By Sunday ELOM
THE Cross River State government has refused to release information on the Yahe-Wanokom-Wanihem-Benue Border Road project, including the agreement of the contract awarded under a joint initiative of the state and the African Development Bank (AFDB) in 2010.
The ICIR, on March 15, 2021, through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, asked for details of the road project, specifically name and address of the contractor approved for the construction of the road; the contract sum; duration and completion date; releases so far made to the contractor, including time and amount of each release and the contract document signed with the contractor.
The Yahe-Wanokom-Wanihem-Benue Border Road has been in a deplorable state since it was first awarded in 2010 despite several appeals made by the largely agrarian communities along the route.
Contrary to the provisions of the 2011 law that information requested should be made available promptly but not later than seven days from the receipt of the application, the state government is yet to respond to the request or give any reason for the denial weeks after acknowledging its receipt.
The ICIR reached out to Cross Rivers State commissioner for works Dane Osim-asu, but he did not respond to text messages and calls to his official line. In a frantic effort to get the required information, The ICIR reached out to the state project coordinator Charles Okongoh, an engineer. While acknowledging that he had the information, Okongoh said that he could not speak with our reporter because he did not have the authority to do so. He said that only the works commissioner could provide the information to the reporter.
It would seem there are vested interests involved in the project but the FOI Act, in unambiguous terms, clearly frowns at the willful withholding of information not injurious to public security and safety.
The access to information law was enacted in 2011 to make public records and information freely available to citizens and protect same to the extent consistent with the public interest, amongst others. However, many agencies of government at both state and federal levels continue to brazenly disobey the law by denying citizens access to publicly held information.
This was partly pointed out in a report by The ICIR in November 2020 that most government agencies brazenly ignore FOIA requests. For example, of 301 requests filed with federal agencies between 2018 and August 2020, as many as 187 – over 60 percent – were ignored by the affected agencies, while only 64 (20.65 percent) received a response. Also, 13 (4.19 percent) were referred to another agency while 46 (14.84 percent) were officially acknowledged but information denied by the agencies.
Although, enacted by the National Assembly, state governments have often argued over the legality of enforcing the FOIA in their states. However, this has been laid to rest in a judgement by Justice Oke-Lawal of Ikeja High Court in 2017, where he stressed that the FOI Act would apply to the government of the federation as well as to state governments and would not require ‘domestication’ by states to have effect.