In 2011, the Freedom of Information Act was enacted under the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan after over a decade of serious and unending debates about its viability in Nigeria.
The Act, as the name implies,arms citizens with the right to seek and get information about government activities in the country. But more than 5years later, the law is yet to gain a foothold in the country as several government information is shrouded in secrecy from citizens.
The latest examples of cases of the law being truncated are cases constituted as FHC/ASB/CS/62/2017 and FHS/ASB/CS/79/2017 between Anti-Corruption Integrity Forum and the Accountant General of Delta state on the one hand, and the Anti-Corruption Integrity Forum against the Delta State Tenders Board wherein the plaintiff prayed the Federal High court, Asaba to compel the Accountant General of Delta State and the Delta State Tenders Board to give information in respect of some contracts awarded by the State Ministry of Works. The plaintiff also sought an order directing the Attorney General of Delta State to prosecute the Accountant General for failure to release the information requested.
In both cases, the Federal High Court, presided by Justice T.B. Adegoke astonishingly struck out the two cases on the grounds that the Federal High Court lacks the jurisdiction to entertain the case being that the subject matter does not fall within the parameters of the provisions of Section 251 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) and that the plaintiff did not comply with procedural rules.
This is seen as a ridiculous decision by Justice T.B. Adegoke. Common sense would require that the judge should pass on the case to a court of competent jurisdiction since the Federal High Court does not have the said “jurisdiction”, rather than striking out the case entirely. It is pertinent to stress the well-established position of the law by virtue of Section 22 of the Federal High Court Act, LFN 2004 that the proper order the Federal High Court ought to make where it finds that it lacks jurisdiction to entertain the case is to transfer the case to a court with jurisdiction and not to strike out the case.
This is clearly a case of subversion of justice against the Anti-Corruption Integrity Forum by the Justice T.B. Adegoke led Federal High Court in Asaba, and it also makes a mockery of the validity of the Freedom of Information act which was enacted in 2011.
Nowhere in the Freedom of Information Act 2011 is it stated that an Applicant requesting for information from a state government cannot apply to the Federal High Court when the same Act clearly provides in Section 1(3) thus: “Any person entitled to the right to information under this Act, shall have the right to institute proceedings in the court to compel any public institution to comply with the provisions of this Act”. Section 30 then defines Court to mean “a High Court or Federal High Court respectively”.
In determining its claim of jurisdiction, the Honourable Court ought to have restricted itself to the definition of the word COURT in Section 30 of the Act instead of basing its decision on the fact that since the defendant is not a Federal Government agency, the Federal High Court lacks jurisdiction to entertain the case when Section 251(1),252(1) and (2) have conferred additional jurisdiction on the Federal High Court.
It is expedient that, in an era when Nigeria seeks to get rid of the monster called corruption, the courts should treat these kind of issues with diligence in the dispensation of their judicial duties.
The decision of the Federal High Court, Asaba in the Anti-Corruption Integrity Forum cases runs against the tide of judicial and statutory authorities and renders useless, the enforcement of the Freedom of Information Bill.