Two civil society organisations, BudgIT and Public and Private Development Centre, have threatened to sue the National Assembly for refusing to disclose the details of its budget in compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.
The National Assembly has had a budget of N150 billion per year since 2011.
The budget of the National Assembly comes on first line charge as statutory transfer from the Federal Government’s Appropriation Act (annual budget) and therefore cannot be tampered by the Executive arm.
The Nigerian legislative arm excused its refusal to disclose its budget on the basis that it contains personal, third party related and privileged information, the BudgIT and PPDC said in statement on Tuesday.
The organisations said they had collaboratively made an FOI request, dated March 17, 2015, to the clerk of the National Assembly requesting the detailed breakdown of NASS budget of N150bn for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014; as well as the performance report for National Assembly budget of N150bn for 2011, 2012 and 2013.
“This request was made following the long-standing secrecy around the budget of the National Assembly, the organisations said. “From 1999 to date, an estimated budgetary provision of N1.26 trillion has been made to the National Assembly, with Nigerians kept in the dark on what or how this huge sum was spent.
“On the 27th of April, a response letter, dated 23rd of March, 2015 was received from the Legal Services Department of the NASS, refusing this request, on the basis that:
“Some of the information in the National Assembly Budget for 2011-2014 is “personal, third party related and privileged and are all exempted under Sections 14 and 15 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 and that the other information you requested for are published and available in public libraries and cannot be applied for by virtue of Section 26 of the Freedom of Information act, 2011”
Section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 exempts personal information including “files and personal information maintained with respect to clients, students, patients, residents, students or individuals receiving social, medical, educational, vocational, financial, supervisory or custodial care or services directly or indirectly from public institutions, personnel files and personal information maintained with respect to employees, appointees or elected officials of any public institution or applicant for such positions, files and personal information maintained with respect to any applicant, registrant or licensee by any government or public institution cooperating with or engaged in professional or occupational registration, licensure or discipline; information required of any taxpayer in connection with the assessment or collection of any tax unless disclosure is otherwise requested by the statute; and information revealing the identity of persons who file complaints with or provide information to administrative, investigative, law enforcement or penal agencies on the commission of any crime.”
The civil society organisations said it is difficult to imagine that a publicly funded budget falls within the category of information that the Freedom of Information Act exempts under Section 14 or would fall under Section 15 which provides exempts information that contains,
“…Trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person or business where such trade secret or information are proprietary, privileged or confidential…, information the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to interfere with contractural or other negotiations of a third party and proposals or bids…”
While dismissing the NASS claim that its budget falls under the categorisations in Section 14 or 15 of the FOI Act, the organisations noted that even the Act in Section 14(3) requires disclosure of personal information as described in Section 14(1) quoted above if such disclosure would be in the public interest and if the disclosure clearly outweighs the protection of privacy. Likewise, Section 15(4) also requires disclosure of information in Section 15(1) if the public interest in the disclosure clearly outweighs in importance any financial loss or gain to, or prejudice to the competitive position of or interference with contractual or other negotiation of a third party.
BudgIT and PPDC said the response by the National Assembly was outrageous as there were no grounds, even in Section 14 and 15, to deny the information they requested; rather, all elements of public budgets fall squarely under information that are statutorily required to be proactively available as provided by Section 2(3) of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011.
The organisations added that if the budget contained sensitive information such as personal addresses, these sections could be redacted before the release.
They stressed that the time when public’s requests for information will be treated with disdain is over.
“This is a challenge we relish and will see to its logical conclusion,” they said. “On behalf of every Nigerian, see you in court.”