Despite the rigours and rigmarole undertaken to get the bill passed and signed into law, the Freedom of Information Act has since passage suffered gross under-utilisation amidst the growing culture of corruption in the country.
Day in and day out, revelations are being brought to light about corrupt practices of different arms of the government. However, media outlets and civil society organisations are yet to take the challenge of asking questions regarding these revelations altogether.
Also, during the passage of the FOIA bill in 2011, lawmakers who spearheaded the passage regarded the bill as a gift from the 7th assembly to Nigeria’s democracy; however, no tangible achievement has been recorded afterwards.
Since the FOI bill passage, several corruption scandals have been uncovered by different committees of the House of Representatives with little or no follow-up by the media and civil society organisations.
In 2012, a $16 billion fuel subsidy scam was uncovered by an ad-hoc committee set-up by the House of Representatives to underseek the fraudulent payment of fuel subsidy between 2009 – 2011. The lawmakers investigating the subsidy unveiled that importers were being paid for 59 million litres a day, while the country only consumes 35 million.
Highlighting this discovery, a lawmaker reportedly asked, “where is the money?”, he was further quoted to have said that “We (House of Representatives) brought the fuel subsidy scam to light by revealing that there was no subsidy, that all we are subsidising was corruption. But nobody asked the question on what has happened to the money.” The lawmaker’s outburst reveals the media’s deteriorating role as watchdogs of society and low culture of inquiry among civil society organisations. Even though this is not to justify the scam, a more detailed discovery might have been made if follow-up was expedited by the media and civil organisations using the FOI Act.
Besides, the House Committee on the Implementation of the FOI also reportedly uncovered that several Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs) do not have units that are saddled with addressing FOI requests as mandated by the law, but who is asking the questions?
Despite confessions of looting by politicians, Nigerians still fail to use the FOI act. With the apparent under-utilisation of a powerful tool as the FOI Act, how then do we know if the nation’s resources are judiciously used or not? How do we hold the government accountable and keep officials on their toes?
Without a good utilisation of the FOI act, Nigeria’s democracy would continue to be a ‘dictatorship in democracy’ with no fear or embarrassment by any allegation of corrupt practices as corruption and mediocrity thrive in the country.
This is not a responsibility of the media or civil society organisations alone; it is a responsibility of every individual. The former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Dr Chidi Odinkalu, once said that “the tyranny of rights cannot make progress with citizens who want to take responsibility.” Access to information and public records, as entrenched by the FOI acts, empowers every Nigerian to demand relevant explanations from government officials and agencies. Such empowerment is the only way to change how the government is run.