National Assembly & court order on members’ salaries, By Obo Effanga

According to The Punch newspaper of Wednesday August 29, 2012, the Nigerian National Assembly is taking steps to reverse the recent order of the Federal High Court for it to disclose the earnings of its members.

The report says the National Assembly (NASS), acting through its Clerk (the highest ranking civil servant and administrator of the federal legislature), Mr. Salisu Maikasuwa, is by a motion on notice dated June 29, asking for stay of execution of the judgment on the grounds that he has filed a “valid notice of appeal” challenging it.

Recall that on June 25 2012, Justice Balkisu Aliyu had delivered judgment in a suit filed by a civil society organisation, Legal Defence and Assistant Project (LEDAP), ordering the Clerk of the National Assembly “to give detailed information of salary, emolument and allowances paid” to all the federal lawmakers from June 2007 to May 2011.

That judgment was well received and celebrated by citizens. Among other things, it would help put paid to controversies surrounding the actual, official and legitimate earnings of our legislators and thus help in our quest for accountability. The salaries and allowances of these state officials after all are paid from the common wealth of Nigerians and we deserve to know what it costs us to maintain our public officers.

What is more, it is a practical application of the intendment of the Freedom of Information Act earlier passed by the same National Assembly, whom Mr. Maikasuwa is attempting to shield from scrutiny.

The questions to ask include: “whose interest is Mr Maikasuwa attempting to protect anyway?” What injury does he or the (former) members of the National Assembly stand to suffer if this information as to their salaries and allowances are made public?”

While we are aware that the law recognises the right of any party in a legal proceeding to appeal any decision, we are also aware that public officers, whose offices and activities are paid for by public resources should at all times act in the best interest of the public. Spending public resources in appealing this judgment and resisting the quest for the disclosure of public information cannot by any stretch of imagination be said to accord to that standard.

Our country cannot progress with the attitude of public officers as represented by the clerk of the National Assembly who continue to regard the salaries and emoluments of public officers as private and secret information.

One view reportedly canvassed by the NASS Clerk is that the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 and any other law did not have retrospective effect. This apparently suggests that because the Act was passed in 2011, it cannot be used as basis for demanding information that existed prior to that time.

That certainly cannot be a proper interpretation of the law. Section 1(1) of the Act refers to “information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution…” Thus, we believe that information about the salaries, allowances and emoluments paid to members of the National Assembly of Nigeria from 1999 to date, being within the custody of the NASS Clerk, clearly full within the above provision.

Our position therefore is for the Clerk and indeed the leadership of the National Assembly to discontinue forthwith this appeal in the best interest of Nigeria and to speedily release the requested information as ordered by a court of competent jurisdiction.

Obo Effanga is Governance Manager, ActionAid [Nigeria] 

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