Monday, 6 June 2011

Nigeria: Testing the FOI Act 2011 on Legislator Salaries

An update: [October 6, 2011] The signed copy of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 can be downloaded from this link and it is provided courtesy of the Freedom of Information Coalition.

We have a Freedom of Information Act

With the signing of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 just as the end of the last legislative session by President Goodluck Jonathan, a milestone has been reached in the fledgling democratic experiment that Nigeria embarked on just 12 years ago.

The Enough is Enough organisation has posted a functionally legible copy of the Act here [1], it is however missing parts of Section 3 & 6 and all of Section 4 & 5 they provided a few highlights of the Act here [2], Funlayo Akinosi; a lawyer, writing for NigeriansTalk offers a useful perspective of the Act here [3].

Versions and some confusion

For the purposes of this blog, because of the missing bits which are germane to the series of points made, I will be using the harmonised version [4] of the Bill as provided by the Enough is Enough organisation, the differences between the Act and the Bill being the former having the force of law; Section 1 of the Bill does not appear in the Act, all thereby forcing a renumbering of all the Sections and the sub-sections follow a different multi-level numbering system.

The text of both the Act and the Bill remain functionally the same in terms of context and import but the Act clearly delineates lists better than the Bill.

Another version [4a] as provided by House of Representatives substitutes Act for Bill and looks very much like the harmonised Bill used in this blog and sourced from a link provided by Egghead Odewale.

Whilst the Act does make good reading along with the superfluity of legalese that would have lawyers raking in the dosh like it is going out of fashion, the presence of a set of rules, procedures, processes and guidelines to ensure Nigerians demand more openness in government and its operations is very welcome.

Does it work?

The next step is to prove that this Act is useable, enforceable and fit for its purpose and no better test of its pervasiveness can be conducted than to determine with clarity, fact and truth the true cost of our democracy.

Too many times, we, the people have been shielded from knowing in true terms how much our legislators earn and what additional allowances [5] they have on top of their salaries as they supposedly serve the people.

The Freedom of Information Act 2011 provides for a number of interesting uses to arrive at this important piece of democratic emancipation such that we can judge if the allowances are justifiable, if our democracy is exorbitant [6] and what percentage of the federal budget overhead [7] the legislature consumes.

An application for such information can be made to the Clerk of the National Assembly, unfortunately, their website is a mess; hopefully, with the needs to properly document records for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, the websites of government establishments will be improved upon, updated regularly and promptly too.

The lay of the land

The National Assembly comprising the Senate and House of Representatives make up the federal legislature and it is thereby a public institution by reason of Section 3, sub-section 7 of the Bill.

A record of all names, salaries, titles and dates of employment of all employees is mandated by the Bill in Section 3, sub-section (3)(j).

Section 2 provides for the right of access to records without having to demonstrate any specific interest and Section 4 supports the right to request access to these records.

Section 5 requires that the information be made available within 7 days of making an application for the information, there should be no reason to transfer the request to another department as stated in Section 6 of the Bill and where that information cannot be provided the reasons for denial must be made with all the essential detail according to Section 8 or the public institution may extend the time required to provide the information according to Section 7.

Compelling public interest

The matter of legislator salaries and allowances are not sub judice, even if under review, salaries are being paid as set by the precedence of the previous legislative term and that should suffice and the information updated when available.

Hence, the public institution cannot find refuge in exceptions for law enforcement and investigation in Section 13 nor exception of personal information in Section 15.

The request in broad terms is to ascertain legislator salaries as in what a member of the House of Representatives or a Senator earns, tagged unto that without mentioning names, what emoluments and remuneration go to the principal offices of the National Assembly with particular reference to the offices as opposed to the person occupying the office.

It is important that legalese and abstruse interpretation is not used trammel access to what is public interest information where the public interest in the real cost of our democracy far outweighs the concerns of the legislature who are for all intents and purposes in public service and thereby employees of the people.

The Bill places the burden of proof on the public institution to provide the reasonable grounds for denying access to such information as delineated in Section 26.

Let it be tested

If this information is already publicly available then Section 27 suggests that this bill does not cover such as request and Section 29 informs that such a request cannot gain refuge within the Official Secrets Act.

In conclusion, a simple request for the running cost of our legislature should not encounter any difficulties; it should be documented, available, accessible and provided in the public interest and promotion of democracy – that will be the test of whether the Freedom of Information Act 2011 is worth the paper it is written on.

Sources

[1] Scanned copy of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 as a PDF file signed by the Clerk of the Nation Assembly.

[2] Highlights of Freedom of Information Act 2011

[3] NigeriansTalk | Freedom of Information Act 2011: Good Stuff!

[4] Harmonised version of the Freedom of Information Bill, 2011

[4a] Freedom of Information Act 2011 – House of Representatives

[5] Nigeria: Percentage Allowance Legislators

[6] Nigeria: Our exorbitant government

[7] Nigeria: Sanusi a worthy Nigerian

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