Monday, May 23, 2016

FOI in Nigeria: Language on Parole?




One common denominator which has held sway after the Freedom of Information, FOI, was passed into law in 2011 is that there has been no landmark case which has tested the innards of the Act. An explanatory memorandum of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 said that the FOI makes public records and information more freely available, and provides for public access to public records and information, protect public records and information. While it must be stressed that making public documents public is inherently intended to deter corruption and ensure transparency and good governance, why the FOI seemingly has not helped in deterring corruption gives room for investigation and more scrutiny.

Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922) avers that the struggle for the control of the minds of men usually leads to a takeover of their convictions.  If that is the case, that fight for the minds of men must begin with an understanding of what would lead to a quest for the kind of convictions that the minds of men must fight for. Put this way, analysts would have no need to contest the strength of Adegbija’s position (1952) that many phases of human behaviors are determined by the attitudes that reinforce them. Precisely because of the pervasiveness of language in most forms of human interaction, language attitudes, particularly, have the potential to influence virtually all aspects of such interaction as shown below:


Source: Infograhics developed by Bob MajiriOghene Communications, Benin City.

The picture graph above is representative of what Adegbija (1952), refers to as the Language scenario in Sub-Saharan Africa countries. Each sub-group as captured from the common core of languages in Nigeria is a break-down of the composition of language as used in Nigeria.

Nigeria with a population of 170million has over 500 languages according to demographic demarcations. In the North-Western States – Kaduna, Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Bauchi, Nigerians predominantly speak Hausa as lingua franca; while north-easterners – Borno, Yobe have a Kanuri-speaking people. Among Nigerians living in the South-Westerly states of Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Oyo, Kwara, Nigerians generally speak Yoruba while South-Easterners living in Abia, Anambra, Enugu, speak Igbo.  But there’s a great ‘minority’ in the Middle Belt – Taraba, Adamawa, Benue, Kogi, Plateau, Niger and Abuja, together with those in the South-Southerly axis in Akwa-Ibom, Bayelsa, Edo Delta and Cross River make up a linguistic diversity which ultimately lead to the conclusion that ‘no language in Nigeria is spoken by as many as 50% of the entire population’. This brings to question the rationale behind the designation of Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba as ‘major’ languages and why nearly all policy considerations and decisions are made based on them.

1.0 Facts: On April 2016, the Centre for Social Justice, CSJ, organized a meeting in Abuja which brought together lawyers, journalists and civil society practitioners to examine practical strategies of using the FOIA for the advancement of fiscal governance and to review step by step approaches and processes for demanding fiscal information, the timeframes, exemptions under the law, the litigation procedures and strategies using relevant national and comparative case law.  Key to the workshop was the presentation of a learned paper by Bar Kanu Onuora’s work in progress – Enforcement of Freedom of Information in Nigeria – in which he proffered options to litigation if a request for information failed, to include: (i) order of mandamus (ii) certiorari (iii) declaration of rights of parties (iv) damages.
1.1 The Problem: First, the language of the FOI is couched is legalese, a form of writing and communication usually reserved for the use and comprehension of peddlers of the law. It is often a difficult language to understand. It is a dialect and a register with diction and sense perceptions described by Adegbija as mostly in favour of a western-oriented-elite class which controls, shapes and manipulates economic and political destinies of most countries in Africa.  At the Abuja meeting only lawyers seemed to understand the basics of the FOI, and therefore perhaps to underscore this frustration, several CSO members present at the meeting expressed their dismay at this trend through a resort to fisticuffs. The basic question therein was: why is it only the lawyers who were speaking and who understand the FOI?
Two and in addition, rather than using the learned treatise by Barrister Onuora to simplify the innards of the FOI, it compounded the problem with a reference to cases that CSOs had no inkling and strong depth of understanding of the FOI 2011.  
Three, in recognition of the following, certain CSOs prior to the Abuja meeting already put together three other versions of the FOI in the three ‘major’ Nigerian languages – Hausa, Yoruba and Ibo and a pidgin version as well. This is a thoughtful venture. However, it effectively shuts out all the other 497 language groups which make up the linguistic and demographic consideration of the Nigerian Federation.  That apart, the Holy Grail of translation  indicates  that no matter what or who the expert is who is doing the translation, no two languages can have exactly the same meaning after translation and much is eventually lost in terms of lexis and structure, sense perceptions and linguistic properties such as word stress, rhythm and intonation.  

The seeming failure of the FOI is to be seen in festering corruption in Nigeria. Passed in 2011 yet in 2016 stories of how $2.1bn arms fund was diverted into campaign funds from the office of the former Nigerian NSA continue to shock a benumbed nation to the extent that Nigeria is now known as ‘fantastically corrupt’.  We believe that corruption is still rampant because Nigerians yet do not understand their rights, privileges and obligations under the FOI. Therefore then, and if indeed the end product of communication is comprehension, the FOI 2011 has not passed the test of communicative efficiency.
● Re-write the FOI in Standard English – instead of translating the FOI 2011 into the three ethnic Nigerian indigenous languages and thereby cutting off the rest of Nigerians, we recommend that the FOI be rendered in Standard English, aka received pronunciation or network English,  a language which does to promote linguistic barriers, ethnic rivalries or demographic considerations. As an example of how legalese makes it difficult for Nigerians to understand and activate the FOI, the language of Section 6 of the FOI states thus:
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 Standard English Version of the same section 6 would likely appear this way:
As a Nigerian citizen, you have the right to take any government agency to court to make them give you information.
● Commission plays, skits and drama – contemporary Nigerian society has evolved to the extent that Nollywood has been touted as the 3rd largest movie industry in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood. Across the African continent, Nigerian movies are patronized and have a large following locally and internationally.  Therefore effort should be put into the production of dramas, short plays and skits which highlight the strength and potentials of the FOI 2011. In 1964, Professor Wole Soyinka used his play Madmen and Specialists to lampoon the political elite who took over from the British Colonial masters in the oppression of Nigerians.
●Take the FOI to the grassroots via Radio – Research has shown that the Radio is the only medium which Nigerians across ethnic and linguistic divides can access.
Source: Sources of Information on TAGG: Lessons from USAID/SACE Survey Data by Martin Oluba | PhD (Econs), DBA President/Founder, ValueFronteira Ltd. & Africa Analytics Roundtable

The info above ordinarily indicates that Nigerians across board source for and would rely on information from radio device especially when there is power failure.  Even without power supply, Nigerians in the North are armed with transistor radios are better enlightened than their compatriots down south who rely on power to access the internet, television and social media.  Features stories highlighting how Nigerians can write simple letters to public institutions requesting information can be aired on Weekends when most Nigerians are home and enjoying their rest.  

Development of FOI apps and software – Apps and software which have a Standard English version of the FOI, together with a template of how an FOI letter looks should be developed. Today’s world is a dotcom one and the tech revolution can be harnessed to empower Nigerians to use the FOI to fight corruption. The author has canvassed this position in his column in the Independent newspaper of May 10th 2016 thus: and on his personal blog thus:

Adegbija, Efurosibina: Language Attitudes in Sub-Saharan Africa, a sociolinguistic overview, Multilingual Matters, 1994.
Media Rights Agenda, Freedom of Information Act, 2011
Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, 6th Edition
Quirk, Randolf & Sidney Greenbaum: A University Grammar of English, Pearson Education Ltd 2012
Walter, Lippmann: Public Opinion, USA 1922
Yule, George: The Study of Language: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

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Deep Sighs: ISBN 978-1-906963-44-6
Tears for a Birthday & Other Poems: ISBN 978-1-906963-55-2
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