Abimbola Akosile looks at the impact an effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Act can have on transparent governance and development in Nigeria, as spearheaded by a civil society organisation CAFSO-WRAG for Development, with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)

For twelve years, the Freedom of Information Act suffered setbacks from the legislators before it was passed into law in May 2011 by then President Goodluck Jonathan. Its major purpose is to guarantee citizens’ rights to information.

According to the FoIA, 2011 Explanatory Memorandum “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 authorisation and establish procedures for the achievement of those purposes.”

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 recognised 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).

Points to Ponder
In a welcome/keynote address by the Principal Coordinator, CAFSO-WRAG for Development, Dr. Tola Winjobi during a two-day training for principal officers of some Ministries on FoIA, supported by OSIWA, which took place in May in Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, he noted that Nigeria cannot be an exception among the states (countries) implementing FoIA while the local states (36 of them) cannot distance themselves from its implementation.

According to Winjobi, “Nigerians need the right to access information without conditions attached. However, since the act was signed into law six years ago, there is an increasing relatively moderate level of awareness of the FoIA among members of the public in Nigeria and especially in the southwest geo-political zone that is taking the lead in the implementation. The situation is worse across the country as many public servants are not aware of the Act while those that are aware do not know the import of the Act.”

To him, “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, the unwillingness on the part of government officials to accept the new information regime, attorney-generals’ ignorance, and conflicting judgments from the judiciary.”

“CAFSO-WRAG for Development, supported by 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”, he added.

Crucial Recommendations

Winjobi stressed 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.
He also underlined the need to facilitate policy interface between the judiciary staff, legislators and legal professionals on one hand, and also 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.

Also, in another welcome address at a Town Hall meeting for stakeholders on FoIA, held in July at Ibadan Business School, Ibadan, Oyo State, Winjobi said, “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.”

He urged governments, in line with Section 13 of the FoI Act 2011, to organise “appropriate training for government officials on public right to access information or records held by the government or public institutions as provided for in the Act because no state government has ever done this training.”

To him, this training would equip public officials with the necessary skills 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.

He called on State actors to entrench the culture of openness while the political class should be sensitised 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”, he added.

Other Tips

Among other recommendations, Winjobi called for repeal of conflicting and inconsistent laws impeding implementation of the FoIA to allow for its effective workability across the nation while the judiciary should synergise pronouncements and refrain from churning out conflicting judgments arising from FoIA litigation.

He sought for partnership between CSOs, media and public officials to be strengthened for the successful implementation of the FoIA in Nigeria. To him, “the obsolete Official Secret Act which gags the civil servants should be expunged in all our statute books, while clampdown 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 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”, Winjobi recommended.

He called for the banning of the political class and public officials from undertaking international medical tourism “as this attitude belies the government’s policy of patronising 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.

“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”, he added.
According to the development activist, “over 100 million Nigerians are suffering from poverty yet these lawmakers are feeding fat on the commonwealth of all Nigerians who are suffering amidst plenty.”

If the provisions of the FoI Act are followed and implemented for the benefit of the majority of the citizenry, Nigeria will be a better place and there would be equitable development for all. That is a crucial goal.

Reproduced from http://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2017/08/17/harnessing-the-foi-act-for-transparency-devt/