FOI: Buhari’s State House among most non-transparent govt institutions – Survey

President Muhammadu Buhari first day in Aso Rock ... STATE HOUSE PHOTO

Despite his government’s professed commitment to transparency, President Muhammadu Buhari’s office is still hoarding public information – especially its financial dealings – from Nigerians, a new survey has found.

The State House is the third least responsive public institution in this year’s Freedom of Information and Compliance ranking.

The annual ranking – in its seventh edition – was conducted by the Public and Private Development Centre [PPDC] in collaboration with BudgIT Information Technology Network, Media Rights Agenda, Connected Development (CODE) and the Basic Rights Watch.

The research ranked 191 public institutions and 12 security agencies based on their level of disclosure to public finance expenditure information.

The survey was unveiled on Thursday as it is being done every September 28 since 2013.

The State House came 189 out of 191. Only the Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) and the Federal Ministry of Transportation ranked lower on the the table of all public agencies.

The Federal Ministry of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Service, and Nigeria Immigration Service are the three most unresponsive security agencies, according to the FOI ranking.

While the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) emerged the most compliant public institution, the Federal Fire Service came tops in the security agency category.

‘Bad Precedence’

Lanre Suraj, an anti-corruption activist, said the development is “setting a bad precedent for other lower office holders and ministries”.

“When the head which is the State House that is directly involved with the fund usage on behalf of the president is unwilling to volunteer information then it is already setting bad precedence,” he noted.

Former President Goodluck Jonathan signed the FOI law in 2011 after it had been stalled in the National Assembly for 12 years.

President Buhari has since committed to transparency and accountability in government, and has pledged to full implementation of the principles of the open government.

His office, however, is one of the most non-compliant public institutions since the maiden edition of the FOI ranking in 2013.

The State House was inducted into the ‘FOI Hall of Shame’, an initiative of Media Rights Agenda launched in July 2017 to shine a spotlight on public officials and institutions that are undermining the effectiveness of the FOI Act.

“This is a major blight to whatever achievement in the fight against corruption the government can make claim to,” said Mr Suraj.

The State House failed in the five indices of the 2019 ranking. It does not have FOI desk officers or conduct FOI trainings for staff, the survey indicated.

The president’s office neither published or submitted its annual FOI report to the Attorney General of the Federation’s office in the year under review as required by law.

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The State House was equally flagged for ‘no disclosure’, ‘no proactive disclosure’ and ‘no response’ in the level of responsiveness to requests for information.

Presidential spokespersons Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu did not return calls nor respond to texts seeking responses to the ranking as at the time of filing this report.

Knotty Problem

Nigeria is one of about 120 countries of the world to have enacted laws protecting the right of citizens to access information and government data.

PREMIUM TIMES in 2017 published how the Attorney-General of the Federation’s office had complained that Nigerians have been too reluctant to make use of the FoI Act passed into law on February 24, 2011.

The law mandates public institutions to grant access and reply to a request for public records, except those on national security, within a time limit of seven days. Any insufficient denial of such request by an institution or public official attracts a fine of N500,000 payable on conviction by a court.

Nigerian ministries, departments, and agencies have received very few requests for information from citizens, the AGF’s office found in the report published in October 2017.

Media advocacy groups, however, argue that many Nigerians are discouraged from making attempts to assess the law because public institutions are frustrating citizens who file FOI requests.

‘Condoning Impunity’

In a report titled “unbridled impunity” published in 2018, the MRA accused the federal government of condoning impunity by hundreds of public institutions failing to implement the FOI law, a situation it said is making, “a mockery of the administration’s claim that it is committed to transparency and accountability”.

The publication examined seven annual FOI reports – 2011 to 2017 – submitted by the AGF to the National Assembly. It found that only the AGF’s office has consistently submitted its annual report in the seven-year period.

This was also indicated in the latest 2019 ranking. Of the 191 public institutions rated, only the Attorney General’s office and the National Boundary Commission submitted and published their annual FOI report to the AGF as prescribed by the FOI law.

Media Advocacy Groups react

Mr Suraj, who is the chairman of the Civil Society Network Against Corruption (CSNAC) commended the National Electrical Regulation Commission (NERC) and the Nigerian Fire Service for their outstanding performance respectively in their categories – public intuition and security agency.

“Those living by the law should be encouraged but it is important we enforce a sanction on those falling to adhere to the law,” he said.

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He decried the fact that financial dealings of most public institutions is still shrouded in secrecy.

“It is the institutions dealing with huge money with potentials of abusing power and resources that will give least responses,” said Mr Tietie, the executive director of Citizens Advocacy for Social & Economic Rights (CASER).

“The transport ministry is the second least responsive institution because it controls a lot of resources. Anywhere you find resources been controlled which is supposed to be used in the interest of the people; you will find the least responses.

“It is a direct conspiracy by the government against the people,” the media rights activist noted.

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