Bills 101: The Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), 2011 – (1)

The government is not doing well. The government does not tell us what they do with our taxes. These and more are what a lot of Nigerians say. Today, we’re asking them, are you asking? Are you asking the right questions and are you asking them from the right people? The FoIA is a tool that allows for you to get information on almost anything you want to know about what the government is doing You have a right to know. Today, we’ll share with you a break down of this law.

The Freedom of Information Act(FoIA), 2011 which was signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan on the 28 May 2011, makes public records and information more freely available, provide for public access to public records and information, protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy, protect serving public officers from adverse consequences for disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorization and establish procedures for the achievement of those purposes.

It emphasises that public officers are the custodians of a public trust on behalf of a population who have a right to know what they do. It further promises to do away with the mystery and exclusion with which public servants clothe the ordinary operations of government and public institutions, and manage records and information.

The mission of the FoIA is to promote open and democratic government in Nigeria through advocacy for public access to information, participation in governance and vocal partnership with divers constituency, grassroots, civil society groups and government institutions.

It was enacted by the National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and some of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act includes:

  1. Section 1(1) of the Act establishes the right of any person to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution. This right is guaranteed notwithstanding anything contained in any other Act, law or regulation which means that, the FoIA is superior to and supersedes the Official Secrets Act. This simply means no agency can tell you that their policy does not allow them to give you the information you’re asking for. The FoIA supersedes whatever it is they have. There are some exceptions to that though and these are our national security agencies. They can decline to give you information if it is a matter of national security. Their own act is entrenched in our constitution.
  2. Anyone, irrespective of age, race, gender etc. has the right to request access to public records and documents held in the custody of public and private institutions and services. The Act also provides that nobody needs to demonstrate or explain any specific interest in the information or record being requested. So if you’re asked why you want the information, you don’t owe anyone an answer.
  3. Sections 4 & 5 state that a public institution must grant access to a request for records or information within a time limit of seven days. The institution also has three days within which to transfer the request to another institution if it discovers that another institution holds custody of the said information/record been sort. In any situation where the information being requested is in a large number, the law provides an extension of an additional seven days. If it becomes necessary for a public institution to deny access to a request subject to the provisions of the Act, a written notice must be given to the requester and an explanation stating the reasons/grounds why access is denied.
  4. Section 10 of the Act sets precautions against the destruction or falsification of records and documents. Destruction of records is a felony under the Act, punishable with a minimum penalty of one-year imprisonment for the officer or head of public institution involved Section 7(5) of the Act also sets a fine of N500,000 payable on conviction by any institution or public officer who wrongfully denies access to information or records.
  5. Access to information is free, but Section 8 of the FoIA also states that “fees shall be limited to standard charges for document duplication and transcription where necessary”.
  6. The FoIA places responsibilities on public institutions to ensure that they keep records and information about their activities, operations and business. It also requires them to maintain properly organised information and records to facilitate easy access to such information, in addition to proactively publishing information about the institution by print, electronic and online sources. The Act also makes it mandatory that public institutions must train public officers on the provisions of the Act and the proper implementation of the Act. So if you request for information and they say they don’t have the records, you can call them out on it.
  7. Section 27 of the FoIA Act provides immunity for public officers against any form of civil or criminal proceeding for “disclosure in good faith of any information” pursuant to the FoIA. Thus, public officials who blow the whistle of failure of public duty, abuse of power, mismanagement of public resources or corruption are entitled to be protected against legal proceedings and from reprisals.
  8. Section 11-17 of the Act exempts certain information and records from public access. Such exempted information includes information that can damage the conduct of international affairs and defense of Nigeria if released to you. Information on administrative law enforcement proceedings and investigation, personal information, third party information such as trade secrets and commercial or financial information, information and records pertaining to professional privileges, journalism confidentiality, legal practitioner and health worker privileges and course materials are similarly exempted.
  9. The Act allows everyone the right to initiate proceedings in court to compel any public institution to comply with the provisions of the Act. It also provides a thirty-day window within which anyone who has been denied access by any public institution can bring the matter to court for a judicial review. The National Human Rights Commission would also, under the laws applicable to it, have a role in ensuring proper implementation of the rights in the FoIA. Simply put, if your LGA office, governor’s office, president’s office or any MDA declines to give you want you have requested for, you have the right to take them to court.
  10. The Act places the ultimate responsibility and obligation for implementation of its provisions on the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation. By the first day of February of each year, all public institutions must submit to the Attorney-General a report with the number of determinations made and reasons given by the institution for denial of information where applicable, the number of appeals made by applicants, the decisions of the court upholding the institutions’ decision to withhold information, the amount of fees collected to process applications and the number of staff devoted to processing applications for information.

Our system may not be as effective and efficient as we need it to be yet but we can use what we have to make change happen. Knowledge is power You can only demand accountability from the government if you know what you’re talking about. In the next episode, we;ll talk about how exactly this bill benefits you and share what other people in the society have used it for and what they have to say about it.

 

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