Court Rules States Cannot Reject FOI Requests

A division of Nigerian Court of Appeal has ruled that states cannot reject information request from citizens invoked on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) with the excuse that the Act is only applicable to federal institutions and agencies.

The appellate court gave the ruling which is considered a ‘landmark’ in efforts to ensure accountability and responsibility in the management of public resources at the subnational level in Nigeria in a case by a journalist, Martins Alo against the Ondo State government.

Mr. Also had invoked provisions of FOI Act to request information on the audited financial report of the Ondo State Government between 2012 and 2014, so he could look into how public funds were being spent by the government.

However, his request was rejected and he decided to get justice at the court. In 2016, an Akure Division of Ondo State High Court had ruled that the Freedom of Information (FOI) law was not binding on states and that Mr. Alo’s request was not in the interest of the public.

Mr. Alo was asked to pay damages amounting to the tune of N10,000 to the Ondo State government.

But his lawyer, Femi Emodamori, decided to appeal the judgment of the Ondo High Court on the ground that his client was acting in the public interest when he requested for access to the audited report.

Giving their verdict, a three-man panel of Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the complainant, arguing that FOI is binding on states and the request was been made interest of the public.

Uzo Ndukwe-Anyanwu, Obande Ogbuinya and Ridwan Abdullahi were three members of the panel at the Court of Appeal.

In his lead opinion, Mr. Ndukwe-Anyanwu said Mr. Alo had every right to get information from state authorities for the public.

The fine of N10,000 which Mr. Alo was asked to pay was also cancelled.

Mr. Ogbuinya, another member of the panel in his contribution to the judgment said, “In a democratic dispensation, such as the Nigeria’s, the citizens have been proclaimed the owners of sovereignty and mandates that place leaders in the saddle. The citizens have a right to know details of “expenditure of public funds generated from their taxes.”

States like Lagos, Adamawa, Akwa-Ibom and Ondo have consistently rejected requests for information based on the FOI Law which was signed into law in 2011 by former President Goodluck Jonathan over arguments that the law can only be invoked to get information from federal agencies and institutions.

Speaking with Premium Times on the ruling of Court of Appeal, a rights activist Inibehe Effiong said, “The decision of the Court of Appeal is consistent with well-established principles of legislation. By virtue of paragraph four and five in part two of the second schedule of the Constitution, the states should know that the National Assembly can make laws with respect to the archives and public records,”

“The FoI Act is a law that stipulates how the public should have access to public record. Even if a State House of Assembly makes a law about how the public should have access to public record, such law would only be subservient to a similar one passed by the National Assembly. I’m not surprised by the judgement. The states too know this but they’re just wasting public funds in challenging the matter,”

“Only international treaties and instruments could be domesticated, you don’t need to domesticate a federal law. Anyone who is aggrieved should proceed to the Supreme Court, but I am confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the ruling of the Court of Appeal.”

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