This is the 2nd and concluding episode of the digest on the FoIA Act. In the last episode, we talked about the provisions of the bill, now we’ll talk about what exactly you stand to gain from the act and what other people have been using it for and what they’re saying about it. We’ll also share with you the challenges that currently surround using this act effectively.
Some benefits of the FoIA for all of us include the following:
- You can access information on issues such as health, social development projects, public procurement, public budgeting, public private partnership projects, asset declaration of serving public officials etc. With this information we can influence change!
- You can monitor the level of service delivery from government and their effectiveness in all areas including social policies, maternal, neo-natal and other medical services, basic education and poverty eradication programmes and policies. See that road construction that has been going on for years? You can get information on why it has taken so long and take action
- You can learn how budgetary allocations to repair, provide for, or fund public utilities such as hospitals, roads, power, potable water etc. in the community are utilized, and ensure that the right persons are held accountable for non- or shoddy performance.
- Communities and citizens will have access to information with which to determine whether or not they receive value-for-money for public works, projects and investments.
- Government and the general public can now monitor the allocation and flow of scarce resources to ensure that there is equitable distribution of development projects across the country.
We asked Nigerians what they thought about the act:
With Abba Sani, concerns were raised about the FOIA being functional only for a certain group of people who had the connection to access information or are at the federal level and not the state or local government because of the bureaucracy involved in accessing information or even scheduling a meeting with public officers at the local or state level.
Agatha Fidelis admitted that she had been ignorant about the FOIA and had no idea there was such a law in existence. She had no idea citizens could easily access information in any area of concern without so much hassle, especially as a result of the attitude public officers towards hoarding information and making processes that are supposed to run easily a herculean task. Now she knows and we hope you do too!
Kunle Ladipo complained about the unavailability of some requested records, the nonchalant attitude of public officers to put in an extra effort in ensuring that the requested document or information is gotten and the complain about cost of duplicating documents in some cases. This is very valid but we can’t give up, we have to be resilient and keep pushing.
According to Mr Tagwai, an authority in the FoIA discourse, “The dividend of democracy is not only about the provision of physical structures which even dictatorships can provide much more; but is more about upholding the much cherished values and tenets of democratic practice one of which is the freedom to access information and to freely participate in shaping one’s destiny. FoIA opens up the governance space and mainstreams the citizen and his preferences in the governance process by equipping him/her with the tool to seek and access information which is a critical ingredient that distinguishes democracy from a dictatorship and also defines the authenticity and vibrancy of a democracy. To this extent, FoIA has circumstantially silenced the colonial inspired Official Secret Act in preference for an open society. Issues of freedom of information have been adequately covered by various International Conventions, Charters and Statements, which Nigeria, by virtue of her membership, has not only ratified, but has also domesticated, thus making it an integral part of Nigeria’s domestic law”.
He went further to say that Nigeria is a member of the global family and her citizens are by implication, global citizens. If she aspires to play on the global turf and also maintain global relevance, then she must play by the global rules. In sum, in a democratic set up, publicly funded public and private institutions are by law stewards who must render account of their stewardship to their principals (the citizens) as demanded under the Law. He also, stated that the Act has been translated into 21 indigenous languages.
Mr Tagwai highlighted some challenges such as:
- Official defiance
- Official Secret Act
- Lack of information among citizens and public officials on provisions of the FoIA.
- Inadequate and sometimes poor record creation, keeping, organization and maintenance in public and relevant private institutions.
- Restrictions contained in the National Security Act, which relates to the protection and preservation of classified matters.
- Slow pace of creating FoI Units, manned with adequate human and material resources for the effective implementation of the FoI Act
- The prevailing security situation in the country likely to promote pre-disposition to secrecy by officials of security organisations, far beyond what the National Security Act and the Defence exemption S.11 of FoI Act had envisaged.
Finally, he also made some recommendations which include:
- Implementation of robust and sustained grassroots public sensitisation for citizens and capacity building for officials of public and relevant private institutions.
- Strategic engagement with Chief Executives of public institutions.
- Communicators should stress more the benefits of the Act to all rather than appear antagonistic.
The successful implementation of the FoIA will be determined, only by our collective resolve to relentlessly deploy the instrumentality of the FoIA to continuously engage the governance process. If we all take little steps and keep taking them, we would create massive change in this country.