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Between the 10th and 13th of September the South West Freedom of Information Act Network brought together various Civil Society Organisations (CSO’s), the Media, Government representatives, International Development Partners and the Media to further sensitize the region on the Freedom of Information Act (FOI-A) which was promulgated in 2011.
The Act among other things, guarantees the right of access to information held by public institutions, irrespective of the form in which it is kept and is applicable to private institutions where they utilize public funds, perform public functions or provide public services.
It also requires all institutions to pro-actively disclose basic information about their structure and processes and mandates them to build capacity of their staff to effectively implement and comply with the provisions of the Act.
The law further provides protection for whistle blowers and makes adequate provision for the information needs of illiterates and disabled applicants as well as recognizes a range of legitimate exemptions and limitations to the public’s right to know, but at the same time making these exemptions subject to a public interest test that, in deserving cases, may override such exemptions.
Additionally, the legislation created reporting obligations on compliance with the law for all institutions affected by it and these reports are to be provided annually to the Federal Attorney General’s office, which will in turn make them available to both the National Assembly and the public.
Also, it requires the Federal Attorney General and ultimately State Attorney’s General to oversee the effective implementation of the Act/Law and report on execution of this duty to Parliament Annually.
However, since the bill was passed by the National Assembly and assented to by the President, federating states have remotely pursued its domestication and in most cases various institutions at the state level and even at the national level appear not have knowledge about the existence of the law.
Various brainstorming sessions on the FOI-A across the country have obviously revealed lack of knowledge among the people and other key government functionaries.
Citizens’ awareness of the law particularly at the grass root is unbearably low prompting Civil Society Organisations to take up the challenge to sensitise both the citizenry and public officials on their obligations to the law.
The South West FOI-A Network a coalition of CSO’s in the region coming together to strengthen the citizens and arm them with the bare bones to participate in governance using the essential tools provided by the Act to hold government accountable for their actions and inactions have painstakingly mobilised funds to deepen citizens awareness of the law.
Systematically, the Network has through its unrelenting voice to the call for states in the region to replicate the Act at the state level are beginning to win the race.
At a capacity building forum it organised in Abeokuta, Ogun state from the 10th to 13th of September, 2013, the Ogun state Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice Mrs. Abimbola Ibironke declared the states readiness to implement the law as the Act is packed with many advantages that will foster development.
The commissioner who was represented by the Director of Bill Drafting in the ministry, Barrister Lanre Iyande admitted that with the Act in place the Policy Makers will have access to reliable information from which they can distil empirical data for evaluating the successes of government policies and modifying them where necessary.
She said the legislation would also aid students, researchers and the academia while career professionals can benefit from the creation of jobs in the management of public records the FOIA will provide new revenues for consultants involved in public policy formulation, information management, policy research, dispute resolution, compliance officers, auditors and accountants as well as legal practitioners among others.
The commissioner could not hide her joy as the Act can now allow Nigerians to exercise their electoral franchises from an informed position, and they would now be more inspired to become more active participants in the civic process.
According to her, anti-corruption measures will be complemented and anti-corruption agencies will be better resourced to carry out the fight against corruption while the public will now have the necessary confidence and assurances about whether or not governance works for the people and if not who is responsible.
She anticipated that communities and citizens will now have access to information with which to determine whether or not they receive value-for-money for public works projects and investments.
In other words government and the general public can now monitor the allocation and flow of scarce public resources to ensure there is equitable distribution of development projects across country.
‘Under the F.O.I Act all institutions spending public funds will have to be open about their operations and expenditure while citizens will have the right to access information about their activities. Whistleblowers who report malfeasance by their employers or organisations will be protected from reprisals’ she informed.
Going memory lane Ibironke said Nigerians had fought a long battle to institutionalise transparency and accountability as pillars of governance, disclosing that the ‘FOI bill was first submitted to the Nigeria’s 4th National Assembly in 1999 when the country returned to democracy but it did not make much progress’.
Continuing, she said it returned to the legislative chambers in the 5th National Assembly in 2003 and was passed by both chambers in the first quarter of 2007, but was vetoed by President Olusegun Obasanjo the then President, until both chambers of the 6th Assembly did their own bit and it was finally passed on May, 24, 2011.
A striking remark by the commissioner on the victory in the enactment of the law which she attributed to the tenacity of a broad coalition of Nigerian Civil Society Groups further lend credence to the South West FOI-A Network which has made a state like Ekiti to enact the law.
Coordinator of the Network Dr. David Tola Winjobi obvserved in his presentation that since the Act was signed into law, there is relatively low levelof awareness among members of the public and especially in the South West geo-political zone.
Winjobi said the situation is worse in the North West geo-political zone as most civil servants there are not aware of the Act, while those that are aware do not understand its import.
According to him, apart from Ekiti state no other state in the South West has enacted a state level FOI law.
He said though Lagos state has held a public hearing on it but Ogun state has not deemed it fit to kickstart the process.
Speaking further he said, ‘Furthermore and worse still, some state governments also incorresytly opine that they are not bound by the provisions of the FOI Act. A bad example is that of the Attorney General of Oyo state who in April said that his state (Oyo) was not bound by the Act.
He said therefore that the workshop was aimed at strengthening the advocacy skill of the CSO’s to lobby the lawmakers in their respective states in drafting and passing acceptable state FOI laws consistent with FOI-A at the national level.
The workshop also provided a platform for generating discussions and relevant actions around FOI-A implementation as well as identify with a view to partnering with relevant Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government in ensuring unfettered FOI-A implementation among others.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP/DGD11) Dr. Mutarda Deme whose organisation facilitated the workshop expressed contentment on the commitment of the Network and its affiliates in creating the necessary awareness of the FOI-A to the citizens.
Deme who spoke through Mrs. Sally Musa, Programme Associate UNDP/DGD appreciated the receptiveness of participants during the workshop and also commended the National Orientation Agency (NOA) for carrying out citizens awareness initiatives on the Act.