Media Rights Agenda (MRA) Thursday launched a new report which examines measures, policies and actions of the President Muhammadu Buhari Administration to implement the Freedom of Information Act during the period that he has been in power and concludes that he has failed to fulfill the promises he made to Nigerians before his election that his Government would fully enforce the Act and that government-held data sets would be published regularly under him.
Titled “A Promise Unkept: Report on the Implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 under the Buhari Administration”, the report, published in collaboration with the Africa Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) with support from the Canada-based International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), castigated the Government for choosing to allow public institutions to disregard the Act with impunity, without even reprimanding them.
It said: “Most notable among such institutions is the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). The NNPC, which is responsible for a substantial portion of Nigeria’s annual revenues, is under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and, therefore, under the direct supervision of President Buhari, who appointed himself and has served as Minister of Petroleum Resources since he took office as President in 2015. But he has apparently chosen to allow the NNPC to disregard the FOI Act with impunity, without so much as a reprimand.”
According to the report, in the 10 years since the FOI Act has been in existence, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who signed it into Law, was president for just four years while President Muhammadu Buhari has held the mantle for over six years so far.
It recalled that during his electioneering campaigns in 2014, before he won the elections and assumed office as President for his first term, then Candidate Buhari promised to fully enforce the Freedom of Information Act so that government-held data sets can be requested and used by the public and pledged that such data sets would be published on regular basis.
In addition, the report said, the political party under whose banner President Buhari ran for office, the All-Progressives Congress (APC), also promised during the campaigns that in states where they have control, the administrations in those states would pass state versions of the FOI law if voted into office, noting that this promise has also not been kept.
It identified an entrenched culture of secrecy that still shrouds information about government activities as a major challenge confronting and frustrating the implementation of the Act, saying “This culture of secrecy not only alienates citizens from their government, it also undermines democratic values such as transparency, accountability and public participation.”
Noting that various stakeholders have different roles to play in ensuring the effective implementation of the FOI Act, it proposed various measures for improving implementation of the Act, including recommending that the National Assembly and the Executive, should amend or repeal laws and policies that are at variance with or hamper its effective implementation, particularly the Official Secrets Act, which public officials still cite to deny access to information.
The report called on the relevant committees of both chambers of the National Assembly to live up to their responsibilities of making enforcement of the Act effective by giving directions for its implementation and actively working with the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation while the National Assembly as a whole should ensure that necessary budgetary allocations are made for its effective implementation.
It urged the Federal Executive Council (FEC) to strengthen the implementation of the Act by instructing all public institutions, possibly through a memo issued by the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, to ensure the effective implementation of the Act and making it clear that its provisions take precedence where there is a conflict between it and the provisions of other instruments such as the Official Secrets Act, the Penal Code, the Criminal Code, and any other law that is not part of the constitution or does not have constitutional flavour.
The report stressed that “It is such a circular that can break the entrenched culture of secrecy in the civil service. Such a directive should also make it clear that public institutions which breach the provisions of the Act will be sanctioned by the Government.”
It recommended that beyond compiling, submitting and publishing the consolidated annual report of how the various public institutions are implementing the Act, the Attorney-General should also include in his report challenges that hinder its effective implementation and make recommendations for addressing them, which will give the National Assembly a sense of direction on what steps they can take to make the Act work.
Besides, the report said, the Attorney-General should take deliberate steps to sensitize public institutions and officials at all levels of government about the rights of the public to access information held by public institutions as well as ensure proper compliance systems in all public institutions.
One way of achieving this, it suggested, is by seeking the approval of the FEC or the National Assembly of an instrument with provisions for sanctioning public institutions which fail to comply with their FOI obligations.
It called on public institutions to digitize their records management systems to enhance the implementation of the Act, adding that they should take advantage of the advancements in technology and the Internet in receiving, processing and responding to requests for information as well as in fulfilling their proactive disclosure obligations, including using infographics to present and explain complex data to the public.
The electronic copy of the report is available for download at https://bit.ly/3n4sZEJ