Nigerian FOI Conference Focuses on Implementation

21 June 2012

Suggestions for implementation and use of the new Nigerian freedom of information law dominate the communiqué developed at the National Summit on the Freedom of Information Act, 2011, held in Abuja, Nigeria, June 18 and 19.

The conference was attended by 164 participants from various sectors and interest groups, according to the organizers, the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and Pact Nigeria.

Information Minister Labaran Maku spoke at the meeting, underscoring the support for the FOI law by President Goodluck Jonathan and urged journalists to take advantage of it. But he warned them against taking for granted the freedom guaranteed by the act, according to a report by The Nation.

“Freedom is good but it can be very corrosive. FOI Act now gives you opportunity to practise journalism without fear. But you need to study the law properly for you to understand how to apply it,” he was quoted as saying.

President Goodluck Jonathan, speaking at another event, sponsored by the Nigerian Union of Journalists, where he decried the “speculative reports emanating from news organisation that border on falsehood,” reported This Day.

Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda, Edetaen Ojo, urged the involvement of major stakeholders across all sectors of society to help fully implement the FOI law passed a year ago and said there were many challenges, according to a report in Leadership Newspapers.

Comments on Implementation Made in Communique

The summit communiqué comments favorably on implementation efforts to date, but with some caveats and messages.

It states:

The Summit welcomes the efforts so far made by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice to provide guidance to all ministries, departments and agencies of the Federal Government on their duties and responsibilities under the FOI Act as well as how to implement the Law.  The Summit however notes that his implementation and reporting guidelines need to be disseminated much more widely to public institutions and other stakeholders than is presently the case.

The Summit endorses the advice of the Attorney-General of the Federation to public institutions to use modern technology to inform citizens about the activities of government and the information it holds.  In particular, Summit participants align themselves with the injunction of the Attorney-General that “agencies should readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request.”

The Summit acknowledges that the absence of an independent administrative oversight body or agency to superintend over the implementation of the Act, undertake or coordinate public enlightenment activities, and receive complaints of wrongful denial of access to information, is a major weakness of the Act as there is a risk that the courts could become swamped with FOI cases since litigation is the only option open to citizens denied access to information.

The Summit agrees with the broad outlines of the Roadmap developed by the Federal Government for the implementation of the FOI Act and calls for the wide dissemination of the detailed roadmap and its urgent implementation.

The Summit expressed concern about the low level of public awareness about the FOI Act, its provisions and how to use it as it is clear that most of the prime beneficiaries of the Freedom of Information Act are yet to fully appreciate the enormous benefits that they can derive from more active application of the Law.   

Recommendations Offered

The unanimously adopted communiqué also includes numerous recommendations:

The right of access to information being a fundamental right, the Summit calls on all states which are yet to implement the Freedom of Information Act 2011, including those states that have declared their intention to enact their own Laws, to do so in the earliest time possible as their continued delay in implementing the Act or enacting their own Laws amounts to violation of the rights of Nigerians, particularly those residents in such states, to access information held by the respective states.

 Various stakeholder groups, particularly the media, civil society and government public enlightenment agencies, should undertake public enlightenment activities to ensure better public understanding of the provisions of the Act and how to use it.  Such communication endeavours should be sustained over time to achieve the desired impact.

 In order to lessen the number of cases going to court and its attendant burden on information seekers, public institution defending such cases and the courts, ongoing efforts to amend the Federal Public Service Rules should include administrative sanctions for unjustified denials or delays of requests for information under the FOI Act.  This will provide an alternative to litigation which will be less cumbersome, less time-consuming and less costly for all parties concerned.

 Public officers should be re-oriented on the superiority of the FOI Act to the Official Secrets Act. In this regard, we wish to commend to all public institutions the views of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN) that “any inconsistency between the FOIA and the Official Secrets Act should ordinarily be resolved in favour of the Freedom of Information Act in accordance with the well-known cannon of statutory interpretation that a latter statute prevails where there is inconsistency between two statutes.   This is put beyond controversy by virtue of Sections 1, 27 and 28 of the Freedom of Information Act.”

Furthermore, the public service should embark on a re-classification of records under the Official Secrets Act so as to reduce conflict with the Freedom of Information Act, as advised by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice.

Public institutions should create or strengthen their internal structures for managing information and responding to information requests. Deliberate measures should be taken to ensure consultation and networking among various stakeholders, including governments and government bodies, civil society, the media and members of the public that will enhance the effective implementation of the Act.

In order to ensure the effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, budgetary allocations should be made to support the implementation of the Act by various public institutions.  The Summit therefore calls upon the National Assembly to ensure that the necessary budgetary approvals are given for the year 2013 and beyond to advance FOI implementation.

The Summit calls on all public institutions that are yet to fulfill their proactive disclosure obligations under the Act to do so without further delay and urges the Attorney-General of the Federation to take measures to ensure compliance with this and other duties and obligations of public institutions under the Act.

Public institutions should explore the use of various ICT and social media tools in engaging the FOI Act, particularly in the area of proactive disclosures, including twitter, Facebook, mobile phone apps, blogs, multimedia tools, among others. 

Public institutions should also use electronic records management systems to enhance the implementation of the Act. In order to reduce implementation costs and unnecessary delays, public institutions are reminded that they do not need to create additional websites or portals for FOI implementation.  Existing websites or portals can be made more dynamic to take FOI issues on board.  

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