How public institutions deny Nigerians right to information
As a legal practitioner, Hamid Ajibola Jimoh thought it would be easy to obtain information from a public agency on an issue that matters to him. But after several correspondents, his request was not obliged.
Disappointed by the development and the fact that many agencies don’t publish adequate information on their website, he filed a suit before a Federal High Court in Abuja challenging action of the agency.
The crux of his suit is that the court should compel them to provide the relevant information both in copy and online, that is their official website.
Jimoh’s experience is not isolated. Civil society organisations, journalists and NGOs have at various times been denied right to access information from public institutions under the FOI Act.
Since the enactment of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in 2011, compliance has been observed in the breach by those responsible, thereby betraying the purpose.
The legal right to information helps the public hold authorities accountable for their actions and allows public debate to be better informed and more productive. It infuses an inclusive governance and democratic culture.
So far, only few institutions are known to be in appreciable compliance with the provisions of the FOI Act. They include: Bureau Public Service Reforms (BPSR) and the National Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI).
Others are: Federal Ministry of Justice, Akanu Ibiam Federal Poly, Debt Management Office, the Ministry of Budget and National Planning, the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Nigerian Christian Pilgrims Commission (NCPC), Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC), National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), and the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (NPA).
While Section 1 of the FOI Act establishes the right to access any information from public official, agency or institution, about 10 other sections made express provisions for denial of such of information. These sections are: 7, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 26.
Also the pre-eminence of officials oriented under the Official Secrets Act, Statistics Act, Evidence Act, Criminal Code, among others, have constituted bottlenecks to the smooth enforcement of the FOI Act.
But Abuja-based lawyer, Max Ogar said accessibility of information under the FOI Act is not absolute as information that could breach national security or the privacy of another individual may be withheld by public institutions as provided under the Act.
He maintained that by the provisions of the Act, access to information can be found under Chapter two of the Constitution, which are not enforceable, and cannot be viewed as a fundamental human rights as provided under Chapter 4 of the Constitution.
Jimoh however said such rights can be justiciable if there are Acts of government establishing them.
The office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Ministry of Justice has expressed determination to monitor, promote and protect the right to access information from public institutions.
Speaking during the inauguration of the website and FOI Portal of the ministry in partnership with the Right to Know (R2K) on Thursday in Abuja, The AGF, Abubakar Malami (SAN) said Section 29 (1) of the FOI Act has empowered the office as an oversight organ for monitoring, promoting and protecting the right to access records and information.
Malami explained that the provisions of the Act encourage public institutions to comply with Proactive Disclosure obligations under Section 2 of the Act.
Also speaking, Ene Nwankpa, the coordinator of Right to Know (R2K), which partnered with the ministry to build the FOI portal, commended Acting President Yemi Osinbajo for issuing “executive orders all of which taking together is aimed at opening up government and promoting accountability and efficiency in doing business with government officers and offices.”
She therefore called on stakeholders to harness the benefits of information technology to advance access to information “with the FOI Act now operationally strengthened by the executive orders.”
Abubakar Malami (SAN)
Acting President Yemi Osinbajo