Highlights of the Two-Day Capacity Enablement Workshop Organized For Government Officials On Freedom Of Information Act Held At Queens Court; Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, On 24th And 25th Of May, 2017.

Introduction

The two-day capacity enablement workshop was organized by CAFSO-WRAG FOR DEVELOPMENT with support of OSIWA from 24th to 25th of May, 2017 at Queens Court, Ado Ekiti, Ekiti State for participants drawn from key government ministries in Ekiti State. Others were participants drawn from Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) across South West, Nigeria. The workshop was organized with the intention of equipping the skills of the principal officers in government ministries in the area of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) thereby strengthening their skills in responding to requests in accordance with the FOIA while also safe-guarding penalties and fines even when request is being turned down.

DAY ONE- WEDNESDAY 24TH OF MAY, 2016

Opening

The workshop began with an opening prayer rendered by Rev. Ebenezer Bolaji at 9: 22am. Members of the high table were introduced. Other participants also introduced themselves. In his welcome address, the Principal Coordinator of CAFSO-WRAG FOR DEVELOPMENT- Dr Tola Winjobi expressed delight on the progress made so far in the implementation of the Act since its enactment in 2011. He went ahead to charge that a lot still had to be done particularly in the areas of non-corporation of the political class in assenting to information requests and the conflicting judgements from the various courts in Nigeria.

In his opening address, the representative of the Ministry of Information, Ekiti State expressed delight at the efforts of CAFSO-WRAG FOR DEVELOPMENT in organizing the workshop which he described as long-overdue, noting that the use of FOI Law would assist in presenting issues, particularly, the laudable projects of the State government to the public. On his part, the representative of the Ministry of Justice in his key note address delved into the uses of FOI Law. He described the law as an authoritative document which a person whose request has been unlawfully denied, could depend upon to seek legal redress.

Good will messages

  • Mr Sola Afariogun from, African Foundation for Environment and Development- AFED, Ogun State commended CAFSO-WRAG FOR DEVELOPMENT for championing FOI Law implementation in Nigeria. He also thanked OSIWA for providing the needed assistance to support the project.
  • Mr Ologuntoye, Foundation for Justice and Social Development (FOJSOD), Ekiti State noted that the workshop captured the relevant stakeholders as far as FOI Law implementation was concerned. He encouraged the participants representing MDAs to step down the workshop in their MDAs and to ensure that desk officers were appointed to attend to information requests.
  • Upline Resources Foundation, Ondo State- Lamented at the attitude of the judiciary to FOIA matters brought before them.
  • SEDEFOAD, Osun State also ommended CAFSO-WRAG FOR DEVELOPMENT, saying the workshop was a wakeup call for other NGOs and further advised that religious leaders should be involved at other subsequent workshops.
  • Pastor Mrs Odedele expressed optimism that the bringing of participants from different States would assist the participating CSOs to step down the lessons learnt in their respective states.

The workshop was declared opened by Mr Apata on behalf of the Hon. Commissioner of Information, thus ending the official opening ceremony.

AFTERNOON SESSION

The workshop reconvened at 11:19am with a pre-test assessment coordinated by Mr Sola Fagorusi. The objectives of the workshop were set and participants’ expectations generated:

  • To have a more conducive learning environment during the course of this workshop,
  • To strengthen my skills in responding to request and to manage information,
  • Knowing the strategies that would promote effective synergy between CSOs and public servants on FOIA,
  • To be reasonably acquainted with what FOIA is all about and how to put it into practise as well as enlighten other people on its importance,
  • To be more exposed to practical approaches towards institutionalization for FOIA in most of government MDAs,
  • To know better, skills that will enable me the right steps to get information from stakeholders and to do a follow up,
  • To know more about the FOIA and be grounded on its usage,
  • To know more about FOIA and its legal aspect of it,
  • To know the provision of the law as regards exemptions to the FOIA,
  • To know the document I can make request for
  • Add more skills and knowledge on how to handle FOIA issues and matters in the country,
  • To know how to gather information,
  • To know more about the FOIA,
  • To know why the Act has not been promulgated in all 36 states of the federation,
  • To be equipped on the need for the implementation of the FOIA 2011,
  • To know the relevance of FOI to my job

Role of Public Officials in the unfettered implementation of FOI Act in Nigeria

The first lecture titled the Role of Public Officials in the unfettered implementation of FOI Act in Nigeria was presented by Mr Kehinde Adegbite, an Ibadan-based legal practitioner. Mr Adegbite began with the definition of the concept ‘Freedom of Information’ and went further to draw some distinctions between the Freedom of Information Act and the Ekiti State Freedom of Information (FOI) Law. Thereafter, he classified the rights arising from FOI Law and pointed out thatt even though Official Secrecy Act and other extant laws prohibiting the release of official records in Nigeria have not been expressly repealed, relevant sections of the FOIA (Sections 1(1), 27 & 28) now serve as shield to any government official who discloses official information even without the consent of his/her superior from any form of persecution arising as a result of the disclosure. Adegbite enumerated the benefits of the using FOIA by Civil Servants to include conferring respects on public servants and the government at large, lessens the incidences of unnecessary litigation on the part of government and individuals. The roles of Civil Servants in implementing the Act would include:

  • Keeping and maintaining records;
  • Proactive disclosure;
  • Responding to information requests;
  • Submission of report under the FOIA to the Attorney General Federation /State

He wrapped up the presentation by stressing that section 8 of the Act makes is permissible to charge from applicant where necessary, minimally reasonable amount of money for associated services like photocopying and scanning while sections 11 to 26 provide that certain classes of information may be refused, but where such is refused, written notice must be given to the applicant and the reason(s) adduced.

