Six years after its enactment, the Nigerian public has not made sufficient use of the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, a report from the office of the Attorney General of the Federation, AGF has revealed.
Passed into law on February 24, 2011, the FOIA guarantees access by the general public to most data and information held by government agencies; exempting few like issues of national security.
Under sections 4, 5 and 7, the law provides that all public institutions must grant access/response to any request for records or information within a time limit of seven days and a wrongful denial of such information by any institution of public officer attracts a fine of N500, 000 payable on conviction.
Despite these provisions and its attendant guidelines, Nigerian ministries, departments and agencies have received very few requests for information from the public, the AGF report noted; although some government ministries and agencies have refused to comply with FOI requests.
According to annual performance report for 2014, 2015 and 2016, prepared by the office of the Attorney General, over 53 per cent of government agencies received ”just one or no request for information in the years under review.”
In 2014 for instance, 60 public institutions submitted FOI reports out of which 26 of them received no request from the public while 12 received just one request for information.
The remaining 22 received requests for information ranging from two to 133.
The Nigeria Institute of Social and Economic Research received the highest of such requests, the report indicates.
Similarly, in 2015, 16 of the 44 public institutions that sent in reports said they did not receive any request for information while five of them received just one.
The Ministry of Budget and National Planning had the highest request at 45.
The performance was no better in 2016 as the trend continued.
According to the report, 20 out of 54 public institutions that submitted their reports had no request for information that year while five received just one request.
The remaining 29 received multiple requests with the Ministry of Budget and National Planning having the highest request at 77.
For many, this trend in this 3-year period may be a pointer to the fact that the Nigerian public made little use of the FOIA in recent years.
Reacting to this development, founding member, Freedom of Information Coalition, Lanre Arogundade, said that ”ignorance, non-availability of institutional framework among others are factors responsible for the poor use of the provisions of the act.”
“First is the issue of awareness on the part of the public. People don’t know that there is an act which gives them the license to request for information for them to use. Also, there is the lack of institutional framework on the part of the government.
“We should also talk about the attitude of some state governments who claim that they are not bound by the FOI act. This is wrong and it discourages people from seeking information from them.”
Mr. Arogundade emphasised the need for greater awareness among the public on the provisions and usage of the act and responsiveness on the part of the government.
“There is a great need for public awareness. This is for people to realise that they have the right to request for information from public institutions. The government should also put in place an institutional framework that promotes access to information. All government agencies should have FOI officers and their contacts should be made available to the public.
“In line with the provisions of the law, the government should make proactive efforts to make information available to the public even before request,” he said.
Former President Goodluck signed the bill into law in 2011 after it had been stalled in parliament for 12 years. The presidential assent came after a spirited outcry by media practitioners and bombardment of the National Assembly by campaigners.
While the House of Representatives passed the bill on February 24, 2011, the Senate followed suit on March 16. The harmonised version was later passed by both chambers on May 26, 2011.
It was conveyed to Mr. Jonathan specifically on May 27, while he signed it on May 28, 2011.