Opaque oil – The Nation

  • Minister Kachikwu and NNPC GMD Baru should respect Falana’s FOI Act request

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act as a standpoint for democracy has met a roadblock in one of Nigeria’s prime institutions. The reason: it has denied that it is a Nigerian institution. It has tried, with imperfect logic, its foreclose place in Nigerian law when its finances are placed under the glare of the mirror.

Human rights lawyer Femi Falana had tested the working of the FOI Act by asking the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to unveil facts about its financial operations and it has denied the lawyer the right to know. By implication, it has shut out the Nigerian citizen’s right to facts about how the money that proceeds from its principal foreign exchange earner is spent.

Falana has requested clarification over revelations by the minister of state, Ibe Kachikwu and NNPC’s group managing director Maikanti Baru. The minister had said that in December 2017, Nigeria consumed 28 million litres of fuel per day and accrued a subsidy of N726m per day amounting to N261.4 billion per annum. Barely four months later, on March 5, 2018, Baru announced a sharp rise to 50 million litres per day, attracting an expenditure of N1.7 trillion in January and February of 2018. In May, the minister said the consumption had spiked up to 60 million litres per day with N1.4 trillion in subsidy.

The lawyer noted that “we are not aware that the increasing consumption rate has been blamed on the smuggling of imported fuel from Nigeria to neighbouring countries by some economic saboteurs.”

In response through its lawyer, Mr. O.B. Omale of Omale O.B. & Co. in a letter dated May 25, 2018 and received by Falana’s law firm, the NNPC claims that it “does not fall within the purview of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011,” adding that the provision of the Act, particularly section 31 thereof, is clear and unambiguous as to the meaning of the public institution.” The letter said “our client is neither a legislative, executive, judicial, administrative nor advisory body of the government of Nigeria.”

It went further to argue that even if the NNPC were a public institution, even though it does not concede it is, the documents requested “are expressly excluded” because they relate to “trade secrets.” The company says if it reveals those secrets they will injure contractual rights and obligations.

We disagree with the corporation, because its position places it above the rule of law. By implication, it means the NNPC stands on its own as a country or as a private organisation. It is neither. It is therefore an act of impunity for the NNPC to employ lawyers that will flatter it so fatally. It is irresponsible for any institution that reports to the president of the federation, Muhammadu Buhari, and whose source of business is the people’s patrimony to claim, as it does, that it is a law unto itself.

As Falana rightly asserts, “under FOI Act, public institutions mean all authorities whether executive, legislative or judicial agencies, ministries and extra-ministerial departments of government, together with all corporations established by law and all companies in which government has a controlling interest, and private companies utilising public funds, providing public services or performing public functions.”

The NNPC is supposed to pass its budget to the National Assembly for appropriation but it does not  present it to the legislature. But does the National Assembly not reserve the right to question the corporation’s finances? If the answer is in the affirmative, then that nullifies any claims of immunity to investigation and inquiry by the public on its finances.

By rejecting Falana’s offer, the top executives of Nigeria’s oil are encouraging suspicions of opacity in its operations. The concept of the FOI Act is to unveil corruption and underhand dealings in the Nigerian state. It has not had much success because of official resistance like that put up by the caretakers of Nigeria’s prime revenue source.

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