The Freedom of Information Act is one of the numerous bills signed into law by the Nigerian Legislative arm of government. It was signed by the former president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan on May 28th, 2011 after 11 years of heated debate at the house, it remains the longest bill that ever survived in Nigerian legislative.
Its relevance towards ensuring accountability and transparency particularly in the Sports sector cannot be overemphasized. It is geared towards ensuring that Sports administrators are accountable to her citizens of how funds given to them are spent in their bid to develop sports in the country.
FOI Act A Tool For Nigerian Sports Journalist
Interestingly, one of the importance of the FOI Act in Sports development is its role towards equipping Journalists with accurate information as enshrined in sections 1 and 2 which guarantees the right of access to information whether written or not that is in the custody of Public Institution.
Unfortunately, there is low awareness of the Act among Sports Journalist. And that alone is a clear indication that much needs to be done in the Sports sector to create awareness of the Act. This conclusion is however reached after my little experience in writing with the Act and with special attention to the overpaid $135,000 IAAF Funds to the Sports Ministry. A good number of colleagues craved to know the relevance of the Act. However, let me share my experience while using the FOI Act to investigate the overpaid IAAF fund.
IAAF OVERPAID MINISTRY OF SPORTS BY $135,000
The story of how the International Association Athletics Federation (IAAF) overpaid the Ministry of Sports the sum of $135,000 for annual grants went viral. With lots of sports analysts expecting that the sum will be repaid back by the Sports Ministry, before stories came up that the overpaid sum were used. Leaving Nigeria in a situation where they needed to do a refund to her international affiliates.
However, IAAF expressed displeasure over Nigeria’s awareness of the overpaid funds yet kept silent and further threatened to sanction Nigeria from International competitions. In a different reaction, the then Sports Minister Barr. Solomon Dalung accused IAAF of “blackmailing” Nigeria and accused the organization of involvement in a “calculated attempt to demean and destroy Nigerian athletics”. However, an agreement was reached by Dalung and IAAF President Coe that AFN will refund the money in the future after both parties had a chat on phone. Unfortunately, Solomon Dalung’s tenure expired without the full refund of the sum to IAAF and no clear record of how the money was used.
FOI ACT SEEKS TRANSPARENCY ON HOW THE $135,000 WAS USED BY SPORTS MINISTRY
In the midst of the heavy criticism which analysts had heaped on Nigerian Sports Ministry for failing to refund the sum to IAAF. It becomes pertinent to invoke the FOI Act to seek clarification, on how the said sum was spent by the ministry since it has agreed to do a refund.
On August 6th 2019, I set out on a road journey of 754km (468 miles) driving distance from Lagos to Abuja through a night bus. The intention was to arrive Abuja in the morning and head straight to the Sports Ministry at the Federal Secretariat and submit the FOI Request I had prepared seeking to know how the sum of $135,000 was spent.
The dream of arriving the next morning was not achieved. We left Lagos by 11:30pm, the greedy luxury bus driver and his conductor further wasted time at every junction in the dead night. Seeking to get more passengers and not minding the hazard associated with those stopovers, particularly as we were driving on a path notable for attack by the disastrous Fulani Herdsmen. The fear sank in the minds of us all, but we sat patiently as we were all determined to reach Abuja, while also soaking chaplets in water.
A NIGHT JOURNEY TURNS DAY JOURNEY
The journey to deliver the FOI Act continued and I soon slept off only to wake up around 6am and found out we were still in Akure (Ondo State). There were complains and cry from other passengers, who criticized the driver and his bus conductors for their inability to cover the distance as expected, if we were still in Akure by 6am, the dream of reaching Abuja between 9 and 12 noon was practically impossible. It means I certainly will not deliver the FOI Act request as earlier planned, but hoped maybe by noon.
We however continued the journey, and eventually got to Abuja by 4pm. The weather was unfavourable as it rained lightly but threatening. I needed to find my way and have a good rest after embarking on such journey. So at least I can have a good rest and prepare ahead of tomorrow to get across to the Sports ministry.
Barr. Ikechukwu Eseka was accommodated me during this period; he was also very helpful with providing me with relevant criticisms on my mission and my desire to seek clarification on how the funds were used. In his final words of advice to me, he said “Joseph, be sure you get all your facts rights and act within the provisions of the law”.
SPORTS MINISTRY GETS THE FOI ACT
On Thursday 8THAugust, I set out to the Federal Secretariat to have my FOI Act request submitted. Since I was in Abuja and know little about the environ, I deemed it fit to contact the SWAN national President Mr. Honour Sirawoo and let him know of my arrival. Interestingly, he told me he had an appointment at the Sports Ministry and since it was also my way I proposed to join him so we get there at same time, as that will save me the stress of trying to locate the office. He agreed and I had to meet up with him at the Moshood Abiola Stadium where we later journeyed to the Federal Secretariat.
As soon as we arrived at the Sports Ministry, Mr. Honour headed for his meeting while I went straight to the Permanent secretary’s office to submit my request. The Request was addressed to the Permanent Secretary, this is owing to the fact that as at the time of the request was made, no Minister had been appointed to head the Sports Ministry.
The registrar who received and acknowledged my FOI Act request was an elderly man he flipped through the two-page document, read through some lines and shook his head as though he was disappointed with the circumstances that led to the request he was receiving. He was also quick to read aloud paragraph 4 which seemed to get his attention. After that he hit the stamp on the acknowledgment copy signed it and handed it back to me.
SPORTS MINISTRY APPEALS FOR EXTENSION
The FOI Acts having been received by the Sports Ministry on August 8, 2019 mandated the Ministry to respond within 7 days. However, the Sports Ministry opted to appeal for an extension of time, and an appeal was made through the Director of Press A.B Lere-Adams on August 15th, 2019.
The appeal for extension of time according to the reply was to allow the Ministry “source for required information for events that occurred in 2017”. “This is to ensure that you are availed accurate and correct information on your enquiry”.
The appeal made by the Sports Ministry was well appreciated. A reply was sent to the Sports Ministry through the email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) which was used to make the appeal for extension.
However, upon completion of the period of extension as requested by the Sports Ministry and no further response was gotten from the permanent secretary, it became necessary we drag the ministry to court to ask for the implementation of the request.
SLOW JUDICIAL PROCESS DELAYS HEARING OF FOI ACT
Upon the refusal of the Ministry of Sports to respond within the specified period, our counsels prepared the paper work to sue the Permanent Secretary of the Sports Ministry to court on grounds of failure to release the request. Our Lawyers had completed the filing within the stipulated period and filed the case to court within the stipulated period.
However, assigning a Judge to the case became an issue as the judicial system slowed the process. Leaving the hearing of the FOI Act suit to a time that is unknown. The role of the FOI Act towards ensuring transparency is hit by this heavy blow of indefinite waiting. About one month since after the suit was filed, the waiting continues.