Despite a Court of Appeal decision in April stating that the Freedom of Information Act is applicable to all states in Nigeria, the Lagos State government has refused to disclose its education budget.
An appellate court in Akure in March had ruled that Nigerian states had no powers to reject requests filed under the FOI Act, especially on information around public expenditure.
Last May, to civic organisation, BudgIT, filed an FOI request to the Lagos State government asking for a breakdown of the state’s education budget between 2015 and 2018.
The state government, through its ministry of justice, refused to accede to the request.
“After a careful review of the FOI Act and the recent judgment of the Court of Appeal (Edo State Division) in EDOCASA V OSAKUE & 8 ORS delivered on 28th March, 2018, it is the advise of this Office that the FOI Act is not applicable to State Governments except the FOI Act is domesticated by the State Government (being at the discretion of the State to enact a similar law),” read the government’s response signed by Hameed Oyenuga, Director of Advisory Services and Judicial Liaison.
“In view of the above, we further advise that any request in line with the FOI Act should not be acceded to as Lagos State has not domesticated the law and as such not applicable to the Lagos State government.”
One law, multiple rulings
The Freedom of Information Act was signed into law in 2011 by former President Goodluck Jonathan to make public records more easily accessible to the people.
But various state governments had continued to argue that the law requires to be similarly passed by their houses of assemblies.
Last November, an Ikeja Division of the Lagos State High Court ruled that ruled that the FOI is applicable to the Lagos State government and does not require “domestication” by the state to have an effect.
The Lagos State government promptly lodged an appeal at the Court of Appeal seeking to set aside the ruling.
In March this year, another appellate court in Benin gave a different ruling from that given by the one in Akure, holding that the FOI is not binding on state governments as they are not “a stooge to the federal government.”
Atiku Samuel, the head of research at BudgIT, said the Lagos State government’s decision to pick court judgments to obey shows its insincerity.
“We suspect that something is actually wrong,” Mr Samuel told PREMIUM TIMES.
“What we did was to ask some critical questions especially around education and then the result was so disheartening, the state government again decided that information should not be for the general public.
“We feel that that’s condemnable giving the fact that the government of Lagos State are just the custodians of the income of the people that had been passed over to them.”
It wasn’t the first time Mr Samuel organisation had run into a brick wall while seeking information from the Lagos State government.
Last January, a similar request for the government’s financial statement relating to its revenue over the past five years did not get a response.
“It shows clearly that there is something the state government is hiding from the people, and that explains why the educational system – the educational institutions in Lagos are the way they are,” Mr Atiku said.
“Virtually all secondary schools in the state are in a very bad state despite the huge revenue the state had been collecting over the years. The budget would have been the pointer to where the problem lies.”
The Lagos State government is renowned for ignoring FOI request on its activities from journalists and civil society organisations.
Adetokunbo Mumuni, executive director of Social Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, told PREMIUM TIMES that the Supreme Court would be the final arbiter on the FOI issue.
“It only shows a lack of transparency on the part of the government and that they cannot be talking about transparency and accountability when some of their dealings are shady and not open, it’s as simple as that,” said Mr Mumuni, whose organisation is challenging in court the state government’s refusal to account for spendings on public schools in the state following a $90 million World Bank loan.
“If they try to pick one judgment and rely on it, whereas another judgment said it is possible, then until we have a final pronouncement from the Supreme Court that’s when we can say we are at the end of it.”