Business - Business & Economy - News - September 29, 2021

Buhari govt. not transparent, accountable; only 25% of MDAs comply with FOIA, says ICIR

NIPC remains tops in compliance ahead of BPSR, NOA

Only 25 percent of Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government comply with the provisions of the. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), said on Tuesday.

The Editor of the ICIR, Ajibola Amzat, who spoke at the panel of discussion session at the annual FOI ranking held in Abuja said this was a clear indication that government institutions under the Buhari administration were not as transparent as expected.

As part of the commitment by the Federal Government to ensure transparency and accountability in line with the Open Government Partnership agreement signed in 2016, government agencies and institutions were expected to ensure full disclosure of information by granting open access to the public about their operations, programmes and activities.

But Amzat described the less than 25 percent compliance as a breach of the Open Government Partnership agreement signed by President Muhammadu Buhari in London only four years ago.

Reacting to the observation by Amzat,  a Legal Officer in the Federal Ministry of Justice, Mariah Obafemi, who spoke on behalf of the Head of FOI Unit of the Ministry, Gowon Ichibor, spoke of several efforts by the ministry to drive compliance among all public institutions.

The efforts, Obafemi said, included holding training programme on FOI for ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and sensitizing staff of various public institutions on the need to provide free access to public information at their disposal.

Obafemi expressed the hope of greater compliance by the time the ministry began a new round of awareness campaigns in October.

A Senior Legal Officer for Africa Regional Work of the Open Society Justice Initiative, Maxwell Kadiri, who played a crucial role in drafting the FOIA 10 years ago, said one of the challenges faced since the enactment of the FOI Act was the lack of political will to implement the legislation.

“We haven’t even implemented 20 per cent of this legislation, due to lack of political will,” he said.

Kadiri queried the rationale behind the moral suasion approach adopted by the Ministry of Justice towards implementing FOIA, rather than enforcing sanctions provided by the Act.

But Obafemi clarified that the Act did not empower the Ministry of Justice to punish non-compliant MDAs, but to encourage them to do so.

Kadiri who disagreed with Obafemi on that score, argued that there were penalties embedded in the Act, including a fine of about half a million naira for negligent denial of information and a minimum of one year imprisonment for disclosing false information.

Section 7 (4) states : “Where the government or public institution fails to give access to information or record applied for under this Act or part thereof within the time limit set out in this Act, the institution shall, for the purposes of this Act, be deemed to have refused to give access.”

Further, section 7(5) states: “Where a case of wrongful denial of access is established, the defaulting officer or institution commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N500, 000.”
Assistant Director NIPC Sambo Isiaku said one of the reasons for low compliance to the FOI Act was the loyalty of most institutions to the Official Secrets Act.

“Until the Official Secrets Act is expunged and replaced with the FOI Act, the problem will persist,” he said.

He encouraged other MDAs to regard the Act as a law with penalties attached to it and comply without hesitation.

Again, Kadiri noted that the Official Secrets Act had been amended by Section 1 of the FOI Act.

The section states that: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other Act, law or regulation, the right of any person to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever described, is established.”

The annual event was organised by a coalition of civil society organisations, including the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), Public-Private Development Centre (PPDC), Basic Rights Watch (BRW), Right to Know (R2K), Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and BudgIT.

Chief Operating Officer of PPDC, Gift Maxwell, said the programme was designed not to tarnish the image of any institution, but to improve their level of disclosure and encourage citizen’s participation in good governance.

During the event, the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC) emerged winner of the 2021 edition of the National Freedom of Information (FOI) Compliance Ranking.

The investment promotion agency, which was recognized for its record of high compliance with the FOIA over the past few years, clinched the top prize ahead of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) and National Orientation Agency (NOA).

Receiving the award for the first position on behalf of the NIPC, an Assistant Director with the Commission, Sambo Isiaku said one of the reasons for low compliance to the FOI Act was the loyalty of most institutions to the Official Secrets Act.

“Until the Official Secrets Act is expunged and replaced with the FOI Act, the problem will persist,” he said.

He encouraged other MDAs to regard the Act as a law with penalties attached to it and comply without hesitation, assuring the audience that the commission would hold the first position tenaciously.

The number of public institutions featured by FOI Ranking has grown from 66 in 2014 to 213 in 2021.

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