HEDA floors Customs Service in court over FoI request

THE Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA) has defeated the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) in a case on the NCS’ refusal to respond to a request HEDA made through the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.

According to the Abuja Federal High Court’s proceedings and judgment on the case obtained by The ICIR during the week, HEDA had on December 17, 2021, written to the NCS to provide information on the recruitment exercise it (NCS) had done that year, and on details of contract of the renovation of its headquarters in Abuja.

Information that HEDA sought, using the FoI, included:

  • The name of the company/firm that the NCS contracted for its recruitment screening exercise in 2021;
  • The amount the NCS agreed to pay the contractor for the exercise;
  • The process/guidelines for selection of the contractor company/firm in the recruitment exercise.

Another request was the name of the company/firm the NCS contracted to renovate its headquarters in Abuja and the amount the contract was awarded.

Weeks after the NCS failed to provide the information, HEDA headed to court and filed a suit against it, according to Section Six of the FoI, which says, “A person entitled to the right of access conferred by this Act shall have the right to institute proceedings in the court to compel any public institution to comply with the provisions of this section.”

The ICIR reports that the FoI Act, signed by former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011, is viewed by many as the boldest effort made by any government in Nigeria to make public officials accountable to the citizens.

Section One (1,2 and 3) of the Act states citizens’ right to request any information of public interest from any government-funded institution or public organisation receiving funds from the government.

The ICIR further reports that like the NCS, many institutions fail to honour the law.

To promote responses by ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and private organisations taking funds from the government to FoI requests, The ICIR, in collaboration with partners, had consecutively given awards to institutions adjudged to have responded most promptly to FoI requests over the past years. Here are the 2020, 2021, and 2022 winners.

HEDA’s suit, filed on March 28, 2022, sought an order of mandamus compelling the NCS to provide the information it requested.

Lawyers Saidu Muhammad Lawal, Abdulrazak Abdulganiyu, Joshua Ifeanyi Onuekwusi, Paul Adedapo Adewuyo, Abdulrahman Uwais, and C. B. Yakubu, represented HEDA, while the NCS hired Smart Akande, Abiola Olowoniyi, Jayeola Dada, and A. S. Adeyemi.

On April 12, the respondent filed a counter affidavit to the applicant’s motion on notice and also filed a notice of preliminary objection challenging the court’s jurisdiction to entertain the suit on the following grounds, to wit: that the application/ suit did not disclose any reasonable cause of action against the respondent, and that the suit/applicant constituted an abuse of court process.

The NCS also said it refused to provide the information sought by HEDA because it fell within Section 15 (1) of the FoI, which empowers institutions to deny information that could cause harm to third parties on issues relating to trade secrets. 

After both parties had filed their written addresses, the trial judge, Emeka Nwite, first dealt with the preliminary objection before going into the case’s merit.

Nwite, recalling related cases, held that “the applicant has a reasonable cause of action against the respondent upon a careful examination of the facts as deposed in support of the present application for judicial review.”

Also, on the issue of abuse of court process, the judge said, “I have carefully examined the present suit, and I must state right away that the basis upon which the respondent argued that the present suit is an abuse of court process is not only watery but bereft of any iota of merit. The present suit is geared towards informing the citizenry of the country on how public funds are used and by whom. 

“It equally aimed at exposing any corrupt practices within the public institution by promoting transparency and accountability. Therefore, it will be difficult to hold that the present suit is an abuse of court process when the definition of an abuse of court process is considered. There is absolutely nothing before this court to show that the applicant is acting maliciously towards the respondent as it relates to the present suit.”

The judge declared as untenable and inconsequential the respondent’s argument that the information sought must be denied because it was exclusively between an employer and employee bound on the personal information in line with Section 15(1) of the FOI.






     

     

    He consequently dismissed the preliminary objection by the NCS.

    In his ruling, the judge, after referring to various similar cases, granted HEDA’s prayers and issued an order of mandamus compelling the NCS to provide the information the applicant requested.

    Information the NCS must provide, as ordered by the court, included the name of the company/firm it contracted to conduct the said recruitment, the process/guidelines for selection adopted by the contracted company/firm and the NCS in the said recruitment exercise, and the name of the company/firm contracted to renovate the NCS’ headquarters in Abuja, as well as the amount awarded.

    The judge said, “In my humble view, the information sought is the most simplest and harmless information that an applicant is expected to get from a public institution like the respondent. Where an institution like the respondent denies an applicant the instant information sought, it will not only defeat the very purpose of the Act, it will also encourage corruption and financial recklessness. The respondent has no valid reason to deny the applicant the information sought.”

     

    Marcus bears the light, and he beams it everywhere. He's a good governance and decent society advocate. He's The ICIR Reporter of the Year 2022 and has been the organisation's News Editor since September 2022. Contact him via email @ [email protected].

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