Challenges of smooth implementation of FOIA in Nigeria

The second presentation on the challenges of smooth implementation of FOIA in Nigeria was presented by Mr Ayodele Adebusoye. He highlighted the challenges confronting the implementation of FOI Act in Nigeria to include:

  • Tradition of secrecy and non-disclosure;
  • Intolerance of the media by the political elites;
  • Low level of implementation and public awareness of the Foi Act;
  • Poor record keeping practices and infrastructures;
  • Lack of provision for an ombudsman/ Federal Information Commission;

Solutions to the challenges identified were also proffered:

  • Imbibing the culture of openness;
  • Public understanding of the provisions of the Act;
  • Imbibing proper record keeping habit;
  • Appointment of an ombudsman;
  • Repeal of existing conflicting laws;
  • Further review of the FOI Legal Framework;
  • Integrating FOIA in school curricula;

Mr Adebusoye ended the presentation by asserting that successful implementation of FOIA I Nigeria would require consistency, perseverance and right attitudes on the part of CSOs and others who intend to put the law to use.

Comments and questions raised at the end of presentations

  1. How could a Civil Servants discharge his/her responsibility as required by the FOI Law without getting into troubles with his/her employer?
  2. How can a dismissed civil servant seek redress if sacked for his/her efforts towards making information available as required by the FOI Law?

In response to the questions raised, participants were reminded that FOI Law protects any public servant who releases information without the concurring consent of his/her superior. Where such a public servant has been unlawfully punished, he/she could approach the court for redress. The affected individual could also approach the Labour Union for assistance. Similarly, the amended Public Complaint Act has now widened the operation of the Commission to include the works of the Ombudsman. As such, the Public Complaint Commission can entertain issues relating to the illegal dismissal of a public official.

Analysis of FOI Act

The first afternoon session on Analysis and Commentary on Sections 1 to 10 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 was taken by Ayo Adebusoye, Esq. He started the session with section 2 of the Act on the roles of public institutions in terms of record keeping, record retrieval system and the nature of documentations they should have. He emphasised that the law applies to all states of the federation that the applicant does not need to demonstrate any interest when sending in his or her application. The requirement is for the applicant to just make a request. He also mentioned that it should also be such that the information can be requested anytime, even before a crucial election. The Federal Bureau of Information release of information that allegedly cost Hillary Clinton the election was referenced as a worthy example.

Sub section b should also be easy to comply with using digital technology, he explained. Section 3, sub section 3 also informs about how PLWD can have access to the law. Section 4 was also highlighted during the review. It is the section that deals with the timeline needed for the response to an FOI request.  Section 5 on the transfer of application was also reviewed and further timing on section 6 was also explained during the session. Other sections reviewed are – sections 7, 9 and 10 on when access is refused, fees and record maintenance and falsification of records.

Adegbite Kehinde Esq. took it over from there and provided Analysis and Commentary on Sections 11 to 22 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011. He started by looking at the issue of refusal to provide access to information. According to him, the law clearly shows that when one disclose, there are no penalties even when information that should not be disclosed is disclosed. There are no penalties in the provision of the law. However, in refusing the application, the officer has the responsibility to explain why the information was not provided. Section 12 was the focus in explaining this as it captures information on the exemption of law enforcement and investigation. In section 14, 2a and b, however, mentions situation wherein consent needs to be requested. Others sections up till sections 22 on access to information by the court were also explained.

There were two key questions after his session –

  1. The law does not mandate disclosure of assets; does that still make it mandatory to use FOI to make a request?
  2. In section 4b, the word ‘consider’ gives a discretionary opinion to the public officer, ditto Section 11,2.

In answering, Adegbite explained that the Constitution does not mandate them and it does not prohibit them. He suggested a test of this in the court of law as it is only until then that this issue can be settled. On the second question, he explained that the word ‘consider’ will not be a hindrance as the same law also requires that the discretion is explained. This means the public officer needs to explain why it is denying access to that information.

Mr. C.T Apata took over the chairing role from this point and invited Mr. Jide Bamgbose to commence his session on Analysis and Commentary on Sections 23 to 32 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011. Section 23 on the role of the court was also explained and section 24 on the public officer bearing the burden of proof was also highlighted.  He also took the time to explain section 27 of the Act where the penal code (applicable in the northern part of the country) and the criminal code (applicable in the southern part of the country). He also explained the nature of materials exempted from disclosure by the Act. He ended with section 31 of the Act where the various designations – applicant, court, minister, person etc. were explained. Of note is the use of Minister where the Minister is charged with responsibility for Information.

