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Five years on, enforcement of information law remains unimpressive

Guests at the World Press Freedom Day anniversary held in Abuja on May 4, 2016

Guests at the World Press Freedom Day anniversary held in Abuja on May 4, 2016

The freedom of information regime in Nigeria will clock five years tomorrow. Former President Goodluck Jonathan signed the bill into law on May 28, 2011, after 11 years of aggressive campaign led by the media stakeholders and the civil society organizations.

The Act’s revolutionary stance as an instrument of promoting openness, accountability and transparency in the conduct of public affairs, especially governance is unequivocal as reflected in its preamble:

“An Act to make 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 purpose and; for related matters.”

The logic behind its enactment flows from the understanding that with access to information, “people are not only empowered at individual levels but institutions are strengthened, the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy are upheld and governance is demystified and enhanced in the service of inclusive growth and development,” submitted Prof. Nosa Owens-Ibie at the World Press Freedom Day 2016 anniversary held at the United Nations Information Centre, Ikoyi Lagos on May 4.

But five years after its enactment, how far has Nigeria gone in attaining the loft goals set by the legislation? What has been the impact of the law in making governance more open, transparent and accountable? Has freedom to information considered as fundamental human right been guaranteed? Have public institutions and officials upheld their obligation under the act?

Interestingly, the Act comes with an internal mechanism with which to gauge the performance level of the law in relation to compliance with certain provisions.

Under Section 29, it is stipulated that “On or before February 1 of each year, each public institution shall submit to the Attorney-General of the Federation a report which shall cover the preceding fiscal year and which shall include:
the number of determinations made by the public institution not to comply with applications for information; the number of appeals made by persons under this Act; a description of whether a court has upheld the decision of the public institution to withhold information;
the number of application for information pending before the public institution as of October 31 of the preceding year;
the number of applications for information received and the number of applications processed;
the median number of days taken by the public institution to process the different applications;
the total amount of fees collected by the public institution to process such applications; the number of full-time staff devoted to processing applications for information, and the total amount expended by the public institution for processing such applications.”

Last March, The Guardian did a report on the compliance level of public institutions with the provisions under this Section 29 and discovered that over 90 per cent of the agencies violated this aspect of the law.

In fact, the pattern of violation tallied with the records of yearly submission of reports by the Ministries, Agencies and Departments (MDAs) to the Ministry of Justice.

Out of 541 MDAs as captured in the Report of Presidential Committee on the Restructuring of Federal Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies submitted, only 60 submitted report in 2015; 52 public institutions submitted annual compliance reports in 2014; Thirty Two in 2013; and 16 in 2012.

Chairman, Board of Governors, Freedom of Information Coalition, Nigeria, Dr. Walter Duru who decried “embarrassingly low compliance level with the provisions of the Act by Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs)” had expressed optimism that 2016 record would be an improvement.

Speaking with The Guardian yesterday, he expressed disappointment that submission of report by MDAs for 2016 did not beat the record of 2015, “the figure is low to that of 2015. This is unacceptable and something drastic must be done,” Duru lamented.

He held the citizenry responsible for the very low use of the Act. “In any economy, Freedom of Information is a fundamental indicator of economic development and progress, civic engagement and a properly functional democracy. The Act is a promising start in ensuring good governance and rule of law in Nigeria. It is therefore imperative that Nigerians take advantage of the FOI Act to demand for transparency and accountability from public institutions.

According to him, the factors militating against effective use of the act include, but not limited to: “ignorance on both the side of the public institutions and the citizenry, the culture of impunity in public service, corruption, the absence of punitive sanctions for failure to comply, absence of a Coordinating/Steering Committee for FOI implementation, funding, poor capacity, among others.”

Tackling these challenges, Duru said his coalition had appraised the situation, some gaps identified, while efforts are being made to close the gaps. Among the activities, he said are capacity building, sustained advocacy, increased use of the Act, multiple litigations, collaborations and partnerships, among others.

Executive Director, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Adetokunbo Mumuni is emphatic saying, “the truth of the matter is that Nigerians in general have not been making adequate use of the Freedom of Information Act to ask necessary and pungent questions from public officials and public institutions/agencies that would engender transparency and accountability as far the use of public resources is concerned which actually is the object and purpose of the act.

“The Freedom of Information Act will not perform on its own, it is Nigerians that would continue to test its provisions and the more the provisions of the Act is used and tested it is then we will know the usefulness and performance of the Freedom of Information Act. As far as I’m concerned only an infinitesimal proportion on Nigerians know about the existence of the Freedom of Information Act.

The legal practitioner, whose organization has secured many court judgements compelling defiant public institutions and officials to comply with the requests for information under the Act, insisted that “the Freedom of Information Act will not perform on its own, it is Nigerians that would continue to test its provisions and the more the provisions of the Act is used and tested, it is then we will know the usefulness and performance of the Freedom of Information Act. As far as I’m concerned, only an infinitesimal proportion of Nigerians know about the existence of the Freedom of Information Act.”

In the view of Prof. Owens-Ibie who is the Dean, College of Social and Management Sciences, Caleb University, Imota, Lagos and Secretary General, Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals (ACSPN), the media in Nigeria has greater responsibility “to galvanise the agenda for seamless access to information and the vigorous implementation of the FOIA.”

According to him, “the democratization of data through a more vigorous implementation of the FOIA would be a significant contribution of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, since former President Goodluck Jonathan took a significant step by signing the bill into an Act on May 28, 2011.”

Without individual and media access to accurate data enabled by the holistic implementation of the FOIA, the Communication scholar argued, “democracy in Nigeria stand the risk of being labeled the government of the few for the most whose claim to empowerment would probably just be having access to the ballot box once in four years and the freedom to call in to live radio programmes to exercise their freedom of expression in the years between.”

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