Nnamdi Felix / Abuja
The recently passed Freedom of Information Act on monday received a boost as a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja on Monday, ordered the Clerk of the National Assembly to release to Legal Defence and Assistance Project, LEDAP, a non governmental organisation, details of the salary, emolument and allowances collected by legislators between 2007 and 2011.
In a judgement delivered by Hon Justice Bilikisu Aliyu in a suit filed by the NGO against the leadership of the National Assembly under the Freedom of Information Act, the judge held that the FOI Act permits the NGO to demand for any public information such as the details of salaries, emoluments and allowances earned by the legislators. The court held that the information required by LEDAP are of public interest since the payments were from public funds.
The organisation had in September 2011 filed the suit to compel the clerk of NASS to furnish it with the requested information. LEDAP claimed in the suit that the legislators were overpaid beyond rate approved by law. The NGO had earlier written to the clerk of the National Assembly for the information on the earnings of the legislators and demanded refund of over payments but the request was ignored by the Clerk and led to the suit. The National Assembly through its counsel Mr. Yunus Ustaz Usman, a senior advocate of Nigeria, had argued that the information requested by LEDAP was not permitted to be released under the Freedom of Information Act, and that the organisation lacked the locus standi to make such request.
Over- ruling the objections, the court held that every citizen is entitled to have access to public information under the FOI Act, and ordered the Clerk of NASS to release the requested information within 14 days of the judgment. It is recalled the that at the end of the 6th National Assembly in June 2011, it was widely reported that some legislators collected as much as N100m per quarter in allowances, excluding official salaries and emoluments, and that principals officers collected even more. LEDAP considered the outrageous payment of allowances to legislators beyond the rate allowed by the statute as unlawful. “Legislators are those who made the law on how much each public officer should be paid in salary and allowances. It is unlawful and irresponsible for them to break the law and collect for themselves from public coffers much more than permitted by law. They are liable to refund any excess money collected beyond approved sum, and we will pursue this issue in the courts until all unlawful overpayments to the legislators of the 6th Assembly are repaid to public coffers.” said LEDAP’s lawyer. Mr. Chino Obiagwu.