Of note was the question that followed his session – ‘what happens if the public officer is sacked and what is done to cushion the effect?’ Jide Bamgbose acknowledged that this is a role that CSOs need to consider filling, as it will go a long way in encouraging more civil servants to do the right thing.

Day One ended with Dr. Tola Winjobi’s session on Community Characteristics and Information Needed. The key point here was to show how information to be requested could be sourced. Examples of community needs around health, education, agriculture and other social issues were mentioned and how they can be used to come up with an information request to the right organisation was also highlighted.

DAY TWO- WEDNESDAY 24TH OF MAY, 2016

Was chaired by Mr Ologuntoye. Opening prayer was said began at 9:14 by Pastor (Mrs) Yinka Odedele and the recap of the previous day rendered by Dayo Bamgbose/Sola Fagorusi.

Dr Tola Winjobi’s session on Animation used a scenario to depict how information provided from a source could be completely altered in the course of transmission from one source to other sources. Dr Winjobi concluded by dwelling on the importance of FOIA in ensuring the veracity of information at the disposal of CSOs thereby helping CSOs to depend on less on hearsay.

SWOT ANALYSIS

The participants grouped into four examined the FOI Law in Ekiti State. Anchored by Mr Abideen Olasupo and Mr Sola Afariogun, the groups were to examine the Strength, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats of the said law. The responses can be seen in the table below:

GROUP ONEStrength GROUP TWOWeakness GROUP THREE                Opportunity GROUP FOUR                   Threats
·         FOI Law in Ekiti 10th April, 2011.·         Public service rules and Civil Service Rule

·         Enlightened Ekiti State

·         Judiciary for redress

·         Labour union

·         Use of state-owned media stations

·         Unwillingness by Civil Servants to release data·         Inadequate database

·         Poor record keeping habit

·         Bureaucracy

·         Low level of awareness of FOI Law

·         Fair of victimization

·         Lack of requisite skills by Civil Servants

 

·         Availability of CSOs working on FOIA in Ekiti State.·         Existence of FOI Law in Ekiti

·         Independent print media

·         Forth coming 2018 elections

·         Availability of viable opposition parties

·         Partnership with National Orientation Agencies (NOA)

·         Use of friendly laws (procurement law, fiscal responsibility law etc)

·         Partnership with other stakeholders like NBA, FIDA etc.

·         Lack of political law on the part of the political class.·         Inadequate provision for protection on civil servants’ career.

·         Lack of funding/ budgetary provision

·         Section 2(1) of the Ekiti Law confined right of access to the citizens of Ekiti State.

·         Apathy on the general public to make request for information using the law

PRESENTATION ON EKITI STATE FOI LAW

Mr. I.J Ayelusi of the Ministry of Justice in his presentation on the Ekiti State Freedom of Information Law noted that the Ekiti State version of the law is not materially different from the FOIA.  Signed into Law by Dr. Kayode Fayemi on the 4th of July, 2011, the State law provides access to unimpeded access to information within the public domain except for category of information which may not be made available on the ground that its release may occasion breach of security, fair trial, trademark, undermine personal privacy or that the information sought to be released is still at the draft stage. However, the law does not stipulate any sanction on a public officer who refuses to honour information request while a public officer who releases unauthorized information is protected from victimization.

ROLE PLAY

This session anchored by Dr Tola Winjobi began with an observation of a sudden surge in the demand for information using FOI Law in the United States. Participants were grouped into two syndicates: group one comprised of Civil Servants but asked to role-play a Civil Society Organization requesting for information from MDAs while the CSOs role-played Civil Servants responding to information request. After the presentations, participants were admonished to familiarize themselves with the provisions of the FOI law and be confident in the discharge of their responsibilities.

Next was the group session which harmonized the types of public records and information access and proof of evidence in the sections of FOIA.

Closing

The last segment of the workshop was chaired by Mr Jide Bamgbose.

Outcome of Pre and Post-Tests 

The result of the pre-test taken at the commencement of the workshop was announced. The average score was 5.6 with the highest score being 8. The highest score was obtained by two participants.  The post test result was also announced almost immediately with the average score being – 6.6 and the highest score being 10. Only Mr. Akomolafe Olabode, a civil servant obtained the highest score. Most participants however scored 9 out of the possible 10. All the 25 participants who volunteered and were part of the pre-test and post-test were publicly acknowledged and given prizes in appreciation.

Communiqué

The communiqué was read and adopted by participants.

Vote of Thanks

Mr. I.J Adelusi offered the vote of thanks. In particular, he was appreciative of those who came from other states to provide support by being part of the workshop. He was also grateful to Dr. Tola Winjobi for his organisation’s choice of Ekiti as the preferred location for the workshop. Ekiti was chosen because it is the only state in Nigeria that has passed the Freedom of Information Act into law.

He noted that the capacity of the public/civil servant present has been improved and that the role-playing session was a good way to help them see how they can represent their Ministries, Agencies and Departments better. He ended with the quote – ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’