A Federal High Court in Abuja will deliver judgement on May 20, 2020 in a suit instituted by an Abuja-based journalist, Miss Godsgift Onyedinefu, seeking to compel the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN) to prosecute the Federal Ministry of Youths and Sports and its Minister for allegedly denying her information on the total cost to the Ministry of its participation in the 2018 World Cup.
In the suit filed on her behalf on July 26, 2019 by Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Charles Musa, Miss Onyedinefu is asking the court to direct the Ministry and its Minister to make available to her within seven days of the court’s judgment, the information she requested from them by her letter dated June 3, 2019, pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, 2011, relating, among other things, to whether there was budgetary allocation for the Ministry’s participation in the Russia 2018 World Cup as well as the participation of those who were sponsored by it and if the allocation was approved in the 2018 Appropriation Act of the Federal Government.
The presiding judge, Justice Okon Abang, adjourned the case for judgment after hearing the final arguments of the lawyers for the parties in which the ministry, its minister and the Attorney-General of the Federation are named as defendants.
In the suit brought by Originating Summons, Miss Onyedinefu is seeking, among other things:
A declaration that she is entitled to receive from the defendants the information she applied for relating to whether there was budgetary allocation for the participation of the ministry and those it sponsored in the Russia 2018 World Cup, which was approved in the 2018 Appropriation Act of the Federal Government and for the defendants to specify the head of expenditure to which the costs were charged and the other requests for information as specified in her letter;
A declaration that the failure, neglect and/or refusal of the defendants to make available to her the information she requested by her letter is wrongful, unlawful and amounts to a gross violation of her right of access to information established and guaranteed by sections 1(1) and 4 of the FOI Act;
A declaration that the failure and/or refusal by the defendants to make available to her the information she applied for amounts to wrongful denial of access to information under section 7(5) of the FOI Act;
An order directing the defendants to make available to her not later than seven days from the court’s judgment the information she applied for relating, among other things, to whether there was budgetary allocation for the participation of the ministry and those it sponsored in the Russia 2018 World Cup, which was approved in the 2018 Appropriation Act of the Federal Government and for the defendants to specify the head of expenditure to which the costs were charged and the other information specified in her letter;
An order compelling the Attorney-General of the Federation to initiative criminal proceedings against the Ministry and its minister for, among other things, the offence of wrongful denial of access to information under Section 7(5) of the FOI Act; and
The sum of N1 million as exemplary and aggravated damages for the unlawful violation of her right of access to information established and guaranteed by Sections 1(1) and 4 of the FOI Act and wrongful denial of access to information under Section 7(4) of the Act.
However, in a counter-affidavit deposed to by Mr. David Karimu, a litigation clerk in its Legal Unit, the ministry claimed that although it genuinely intended to furnish Miss Onyedinefu with the information, that upon further inquiries from the appropriate department, it discovered that the whole matter is undergoing investigation by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
He said the release of the information would be prejudicial to ongoing investigations by the two agencies and that the ministry acted within the Law when it denied Miss Onyedinefu the information.
In a further affidavit, Miss Onyedinefu described the claim by the ministry as a ploy to deny her the information requested, saying the EFCC’s letter, dated June 6, 2018, about 12 months before her application for information, regarding an investigation into corruption in the Nigerian Football Federation, which the ministry tendered, was not connected with the information she requested.
At the hearing of the suit, Mr. Jacob Nambe, lawyer to the Attorney-General of the Federation, asked the court to adjourn the matter to enable the Attorney-General to file his counter-affidavit in the suit.
But Mr. Musa, a member of the Freedom of Information Legal Response Network, established by Media Rights Agenda (MRA), opposed the request on the grounds the he travelled from Lagos to Abuja for the hearing and that the time for filing the defence had lapsed. Besides, he said, there was no application before the court for an extension of time to file any response.
Justice Abang upheld Mr. Musa’s objection and denied Mr. Nambe’s request for an adjournment. He therefore ordered that final arguments in the matter should proceed.
Mr. Musa urged the court to note the provisions of Section 24 of the FOI Act to the effect that “In any proceedings before the Court arising from an application under section 20, the burden of establishing that the public institution is authorized to deny an application for information or part thereof shall be on the public institution concerned.”
He argued that “The people of this country have a right to know every public act and everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearings.”
According to him, “The right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary, when secrecy is claimed for a transaction which can, at any rate, have no repercussion on public security.”
Justice Abang thereafter adjourned the matter to May 20, 2020 for judgment.