records and information and organise them in a way that is accessible to the public.
The Act states some exemptions to the rule – namely information that could compromise national security and the conduct of international affairs.
Also exempted from public access are records that could expose trade secrets, trade party intrusion into contractual negotiation process, test questions, architectural and engineering designs, research materials under preparation, legal practitioner-client relationship, health worker-patient relationship and journalist’s confidential source of information.
Also exempted are records for international use of organisation that could interfere with law enforcement and fair trial or amount to intrusion of privacy or exposure of a confidential source.
However, if a court deems public interest to be more paramount in these instances, the information may still be made available to the applicant.
A statement from Presidency Tuesday said the FoI Bill was signed by Jonathan on Saturday to show his support for the law expected to help transform the country.
The signing of the law was obviously done outside the klieg lights as newsmen were not part of the signing ceremony.
The statement said: “President Goodluck Jonathan has signed the Freedom of Information Bill 2011 into law.
“The Bill, which was passed by the outgoing National Assembly was conveyed to the Presidency on Friday, May 27, 2011. President Jonathan assented to it on Saturday, May 28.
“The objective of the Act is to make public records and information more freely available and to also protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and protection of personal privacy.
“The Freedom of Information Act also seeks to protect serving public officers from any adverse consequences of disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorisation, and to establish procedures for the achievement of these purposes.”
The Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN) Tuesday commended the timely assent in a statement signed by the President of the association, Mr Nduka Obaigbena, who is also the Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of THISDAY Newspapers.
He also commended the leadership of the outgoing National Assembly, civil society groups, media, labour, other groups under the canopy of the Freedom of Information Coalition, and the general public for their dedication to the cause of an informed citizenry, which is the bedrock of democratic practice.
He urged Nigerians to avail themselves of the opportunities offered by the Freedom of Information Act, to enhance transparency and good governance and to work towards achieving a zero tolerance for corruption and impunity.
Responding to the news Tuesday, the Nigeria Guild of Editors, in a statement signed by its president, Mr. Gbenga Adefaye, commended the president for keeping to his words.
He said the media “has expanded the frontiers of press freedom for Africa’s most vibrant press. No more will it be permitted for the journalists to hurry to press with half truth and misinformation when they can officially verify their facts”.
Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State said the signing is a “victory for all Nigerians who waged relentless war to entrench transparency in governance”.
Commenting on the development, Chairman of Senate Committee on Federal Character and Inter-governmental Affairs, Senator Smart Adeyemi, said the signing of the FoI Bill, was a testimony that the President has kick-started his transformation project for Nigeria.
Other groups that expressed delight with the President’s assent to the law are Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
• Any Nigerian can apply for access to public records and information.
•Any institution that fails to provide the information required would be fined N500,000
•An applicant can sue the agency that refuses to release information.
•Certain information can be withheld if it could compromise national security, give away a confidential source, be injurious to international affairs, intrude privacy, expose trade secrets etc
•Nevertheless, a court may compel the release of such information if the national interest is considered to be more paramount
•If any public officer destroys or doctors public records before making them available, he risks criminal prosecution and imprisonment of a minimum of one year
•There shall be no liability for a public officer who makes the information available under the Act. The applicant is also not liable