FOI: Beyond Illusions
FOI: Beyond Illusions
By Lanre Arogundade
The authors of the freedom of or access to information law conceive it as a potent anti-corruption weapon in capitalist democracies. In Nigeria, successive years of corrupt rule by the military and civilians, gave actual impetus to the FOI idea and made it popular among different layers of society. Its principal proponents were however civil society and media personnel who believed that such a law was needed to stem the ugly tide of looting of public treasury at the expense of providing for the basic necessities of the people for job, education, health, housing, living wages etc.
Against this background, the enthusiasm that greeted President Goodluck Jonathan’s signing of the FOI bill into a law (or Act), after twelve years of lobbying and campaigning was understandable. Essentially, an FOI Act permits a citizen to seek information he/she deems to be in public interest from government or public institutions. Ostensibly, such information could relate to contract awards, budget spending, and assets’ declaration; while the law also requires public (government) institutions to conspicuously display information on their functions, activities, budgetary spending etc.
It is in the above context that FOI protagonists see the law, as capable of enthroning transparency, accountability and good governance. Yet for poor workers, farmers, youths and women who suffer the brunt of pillage of public resources through anti-working class policies like commercialization of education and health care, poverty wages, high costs of electricity etc, and therefore would truly want corruption eradicated, the pertinent question is whether or not the FOI law would serve as a potent anti-corruption weapon as envisaged by its protagonists.
In answering this question, the first important point to emphasize is that no system breeds as much corruption as the capitalist system; notorious for appropriating collectively produced wealth for the benefit of a tiny private clique of millionaire exploiters. That is why, in the country today, it is okay for the ruling parties PDP, ACN, ANPP, Labour Party to award fat contracts to party loyalists and financiers, while the executives and legislators earn roof-top salaries. But when it comes to the payment of a mere N18, 000 minimum wage, the president and state governors sing the same chorus of non-availability of funds. What they do not say however is that the funds actually exist but for other purposes other than peoples welfare.
The security vote is a relevant example. Each month, the executives collect millions of dollars as security votes; the expenditure of which they are not bound by any law to disclose. The best an FOI law could achieve on this issue is to seek information on the exact amount that the executives collect but not what the details of the expenditure are. But since these huge sums are attached to security, they might not even so disclose, as the FOI law exempts information on national security, trade secrets, etc from being disclosed except a court of law directs otherwise. Yet, it must be borne in mind that defence or security often takes a large chunk of the country’s yearly budgets, coming under such headlines as presidency, police, internal affairs, the military etc. The helplessness of the security agencies in the face of bombing campaigns by Boko Haram, intra-ethnic clashes, politically motivated assassinations and armed robberies as well as the poverty of their rank and file personnel, only serve to indicate that the so-called defence votes are routinely pocketed by millionaire Generals and their civilian political heads. It should be recalled that Tafa Balogun as Inspector General stole about N17billion of tax payers’ money.
The second point to emphasize is that the present set of rulers, being beneficiaries of the corruption-ridden system would at best only pay lip service to the FOI law; fundamentally, they would thwart any effort to make it really effective. For example, since the enactment of the law, no visible efforts have been made by the government to establish structures for its implementation across the country. ACN’s Ogun state government has even said it is not bound to reply to FOI request since the law is yet to be domesticated in the state. Other states might take a cue from this argument to deny information to citizens.
The ruling classes are also known to have penchant for stealing public money and stashing them away in foreign accounts. Unfortunately, FOI has boundary limitations and cannot be used to request information from foreign institutions. By the way, part of the constitutional amendment being proposed by President Jonathan, is the non-criminalization of the operation of foreign accounts by public office holders unlike what presently obtains. None of the so-called opposition parties has kicked against the proposal as it enables the ruling classes, irrespective of political divides, to hide public loot from public scrutiny.
As indicated earlier, there is bound to be more barriers erected on the way of FOI users by the capitalist politicians. But the more information seekers come against such brickwalls, the more they would be receptive to the perspective of linking the eradication of corruption with a system change from the government of capitalist millionaires to that of the working peoples. In this wise, socialists and trade unionists should continue to agitate that the task of ending corruption and ensuring that public resources are used for the benefit of the labouring masses requires the political mobilization of the working class for the purpose of capturing political power.
A working class socialist government would be open to the extent that it would be democratically elected and run by representatives of the working masses and their allies. Under such a dispensation, key decisions on pay for public officials, allocation of resources, projects execution, etc will be pubic knowledge since they will be taken by elected committees of the people in the neighbourhoods and workplaces.