The Media Rights Agenda (MRA) on Monday accused the federal government of condoning “unbridled impunity” by hundreds of public institutions that have refused to implement the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), 2011 or comply with their obligations under the law, saying the situation makes a mockery of the administration’s claim that it is committed to transparency and accountability.
Announcing the release of a publication to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the signing of the FOI Bill into Law by then President Goodluck Jonathan on May 28, 2011, Ridwan Sulaimon, MRA’s Programme Manager for Freedom of Information, noted that “the scale of non-compliance with the provisions of the FOI Act by public institutions under the authority and direct control of the federal government is mind-boggling” adding that the failure of the government to sanction such institutions or their chief executives can only be interpreted as evidence of its lack of interest in seeing the Law enforced.
Titled “Unbridled Impunity: An Analysis of the 2011 – 2017 Annual Reports on the Implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 Submitted to the National Assembly by the Attorney General of the Federation”, the publication highlights “massive violations” of the FOI Act by public institutions, especially the provisions of section 29 of the Act, which requires all public institutions to submit annual reports to the Attorney-General of the Federation detailing the level of implementation of the Law by the respective agencies.
The publication notes that “While the impunity in the non-submission of annual reports over the last seven years by more than 90 per cent of federal public institutions remained unrestrained, the inadequacies contained even in most of the reports submitted by those institutions that have bothered to do so are very alarming.”
Mr. Sulaimon contended that “it is inconceivable that if the federal government takes the implementation of the FOI Act seriously and accordingly instructs all public institutions to comply with and fully implement the provisions of the Act, any public institution would dare to disobey such a directive. If public institutions are ignoring their duties and obligations under the Act and are refusing to implement its provisions, it can only be because they are confident that there will be no negative consequences for them.”
The publication examines seven annual reports for 2011 to 2017 submitted by the Attorney-General of the Federation to the National Assembly on the Implementation of the Act, pursuant to Section 29 of the Law. It notes that the reports submitted by the Attorney-General have evolved over the years from the scanty reports produced for 2011 and 2012 to the reports in recent years which have been fairly detailed, although gaps remain.
Following a detailed analysis of the reports, MRA observed in the publication that “For the seven years that the Attorney-General of the Federation has compiled FOI implementation reports, 141 public institutions have submitted a total of 323 reports. Most of the public institutions submitted reports just once during the seven years under review while some submitted twice. Some submitted three times, some four, five and six times. Only the Federal Ministry of Justice/Office of the Attorney General of the Federation has submitted reports for all the seven years.”
Providing further details, the publication said based on the reports issued by the Attorney-General of the Federation, only 16 public institutions out of over 700 federal public institutions submitted their annual reports for 2011; 29 submitted their reports for 2012; while 47 submitted for 2013, although the Attorney-General’s report put the number at 51 because the late reports submitted for 2012 by four public institutions were added to those for 2013.
For the year 2014, 60 public institutions submitted annual reports, although only 33 of this number submitted their reports before the February 1 deadline stipulated by the Act while 27 submitted their reports late; 44 public institutions submitted for 2015; 54 for 2016; and 73 for 2017.
MRA criticised the Attorney-General of the Federation for not doing enough to discharge his oversight responsibility under Section 29(6) of the FOI Act to ensure that all public institutions to which the Act applies comply with its provisions.
Mr. Sulaimon said: “It is ironic that although the FOI Act imposes a duty on the Attorney-General of the Federation to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Act, in dozens of cases where citizens and organisations have sued public institutions before various courts across the country, it is the office of the same Attorney-General of the Federation that comes to court to defend those public institutions for their unjustifiable violation of the clear provisions of the Law, sometimes proffering ridiculous arguments in their defence.”
He cited cases such as MRA’s suit against the Nigerian Police; another suit by Enough is Enough against the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), and the case of F.O.C. Uzoegwu Esq. against the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), arguing that it would better suit the responsibility of the Attorney-General of the Federation under the FOI Act for him to offer free legal services to members of the public who might want to enforce their right to information or other provisions of the Act against public institution as that is consistent with his statutory role under the Act.
MRA urged the Attorney-General of the Federation to explore the possibility of imposing administrative sanctions against public institutions that are not complying with their duties and obligations under the FOI Act, such as withholding legal assistance or representation by the Federal Ministry of Justice to such public institutions that are not submitting annual reports or are in breach of the provisions of the Act in any other way.