Freedom of Information Act Signals Consolidation of Nigeria’s Democracy

The signing by Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan of a freedom of information (FOI) law is a victory for democracy, transparency, justice and development, said the Right to Know initiative, Media Rights Agenda, and the Open Society Foundations today.

"With the new law, Nigerians finally have vital tools to uncover facts, fight corruption and hold officials and institutions accountable," said Ene Enonche, coordinator of the Right to Know initiative.

Under the new legislation, all institutions spending public funds will have to be open about their operations and expenditure while citizens will have the right to access information about their activities. Whistleblowers who report malfeasance by their employers or organizations will be protected from reprisals.

"The new law will profoundly change how government works in Nigeria. Now we can use the oxygen of information and knowledge to breathe life into governance. It will no longer be business as usual," said Maxwell Kadiri, associate legal officer, Open Society Justice Initiative.

Nigerians have fought a long battle to institutionalize transparency and accountability as pillars of governance in Nigeria. The FOI bill was first submitted to Nigeria’s 4th National Assembly in 1999 when the country returned to democracy but it did not make much progress.

It returned to the legislative chambers in the 5th National Assembly in 2003 and was passed by both chambers in the first quarter of 2007. However it was vetoed by President Olusegun Obasanjo. It returned to both chambers of the 6th National Assembly in 2007 and was finally passed on May 24, 2011.

A broad coalition of Nigerian civil society groups has long worked and advocated for the passage of the FOI bill under the leadership of the Right to Know Movement, Nigeria, Media Rights Agenda, and the Open Society Justice Initiative in partnership with its sister organization, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

Edetaen Ojo, executive director of the Media Rights Agenda, said: “The signing of the FOI bill into law is the clearest demonstration ever of the power of civil society working together to influence public policy and initiate reform. We are committed to continuing our concerted efforts to ensure that the new law achieves its ultimate objective of making government work for the people.”  

Coalition partners praised the decision of President Jonathan to sign the new law and efforts by legislators to harmonize the bill in time. "We congratulate the leadership and members of both chambers of the National Assembly, for their steadfastness and the speed with which the bill was finalized. Their support for the expeditious completion of the work of the joint conference committee of both chambers in the twilight of the current parliament, finally made this dream a reality," said Dayo Olaide, OSIWA's coordinator of Nigeria programs.

The newly enacted Freedom of Information Act:

  • Guarantees the right of access to information held by public institutions, irrespective of the form in which it is kept and is applicable to private institutions where they utilize public funds, perform public functions or provide public services.
  • Requires all institutions to proactively disclose basic information about their structure and processes and mandates them to build the capacity of their staff to effectively implement and comply with the provisions of the Act.
  • Provides protection for whistleblowers.
  • Makes adequate provision for the information needs of illiterate and disabled applicants.
  • Recognizes a range of legitimate exemptions and limitations to the public's right to know, but it makes these exemptions subject to a public interest test that, in deserving cases, may override such exemptions.
  • Creates reporting obligations on compliance with the law for all institutions affected by it. These reports are to be provided annually to the Federal Attorney General's office, which will in turn make them available to both the National Assembly and the public.
  • Requires the Federal Attorney General to oversee the effective implementation of the Act and report on execution of this duty to Parliament annually.

The Right to Know Initiative, Media Rights Agenda, and the Open Society Foundations restated their commitment to collaborate with government agencies, the private sector and civil society to ensure democratic consolidation, and urged all agencies of government and nonstate actors to prepare for the effective implementation of the Nigeria’s new FOI law.