A WELCOME ADDRESS BY THE PRINCIPAL COORDINATOR, CAFSO-WRAG FOR DEVELOPMENT DAVID TOLA WINJOBI (PhD) ON THE OCASSION OF A TOWN HALL MEETING FOR STAKEHOLDERS ON FOIA, ON THURSDAY 27TH JULY 2017 AT IBADAN BUSINESS SCHOOL, OLD BODIJA, IBADAN OYO STATE,  NIGERIA

On behalf of the board, management and staff of CAFSO-WRAG for Development and OSIWA, I heartily welcome you all to this important meeting bringing together key stakeholders associated with the implementation of Freedom of Information Act.

It is no longer news that for 12 years, the Freedom of Information Act suffered setbacks from the legislators before it was passed into law in May 2011. No wonder its implementation has met with brick walls in most of the states in Nigeria.  It is so astounding and encouraging that immediately it was passed by the National Assembly on the 27th of May the then President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria Dr Goodluck Jonathan did not waste time as he signed it into law on the 28th of May, 2011.  Passing it into law is laudable while its purpose is to guarantee citizens’ rights to information. “The Act makes public records and information more freely available, provide for public access to public records and information, protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy, protect serving public officers from adverse consequences for disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorization and establish procedures for the achievement of those purposes” (FOIA, 2011 Explanatory Memorandum).

FOIA falls under the specific context of the right-to-know and the rights to information as enshrined in international human rights law and widely recognized in democratic states. The right to seek and receive information is protected expressly in Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). After all, in 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee, tasked with authoritatively interpreting the obligations imposed by the ICCPR on states parties, adopted a General Comment affirming that Article 19 of the ICCPR guarantees the human right “of everyone” to have access to information held by public authorities. Nigeria cannot be an exception among the states (countries) implementing FOIA while the local states (36 of them) cannot distance themselves from its implementation.  Nigerians need the right to access information without conditions attached.

In spite of the laudable and noble objectives of the FOI Act, there has been a lot of challenges towards the effective and efficient implementation of the FOI Act. Among such challenges are: poor record keeping, unwillingness on the part of government officials to accept the new information regime, attorney-generals’ ignorance, civil society actors’ timidity in pursuing the cause of FOIA, and conflicting judgments from the judiciary. Since public institutions are most likely to refuse to accede to provide the access to information, the judiciary is key to ensure compliance. While some judges have been progressive in the interpretation of the law, others have interpreted the Act to further entrench the culture of secrecy which the law was enacted to change.

In view of the extent of the challenges faced by FOIA, CAFSO-WRAG for Development, supported by Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) believes that there is the need for robust and sustained interventions on the provision of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by strengthening FOIA institutions for the promotion of Nigerian citizens’ unfettered access to public records and  information for  transparency and accountability.  Paramount is the need to create periodic dialogues and synergy on FOIA implementation among the key stakeholders including the judiciary staff, the office of the Attorney-General, principal officers of the Ministries Department and Agencies, the legislators, Nigerian Bar Association, the CSOs and the media. Important is the need to facilitate policy interface between the judiciary staff, legislators and legal professionals on one hand, and on the other hand, build the advocacy skills of the CSOs and the Media, and strengthen the skills of key public officials on Freedom of Information Act 2011 so as to facilitate citizens’ greater access to information, and promote transparency and accountability in government.

One of the activities planned for the project is a Town Hall Meeting among the stakeholders including CSOs, legal professionals, academia, religious leaders, media practitioners, Commissioners for Information, Justice and Attorney-General, members of the House Committees on Judicial Matters, and members of the House Committee on Information.

The following objectives would be achieved at the THM:

  • Provoke discussions among the stakeholders with a view to identifying and attenuating the challenges facing the implementation of FOIA in the southwest.
  • Engender consensus among the participants on the relevance of FOIA and the role of stakeholders in promoting good governance, transparency and accountability

There will be a presentation on the project deliverables while the participants would chart a way forward while the representatives of the critical stakeholders would have a syndicated discussion.

In view of the desirability of FOIA in our society especially in making governance open and accountable, I make the following recommendations, that:

Since Nigerians have the right to know and they have the right to request for public documents in public interest, governments are enjoined to provide an enabling environment for Nigerian citizens to make request without being unnecessarily denied access to such public records within the purview of the FOIA.

Governments should in line with Section 13 of the FOI Act 2011 p.13 organize “appropriate training for government’s officials on the public right to access information or records held by government or public institutions as provided for in the Act” because no state government has ever done this training. This training would equip public officials with the necessary kills in relating with the public and providing appropriate records for requesters and in turning down requests within the provisions of Act. Officers dealing with FOIA would therefore be able to develop and maintain proper record keeping for easy access to information by members of the public.

State actors should entrench the culture of openness while the political class should be sensitized on the need to embrace FOIA in order to improve the image of the government. If transparency is the hallmark of democracy, governments should be open and accountable to the Nigerian citizens.

Conflicting and inconsistent laws impeding the implementation of the FOIA should be repealed to allow for its effective workability across country while the judiciary should synergize pronouncements and refrain from churning out conflicting judgments arising from FOIA litigation.

Partnership between CSOs, media and public officials should be strengthened for the successful implementation of the FOIA in Nigeria. The obsolete Official Secret Act which gags the civil servants should be expunged in all our statute books while clamp down on media which is a reminder of obnoxious Decree 24 should be repudiated.

Government should be seen as seriously prosecuting the anti-graft war with stringent sentencing not minding whose ox is gored rather than being selective in apprehending political oppositions or the perceived enemies of the government for prosecution. Plea bargaining may not be the best approach as it encourages public officials to amass more stinking wealth and being left off the hook at the payment of a fine that is not commensurate to what has been stolen. Outright jail coupled with forfeiture of the ill-gotten wealth would serve a better option in order to serve as deterrent to other intending kleptomaniacs.

The political class and public officials should be banned from undertaking international medical tourism as this attitude belies the government’s policy of patronizing made in Nigerian products. Our policy makers especially the executive  and the legislators should be made to benefit from infrastructural decay they are making policies on so that they can make all-inclusive better policies for all.

I personally decry the shrinking space for civil society which is being strengthened by the obnoxious NGO Regulation Bill before the House of Representatives to be followed up with an NGO Regulatory Commission. By the letters of this Bill, an NGO can be registered or deregistered at will notwithstanding earlier registration with the Corporate Affairs Commission while they are compelled to comply with national laws as well as register with both national and foreign policies. With this policy, NGOs are at the mercy of the Minister of Interior through the board that may deal with an NGO the way they like. Many NGOS could be phased out and thus freedom of expression is curtailed.

The executive arm of the government should cause the National Assembly members to publish what they earn. Secrecy on the jumbo pay package of these law makers negates the letters and intendment of the FOIA. Over 100 million Nigerians are suffering from poverty yet these law makers are feeding fat on the commonwealth of all Nigerians who are suffering amidst plenty.

Thank you for your attention.