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Government ineptitude hindering FoI Act BY President Aigbokhan

Tuesday, May 28, marked the 8th anniversary of Freedom of Information (FoI) Act. Nigeria became the fifth African nation with a freedom of information law when on May 28 2011, the seal was put on the bill. Although the FoI Act is not the only legislation that allows access to information in Nigeria, it’s emergence was to measure, review and enforce punishment for breach. It came to give bite to disclosure by establishing a legal right to such demand and review procedures. It is meant to simplify public access to governance and to allow the citizens a peep into government decisions and proposals. Ironically, the purposes for passing the Act are endangered because ministries, departments and agencies, MDAs, have poor compliance record. Instead of following the provisions of the Act, government agencies are defending suits rather than releasing records. Payments of lawyers to defend FoI requests are topping MDAs budgets when litigation ought to be the pill and not the snacks of FoI applications.

Some agencies give pseudo-replies to FoI request. To plug the hole, the Attorney-General of the Federation, AGF, needs to audit MDAs’ responses to FoI requests and litigation. It is not enough to say MDAs responded to a request; the content of the response must be placed side-by-side with the request submitted. For instance, the FoI Counsel sent out 12 FoI requests and are in court over 10 denied requests. One was to Nigeria Prison Service on the number and details of foreigners in Nigeria prisons between 2012 and 2018. The request was not attended to, so the. We partnered Network of Pro Bono Lawyers to make a request to Legal Aid Council of Nigeria over the criteria for selection for legal aid, including the age, sex and state of origin of beneficiaries between 2015 and 2018. We have also made a request on International Organisation for Migration, IOM, to release grants approved for Edo State Government to support returnees’ reintegration and economic support between 2016 and 2019 and the work plan.

The international organisation in their response stated that they are not bound to obey a municipal law on disclosure as they enjoy diplomatic immunity. We have approached the Federal High Court in Ikoyi to review the non-disclosure, supported several NGOs and individuals to review the non-disclosure of their request, trained over 430 persons in 2019 and have collaborated in high powered research.

Recruitment: 60,000 candidates write NNPC computer-based test A request made by Edo Civil Society Organisations in June 2018 on location of police posts located in oil-producing areas of the state, having been budgeted for under Edo State Oil Producing Area Development Commission, EDSOPADEC, was struck out by a court, relying on Austin Osakue & 8 ORS vs. Edo State State Agency for the Control of AIDS. The effect is that individuals, NGOs and the media in Edo State are not making innovative or public interest requests. The most ironic case is our request to the office of the Attorney General of the Federation, AGF. It was for records on local and international donations and grants to Open Government Partnership between 2015 and 2018. They said they never received a foreign donation for the process. The irony is that the response came 10 weeks after, which is outside the response period.

It is difficult to understand why men cannot obey the law they made or supervise. The FoI Act is not suffering from lack of stakeholders’ patronage, but government ineptitude. We cannot but applaud states like Delta, Kaduna and Ekiti for passing FoI Law. We do not believe that the law ought to be legislated on by states’ Houses of Assembly to be applicable in the respective state, but we commend those who have taken the initiative to influence the passage of the law.

Beyond court fines in lieu of imprisonment, there should be a letter of caution and sanction from the AGF for defaulting MDAs. The current court fine is not benefiting the requester as the fine goes back to the offending parastatals. Strengthening the sanction requires public censure and making FoI Act part of employees’ orientation programme will further be reinforced by making responding to information requests a promotion review standard.

Long live Nigeria.

Aigbokhan, Executive Director, Freedom of Information Counsel, writes from Benin.

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