Freedom Of Information (FOI): Requesting Public Finance Accountability In Rivers State
Administrations at the federal, state and local governments always come with new policies, developments and changes intended to showcase its performance in providing the dividends of democracy to the citizens. However, despite numerous infrastructure and development projects embarked upon by the federal, state and local governments areas (LGAs), Nigerian citizens have seen crumbling public infrastructures as successive administrations do not adequately maintain projects.
The administration Chief Barrister Ezenwo Nyesom Wike in Rivers State has embarked on several commendable infrastructure projects, especially in road construction. In the past months, the state has witnessed the commencement of three new flyovers in ObioAkpor and Port Harcourt City Local Government Areas (LGAs). These include the Oro Abali flyover (Garrison Junction), which has been completed and commissioned, the Okoro Nundo flyover (Rumuokoro), and the Artillery Flyover as part of other numerous urban renewal constructions ongoing in Rivers State.
Cover Picture: Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State inspecting the Garrison Junction flyover project in Port Harcourt. Picture by the Rivers State government-owned newspaper, thetidenewsonline.com
However, while the government continues to develop the state, citizens’ interest must also be given priority as they are expected to be carried along in all governance processes. It is imperative the infrastructure development, and the expenditures of public finances are made as transparent as possible to ensure that governments can be accountable to the electorate. Too often, at the federal, state and LGA levels of government, project contracting, and execution have been organized under opacity, thereby enabling corruption and impunity. Massive projects, costing billions of naira, continue to be conduits for public sector corruption – with private sector collusion. Infrastructure development could be one of the avenues used to deny citizens of long-term and sustainable benefits from public revenues.
That is why Alone works for more accountable governments at the federal, state and local government levels to ensure that communities and citizens benefit more from public revenues. We work with our Anti-Corruption Network (AcoNet) partners to increase citizens’ voices on amplifying accountability and anticorruption issues to bring about behavioural and policy change(s) that will institute a culture of transparency and accountability in Nigeria, especially at the sub-national levels of government.
The Rivers State Anti- Corruption Network (RIV-AcoNET), a network of Civil Society organizations in Rivers State, coordinated by Alone embarks on annual state projects monitoring exercise to all LGAs in the state. AcoNET members in other states of Nigeria engage in a similar exercise. As a follow-up to RIV-AcoNET’s findings, the Network wrote to the office of the Accountant General of Rivers State requesting the Accountant General’s fiscal year report for 2018/2019. A similar request was also made to the Rivers State Bureau of Public Procurements for documents on the State procurement within the period.
After several attempts by the Network to get the requested documents were ignored by the different government agencies, the civil society group decided to approach a Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, to file a suit against the Government of Rivers State, the Accountant General of Rivers State with suit NO PHC18/74/2020 with prayers for the court to mandate the governments to make available the requested documents.
The case was filed on February 18th, 2020 by Sabestain Kpalap and Arochukwu Ogbonna as plaintiffs on behalf of the Network. However, the suit suffered setbacks because of the COVID-19 related lockdown. Proceedings, however, commenced in October after the reconvening of the court. The prayers in the suit filed included that the court should make an order to compel the defendants to make available documented information on the cost of construction of the three flyovers and other projects which include:
1. The construction of the Abissa landing Jetty in Akuku Toru.
2. The ongoing G.R. A phase 2 road expansion and urban renewal work, Port Harcourt.
3. Clearing of the site for an approved school building in Borokiri.
4. Renovation of staff quarters and,
5. Provision of 800 pieces of desktop computer for ICT Building at the Ignatius Ajuru University of Education and rehabilitation of work at Elechi Amadi Polytechnic Rumuola.
The defendant had failed to appear in court on three separate hearings in the past until his Lordship Justice James Omotosho in the last hearing in December, 22nd 2020, ordered the plaintiffs to re-serve the defendants the court processes separately. This was when the Attorney General and Commissioner for justice Rivers State Prof. Zacchaeus Adango, SAN filed a counter-affidavit and appeared as counsel to the Defendants and requesting that the case be struck-out three days before the February 3rd, 2021 hearing date.
On the date of hearing on February 3rd, 2021, the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice Rivers State and counsel to the defendants appeared in court and prayed the court to strike out the case on the grounds that the plaintiff does not have the locus to demand such documents and also claiming that the documents in question are in the public domain. Counsel to the plaintiffs, Barr. Njoku Nweke prayed the court to give him more time to reply to the affidavits filed by the counsel to the defendants. The court granted it and adjourned the case to Wednesday, February 27th, 2021, for hearing.
Speaking to newsmen at the Federal High Court premises after the court session on February 3rd, 2021, Counsel to the Plaintiffs, Victor Nweke wondered why Rivers State government is finding it difficult to accede to the simple application issued under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act for the availment of public documents. In his words,”under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, if an Applicant applies to a record of public record, that Applicant is entitled to be given those particular documents he sought to get from public authorities. That is just a simple issue. We are not claiming for monetary compensation or anything. This is just a public litigation matter.”
The Rivers Anti-Corruption Network has been monitoring government’s projects across local governments for years as part of citizens’ oversight function and seeking to make governments and governance participatory, open, accountable and transparent.