On Freedom of Information, Corruption and Mediocrity, By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

Chidi Odinkalu, Chair, National Human Rights Commission
Chidi Odinkalu, Chair, National Human Rights Commission

I should begin by transmitting heartfelt birthday greetings to Kongi – Professor Wole Soyinka – on his 79th Birthday today as well as thanks for all he has done for us as an activist, inspiration, teacher, citizen, humanist and ambassador. I look forward to attending this event 11 years from now when he will be around with us to mark his 90th birthday.

 Let me also thank the organizers, the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalist (WSCIJ) for organizing this event and bringing us all together on a Saturday. Professor Biodun Jeyifo has travelled a long way to give us, characteristically, a lot to think about. I propose to address two things in the remarks that follow: a little bit of responsibility, context, and consequence in the discussion of what to do with the FoI Act. I’ll speak as an ordinary citizen.

Very often, in discussing governance in Nigeria, we focus on the failings – imagined as well as real – of the high and mighty and not enough on our responsibilities as citizens. A tyranny of rights without attention to the responsibilities that underpin them will not take us far for, in this conversation on corruption, mediocrity and FoI, there is enough blame to go round and not enough responsibility. Let me explain.

Three things characterize our attitude to records: informality, silos, or indifference. We are a very oral society. We love to tell stories a lot but do not do enough to create records, preserve evidence or crystallize memory. In public life, people will come to you with stories about malfeasance but ask you to make sure no one knows they brought it to your attention. We have supposedly public databases that do not interface and cannot talk to one another.

These things are sustained by absence or destruction of systems of effective memory, education, and orientation. Where such systems do not exist, corruption will thrive and mediocrity will sustain it.

To operate an effective FoI system, you need an underlying and mutually reinforcing system of effective governance and citizenship. These are at best work in progress in Nigeria. We need active citizens to make the FoI Act work. But often, we blame God instead of taking responsibility. I’ll give an example.

Take the flooding of the lower River Nigeria in 2012. We were told it was an act of God. But was it? President Yar’Adua had awarded a multi-billion Naira contract and flagged off in 2008 the dredging of the Lower River Nigeria from Niger State to the estuaries and creeks of the Niger Delta. The River Niger was last dredged in 1975. Since then, the navigable depth of the course of the Lower River Niger had been reduced to less than one meter. The proposal with the dredging was to deepen the course of the Lower River Niger to about three metres. All of this information is contained in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that preceded the project. If the dredging had been done, would the flooding have happened? The answer is evident. But how many people are willing to investigate this and understand what happened?

The FoI Act is not the only piece of legislation that mandates access to information in Nigeria. The Environmental Impact Assessment Act mandates public access to all EIAs. The Fiscal Responsibility Act creates similar rights with respect to information on our fiscal management. In a society in which rumour is more easily accessible than facts or evidence, few bother about these laws and how they could change the way we do business.

Our problem, of course, is not just that as citizens, we fail ourselves and our leaders. Quite often, many of our leaders fail us and fail themselves too. Sometime in December 2006, then Governor of Borno State, Ali Modu Sheriff, in response to wide spread criticism of his record (or lack of it) as Governor, declared as follows:

A lot of falsehood has been published over the years in newspapers about my government and I never lose sleep over them because less than five per cent of Borno people can read and understand what is written in newspapers.

Thisday Newspapers was sufficiently alarmed about this it to highlight it on its back page on 15 December 2006. Today, we all and not just the people of Borno State, live with the consequences of the cynicism of a senior public officer who deliberately decided to under-develop the people whose sacred mandate he exercised for eight years as Governor and for another four as Senator.

It is impossible to make the FoIA or indeed better livelihood for our people work without access to education. Basic education is a right in Nigeria under the Universal Basic Education Act. Indeed, our courts have repeatedly upheld education as a human right inherent in the right to freedom of information in Section 39 of the Constitution.  Take the maternal mortality in Nigeria. At 1,549 per 100,000 live births, maternal mortality rate in north-eastern Nigeria is the highest in the world, caused substantially by lack of access to education and lack of access to reproductive health information.  Thus, when Governor Modu Sheriff celebrated his achievement in keeping his people from being educated, he was not just precluding accountability for himself, he also condemned many of them, mostly women, to certain death for want of information.

The FoIA is thus both a symbolism and a framework or method. But we must not forget where we are coming from. We got the FoI Act in Nigeria on the Centenary of operating and practicing the Official Secrets Act. This was 100 years beginning with pre-colonial Nigeria, through colonial Nigeria, to the various forms of post-colonial governments that we have had, including, in particular, military rule.

During this period, a bad tradition was established about public information and how it is supposed to be managed. Public officers were weaned on the tradition that the people are entitled to nothing. As a realist, I acknowledge that we are not going to change this system overnight or in one stroke of legislation. This is why it is essential to understand the enormity of the challenge we confront and to attest to what an achievement the FoI Act is.

In hindsight, it is clear that what we had was a set of higher-ups telling us what we were or were not entitled to. In 1911 or 1914 or even 1950, it was a white man asserting that black people were not human enough to know what affected them. So, our hierarchies of information were founded to begin with on racialism and racism. That racism foundation has transmuted, in post-colonial Nigeria to status distinctions that undermine the promise of equality in our 1999 Constitution.

This is why the FoIA is at first a symbolism. Because it is the foundation for realizing this promise and it implements the declaration in our Section 14(2)(a) of the Constitution that “sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria.”

Then the FoIA is also a framework of how things should be done.  After 100 years of doing things wrong, the FoIA lays down how we should now begin to change them. One of the ways it does this is to require proactive disclosure of 16 different heads of information. Most MDAs and public servants are disdainful of the proactive disclosure requirements. But this is the meat of the law. The websites of most MDAs are worse than inadequate.

Most public servants have Yahoo, Gmail or MSN accounts for official communication but are opposed to an effective FoI Act. It tells you that most of our people do not understand the mechanics and mechanisms of access to information because if they did, our public officials would have worked harder to make sure the FoI Act and the digital environment to implement it in Nigeria are effective. For when we do public business on Yahoo and Gmail, we export our official information to foreign countries and outsource control over them to foreign intelligence capabilities. That cannot be why we hire public officers and pay them with our money.

FoI is also good for our economy. If we operate it effectively, it will reduce transaction costs, increase efficiencies, offer jobs to our young people and make our country safer in a world of competitive value chains in the information sector. But we cannot do this in a country in which over 10 million of our children lack access to education, there is widespread impunity for corruption and the public service is not very public and provides little service.

Mr. Odinkalu, legal scholar, and Chairman of Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission, made these remarks at the 5th edition of the Wole Soyinka Media Lecture Series organized by the Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism, to commemorate the 79th birthday anniversary of the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka in Lagos July 13th.


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