May 28, 2011 is a day that would go down in history as significant in the battle to enthrone accountability in Nigeria’s public life. It was on that day that then President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA or Act) into law.
The FOIA was hailed as the death-blow to corruption and lack of transparency in governance. I am examining the Act and the impact it has had, if any, on the media, fight against corruption, transparency in governance, etc. and importantly how sections of the Act could be used to foster transparency.
What’s the FOIA About?
The FOIA is a legislation that guarantees the right to information within the control of public institutions to all Nigerians, regardless of age, class, or occupation. It effectively gives the ‘right to know’ to every Nigerian.
Section 1 of the FOIA empowers a person to request information from a government institution whether he has a reason for requesting such information or not provided such information is not one excluded under the Act for national interest. This right is enforceable in court if the requested information is not provided within 7 days of making the request.
The Act also makes it compulsory for public institutions to keep records of their activities. This is meant to enable public access to these records, thus encouraging transparency.
Though laudable, this Act does not apply to state-owned public institutions by virtue of the principle of federalism. Consequently, the FOIA has to be adopted by each state legislature for it to apply at the state level. Presently, only Ekiti and Lagos have done this.
Undoubtedly this Act is a viable weapon in the hands of the media and civil society groups. They can take advantage of it to access any information they require in the course of ‘over-sighting’ government.
Sadly, 4 years down the line, the FOIA has been grossly under-utilized. Apart from the fact that many Nigerians are not aware of the existence of the FOIA and their rights under it, the Nigerian press and civil society groups seem to care less about the existence of an Act that should be a veritable tool for investigative journalism.
The Nigerian Press is far from being the fourth estate of the realm. Most Nigerian journalists have rather embraced the practice of ‘feeding-bottle-journalism’ where they are fed with stories, quotes, and gossips. There is little or no culture of investigative journalism for which the FOIA is a weapon in more advanced climes.
Civil Society Organisations in Nigeria are no better. They are highly reactionary, responding to issues instead of setting the Agenda by engaging government through proper oversight of its activities. With so many issues plaguing the country, one would have thought that civil society groups would inundate government institutions with an avalanche of requests for information, but the reverse has turned out to be the case.
Any Way Forward?
For over 10 years, Nigerians fought very hard to ensure that the National Assembly passed the FOI bill into law. To justify those efforts, I suggest the following steps:
Institutions such as the National Orientation Agency, the Nigeria Bar Association, the media houses and Civil Society Organizations must take up an urgent responsibility of educating Nigerians of the existence of this legislation and their rights and obligations under it.
The Office of the Attorney General of the Federation which is saddled with coordinating compliance with the Act should publish annual reports as to the level of compliance with the FOIA by public institutions while erring institutions and officers should be properly dealt with in line with the provisions of the Act.
Public officers should also be educated on the protection guaranteed them under the Act for disclosing requested information.
The Nigerian media should rise up to its creed and become more investigative in their reports. Editors should refuse reports that do not carry sufficient facts. Gossips should be left for the streets and taverns.
Civil Society Organizations should take advantage of the FOIA to request information, challenge government, and educate Nigerians on government’s activities.
The FOIA has the potential to ensure more transparency in the corridors of government in this country. It can be the difference between accountability and profligacy in our public institutions. But today only a few Nigerians are aware of this important piece of legislation and even fewer Nigerians have taken steps to exploit its provisions for the public good.
MATTHEW OSA-OGHOGHO is the Chief Policy Officer, Advocacy International