Deputy British High Commissioner Urges CSOs, Nigerians to Use FOI Act
By Jennifer Onyejekwe
KADUNA, Friday, 27 January 2012: The Deputy British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr. Giles Lever, yesterday in Kaduna called on civil society organizations and ordinary Nigerians to take advantage of the Freedom of Information Act to demand accountability from their government.
In his opening remarks at a workshop organized by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) for representatives of civil society organizations in the northern states of Nigeria on how to use the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Lever said the Law would enable ordinary Nigerians to make their voices heard.
The workshop, which brought together participants from among civil society organizations (CSOs), including community based organizations (CBOs), faith-based organizations (FBOs) and other grassroots organizations in the North East, North West and North Central zones of the country, was organized with support from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of the United Kingdom through the British High Commission in Abuja,
Mr. Lever said having fought for 12 long years to get the Freedom of Information Act, civil society organizations should now exploit the Law in ensuring good governance in Nigeria, adding that for Nigerians to have sustained a 12-year struggle to have the Act passed meant that they recognized its importance as “something worth having”.
Citing the recent protests around the country over the increase in the price of petrol, he said although he could see the Government’s arguments in wanting to remove fuel subsidies, the strikes and massive protests which followed the Government’s action were a watershed moment in Nigeria, showing citizens’ power.
He noted that the fuel subsidy protests demonstrated clearly the potency of hundreds of Nigerian civil society organizations coming together as one voice to oppose a policy and demand accountability from their government, adding that this trend should be sustained.
Observing that there can be no accountability without transparency, Mr. Lever argued that the Freedom of Information Act was a great tool to bring about transparency and accountability in governance.
He remarked that on his way to Kaduna from Abuja, he was reading a leading international economic and political intelligence magazine which rated Nigeria’s democracy as 119 out of 162 countries with democratic governments.
Mr. Lever said he initially doubted the accuracy of the rating in the light of significant progress Nigeria made with the largely free and fair elections organized by the new Independent National Electoral Commission in April 2011, but that on reading further, he realized that the rating assessed more than just elections as it also examined other factors and features of a truly democratic state.
Describing himself as a “well-wisher” for Nigeria, he argued that an effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Act would give Nigeria an opportunity to make a potential huge leap to improve its global rating on democratic practices.
Mr. Lever remarked that as a government official himself who has had to respond to numerous freedom of information requests, he understood how burdensome some requests could be, which led former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to observe in his memoirs that signing the UK’s FOI Act into law was his biggest mistake in government.
He also noted that as a government official, he could not pretend that his perspective on the issue would always be the same as that of civil society. Nonetheless, he said, it was a great moment and opportunity for Nigeria, adding: “this is Nigeria's time, it is your time”.
Mr. Lever commended Media Rights Agenda for organizing the workshop and taking up the huge task of sensitizing civil society organizations and other stakeholders around the country.
Earlier in his welcome address, the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda, Mr. Edetaen Ojo, noted that the workshop was the first in a series of sensitization workshops on the Freedom of Information Act which MRA would be organizing in different parts of the country over the next several weeks.
He said the workshops were part of a wider project to increase the level of participation in governance by citizens, using the Freedom of Information Act as well as part of MRA’s on-going efforts to ensure that the Nigerian society is highly engaged and mobilized around the issue of the Act.
Mr. Ojo called on other civil society organizations to work with MRA to continue to explore any and every opportunity to spread information about the Freedom of Information Act “if we are to achieve our ultimate objective, which is to ensure that Government is accountable to, and works for the people.”
He said: “Most, if not all of you here, know how hard civil society organizations in this country worked to ensure the passage of this Act. It would be a tragedy of monumental proportions if we now have the Law but fail to put it to good use to lift our country to the height which we are all convinced that it can attain.”
Mr. Ojo urged other organizations to work with MRA “to make the Freedom of Information Act the most well implemented piece of Legislation in Nigeria as it has already acquired the reputation of being the most hard fought for legislation in our history.”