Seven years after the Freedom of Information Bill was passed into law, access to legitimate government information has been hampered by non-compliance to its provisions by government Ministries, Departments and Agencies [MDAs]. As part of efforts to ensure accountability and transparency in governance, the FoI Act provides the legal framework for individuals and institutions’ access to a wide range of government information. Former President Goodluck Jonathan received accolades for his courage to sign the bill into law as previous administrations withheld assent to the bill by faulting its punctuation marks and inconsequential clauses.
Last week, the Ministry of Justice made a new pledge on behalf of government to ensure that every MDA establishes an FoIA Desk. Special Adviser to the President on Justice Reform and National Coordinator of Open Government Partnership [OGP] Mrs. Juliet Ibekaku-Nwagwu said the Federal Ministry of Justice would be issuing a circular to the MDAs in that regard. She said, “Government has approved the creation of Open Government Partnership Principles Implementation Units in all MDAs to be domiciled in the Department of Reform Coordination and Service Improvement while the names of Heads of the Units will be forwarded to the OGP Secretariat.”
According to the presidential adviser, this move is to ensure that government complies with the requirements of the OGP, which demands that participating countries should ensure that government data are made available in formats that are readily available and accessible to citizens. However, Section 2(f) of the FoI Act already says all MDAs shall have a desk in charge of providing information to Nigerians. It says every MDA must provide “The title and address of the appropriate officer of the institution to whom an application for information under this Act shall be sent…” This presupposes that there should be officers whose tasks should include receiving and ensuring responses to FoIA requests.
Over the years, this section of the law has been implemented in the breach of its letter and spirit. Journalists and Civil Society Organisations [CSOs] have raised loud concerns about the attitude of government agencies to requests for information covered under the Act. Government agencies hardly respond to their FoIA requests. If they do, MDAs do not comply with the seven-day deadline provided in the Act. For those who meet this deadline, the information provided does not meet the depth and quality required. This breach of the law has led to numerous court cases by CSOs who ask judges to compel MDAs to provide the information they require.
One of the major challenges facing the implementation of FoIA is that government agencies have poor record keeping culture. Data on government activities in many MDAs are not in digital format. More appalling is the fact that they are not properly kept in hard copy formats. The filing culture in many government agencies has so degenerated that it is very difficult to trace files, not to talk about documents that should be in files. The worst case is the fact that in this age of laptop computers, many government officials have electronic copies of important government documents in the laptops instead of uploading them to official portals. This way, these official data are held hostage by these individuals. There is, therefore, a total lack of information security system or policy in the country today.
Another hindrance to the implementation of FoIA is the clash between the ramifications of ‘public interest’ and ‘the greater interest’. When media houses make requests for data covered under the Act, government agencies invoke what is termed ‘the greater interest’ of the State in order to deny journalists information. It is now imperative for an amendment to the Act to clearly define what constitutes the interest of the public and vice versa. If FoIA cannot be implemented properly, all the excitement about government’s commitment to OGP and its contents will be short-lived.