Despite personally assenting to the Freedom of Information Law in 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan ignored an FOI request sent to his office, according to a survey by the Public and Private Development Centre [PPDC].
The Presidency, the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, and 34 other Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) were placed 32nd, the last position in a ranking of FOI compliance and transparency across 67 institutions in Nigeria.
The PPDC conducted the survey in collaboration with BudgIT Information Technology Network and the Open Society Initiative of West Africa.
According to them, the rankings were developed based on public finance information proactively available, responsiveness to requests for procurement information, level of disclosure and the cost of disclosure.
An FOI request, addressed to President Jonathan and dated March 17, sought information on last year’s records of payments for capital projects released to the Presidency
The request sought information on the name of projects for which capital warrants were approved in 2013; the date payment approval and release was made on each identified project; the amount approved after fulfilling procurement procedures; and the amount utilised for each of the listed projects within 2013.
“These projects should include constituency projects as well as all special intervention projects carried out by your MDA (the Presidency),” read the letter signed by Seember Nyager, Chief Executive Officer, PPDC.
There was no response from the Presidency.
MDAs Ignore FOI Requests
In the ranking, 1 represented the most transparent organisation while 32 the least transparent.
The Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission and the Office of the Accountant General were ranked as most transparent whilst public institutions, including the Presidency, the office of the Ministry of Education and the Petroleum Ministry were scored the least transparent.
FOI requests sent by the group who conducted the survey to Ministry of Petroleum Resources were also ignored.
On January 13, the group sent a request for procurement information for development of East-North gas pipeline transmission systems carried out by the ministry and other specific procurement processes.
Two months later, the group sent a second letter requesting information on payments for capital projects released to the ministry in 2013.
Both letters received no response.
For the National Hospital in Abuja, CISLAC sent a request in March 2014, for the list of contracts awarded in 2012 and 2013 and the procurement plan for 2014.
No response was received.
In May, a reminder was sent to the hospital. There was still no response.
A request sent to the National Commission for Colleges of Education for the list of contracts awarded in 2012 and 2013 was ignored. Two reminders sent to the agency were also ignored.
Similar FOI requests for contracts awarded by the MDAs and subsequent reminders to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, National Sports Commission; Ministries of Aviation, Interior, Justice, Mines and Steel Development, Youth and Development, among others were ignored.
The office of the Auditor General also ranked low in compliance being unable to disclose any audited reports, list of contracts awarded in the previous year and having failed to make either of these documents proactively available.
In the area of proactive disclosure, no public institution was awarded the green button that signifies full disclosure because insufficient public finance records were accessible to the public at both the institution’s office premises and on the website of the institutions.
However, institutions like the ICRC and the Office of the Accountant General attained the yellow batch for partial proactive disclosure because their websites contained information on current projects and FAAC releases to states respectively.
In the area of proactive disclosure, the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Petroleum were shaded dark red indicating no proactive disclosure at all.
With respect to responding to requests for information, the survey gave green buttons to the Federal Civil Service Commission which responded to information within the first seven days while the Federal Ministry of Communication Technology was given a yellow button for responding between 8 and 14 days; demonstrating partial compliance. Institutions like the Universal Basic Education Commission which responded after 14 days were given bright red buttons because they came outside of the 14 day blanket provided by the Freedom of Information Act 2011 to extend the time of response for information requested.
The Independent Corrupt Practises and other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, who did not respond at all were awarded dark red buttons indicating zero compliance with the time frame for responding to requested information.
The survey found out that although some institutions responded to information, the level of disclosure varied from organisation to organisation, ranging from full disclosure to no disclosure.
The Federal Ministry of Labour and Productivity, for example, responded after eight days informing requesters that documents were being compiled and would be made available as soon as possible. However, till date, no disclosure has been made.
Institutions such as the Universal Basic Education Commission, which initially relied on an exemption in Section 15 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 which provides a qualified exemption relating to third party information, made a turn around and started responding favourably to requests for information and providing the same information that they initially refused to disclose. The positive change in responsiveness from UBEC took them from being among the least compliant public institutions to one of the most compliant.
In each instance that a request was made, the Office of the National Security Adviser responded after 30 days, refusing to disclose any of the details of the 2013 awarded contracts and CCTV camera installations across Abuja and stating that such releases may be injurious to the nation’s defence.
The Federal Capital Territory Administration on the other hand, provided the requested information after one month – making two formal notifications of extension – and requiring the requesters to pay N2,500 to access the three-page records. The cost contravenes the guidelines on the Implementation of the FOI Act 2011 released under the authority the Attorney General; and which limit the cost of photocopying to N10 per page.
The National Assembly responded, within five days, to a request for the procurement plans for the National Assembly for the year 2012 and 2013 by stating that “the request is misleading, as there is no such thing or item as procurement plans in existence in the National Assembly.”
Consequently, no documents were released.
Ms. Nyager of PPDC said that accessing procurement records is the first step for procurement monitors in a process that leads to verifying the performance of awarded contracts.
“This therefore forms a crucial part of linking decision making around the award of contracts to the efficiency of public services that are the result of the implemented contracts,” Ms. Nyager said.
“An additional benefit of relying on procurement and contract related information for the survey is because by virtue of the Public Procurement Act 2007 and Section 2 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011, these are a part of routine documentation for which records are mandatorily kept; therefore the requests would only require the public institutions to duplicate the requested records rather than requiring them to produce such records anew.”
When contacted by PREMIUM TIMES, the Nigerian presidency dismissed the report, saying it was a product of “kangaroo research”.
“That’s a kangaroo research,” the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Reuben Abati, said by telephone. “This is definitely not an empirical research because you cannot arrive at a conclusion on the basis of one letter. Are you even sure the letter got to where it was sent? Are you sure the letter was properly directed? Are you sure your letter did not get missing in transit?
“We are in a political season and all manners of people will begin to write all manners of report to discredit the president.
“What’s the antecedent of the researchers? Who are they working for, because anybody can set up an NGO. There is no way anybody can erase President Jonathan’s name in the history of the FOI in this country. He signed the law and he has run an open government than any other in the history of this country.”
But in a swift reaction, Ms. Nyager of PPDC deployed the Presidency’s reading of politics into the report.
She said, “I really think it’s disingenuous that something based on facts is being dragged into politics.
“We submitted our request to the Presidency – and you know how difficult it is to get in there – and it was acknowledged (as can be seen in the letter). It is not our burden to get a response from anybody.
“We also released the methodology for how we did everything we did. Everything is out there. We went to the various websites, we put them in the report too so one can go there and verify. It’s an apolitical thing.
“That information is not something you should be asking for in the first place, it ought to be out there. And if you deny us access, there is nothing we can do.”