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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Opinion: Freedom Of Information Act And Mr. President’s Educational Certificate

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by Temitope Olodo

Is it in the public interest for President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s doctorate certificate to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act? This is the critical question that we need to ask….

It is reported that Omano Edigheji of Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law submitted the FOI request to Uniport and I believe the submission will fail because FOI Act exempt personal data except he can argue that it is the public interest for disclosure to be made.

The Act under Section 3(2) provides for access to public records and information but there are also exemptions to the release of certain public records within the Act. The beauty of the Act is that it places the burden of proof on the public institutions to explain why access to information is denied rather with the requester. It is important to highlight that that Uniport will fall within the remit of public institutions because it is a Federal owned body.

Therefore, the person making the request for information does not usually have to give an explanation or reason for requesting for information, but if the information is not disclosed within the 7 days timeline; then there is a valid reason for the requester to seek legal redress on the matter in the court (Judicial Review)

However, The Act also recognises that there may be valid reasons for withholding information requested for by the requester and that is because the information might be one of the many areas exempted under the law such as:

·         Information about investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities;
·         Court records;
·         The interests of Nigeria abroad;
·         The prevention or detection of crime; or
·         Information relating to personal information and others etc

If a public institution decides to refuse a request for information under the exemption listed above or others, then it is a requirement by law that the public institution inform the requester of the refusal within 7 days of receiving the request under the Freedom of Information Act 2011.

It is important to understand that Nigeria FOI Act does not define public interest. In some literatures, the public interest test is sometimes referred to as “Public Interest Override” because the public interest consideration sometimes “overrides” the exemption and the section covering ‘Landmark FOIA Judicial Decision’ provides some insight into the decision of the court on the subject matter.

Therefore, the “public interest” is a vague concept which is naturally not defined in access to information legislation. This flexibility is intentional because there is an acceptance that public interest will change over time and according to the circumstances of each situation thus, the need that the law does not try to categorically define what is “reasonable.”

The FOI Act also recognises that there may be legitimate reasons for withholding information either for the protection of the public, national security or infringement of individual rights. Thus, the Act sets out a number of categories where exemptions rules could be invoked but most of these exemptions are subject to a public interest test.

If I was advising the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law about their request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2011, I would have suggested that they rephrase their questions or requests in this manner.

1. Ask Uniport to confirm the number of students of the University within a specified timeframe that graduated with a doctorate degree

2. Ask Uniport to confirm that President Goodluck Jonathan was a student of their university within that timeline

3. Ask Uniport to provide a gender breakdown of doctorate degree students for that timeline

4. Ask Uniport to confirm that President Goodluck Jonathan was awarded a doctorate degree by the university.

Asking Uniport to provide information such as “Name of his external examiner(s)”, “Name of his doctorate supervisor(s)” and “Photocopy of the dissertation/thesis” etc

It is clear the requester does not fully understand the FOI Act because personal information are exempted under the Act and you can’t use FOI to secure information which you could find in a normal library (easily accessible)…

The requester should go to Uniport library to ask for a copy of the President’s doctoral thesis… That simple!

Temitope Olodo is the author of “Nigeria Freedom of Information Act – A Practical Guide For Nigerians” and a Subject Matter Expert on Boko Haram. She can be reached through mobile – +447917700509 or email- [email protected]

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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