During a Multi-Stakeholder Meeting held in Abuja by Media Rights Agenda in collaboration with Carter Center, local and international civil society groups as well as government officials called on citizens to push the frontiers of transparency in governance using the Freedom of Information Act.
In the course of discussions at the meeting, there was a call for more active users of the FOI Act rather than citizens who sit back and claim that it is not possible to hold government accountable to the people.
The meeting sought to discuss findings and priority actions highlighted in the course of research on FOI implementation in Nigeria carried out by MRA and supported by the Carter Center. The event also featured the launching of the research report titled “Implementation Assessment Tool Findings from Select Agencies: Nigeria”.
The event had over 40 participants drawn from government agencies, local and international civil society groups and the media. Mr. Tolu Ogunlesi, Special Assistant to the President on Digital and New Media in his opening remarks called on civil society to test the FOI Act saying the Act is not being fully utilized. He noted that only by testing and pushing the law would implementation be improved.
He noted that unless citizens keep pressuring the government and not let up, transparency will not become a habit which it ought to be.
He also called on the government to build capacity around FOI particularly in the area of record keeping in the Nigerian system which he said poses a problem for everyone. He explained that even for him, the lack or records from the previous holder of his position has posed a problem which he is hoping to solve by creating platforms that create institutional memory. He cited the example of the United States and its record keeping efforts and disclosed that he is currently working on a project to create a state house website that will serve as the Nigerian equivalent of www.whitehouse.gov platform.
He also added that Nigeria needs government champions who may be people within the government or who have influence over the government and who can champion the FOI cause and push the FOI agenda within the government. This, he said, will make FOI implementation faster.
Mr. Mukelani Dimba, Executive Director of Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), Cape Town, South Africa; and Member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Steering Committee in his opening remarks took participants through the Open Government Partnership initiative and how it can enhance access to information legislation to open up government and its business through experience sharing and peer review mechanism.
Throwing more light on the OGP, he explained that it is a network of countries facing similar problems and learning from each other’s experiences. He added that the OGP presents an opportunity to guarantee greater transparency and accountability, access to government, citizen participation, and in-country open government reform through innovation and dialogue.
To join the network, he explained that governments need to make commitments among which are E-government, Open Data, Citizen Engagement, Fiscal Transparency and Access to Information.
He explained further that the OGP helps the government, citizens and civil society and helps bring about partnerships among these groups and therefore called on civil society to engage the process by campaigning for eligibility, creating action plans and assisting in implementation, assessing performance and contributing to learning.
He presented OGP results so far which included the enactment of important policy and landmark reforms such as the Sierra Leone RTI law, Tunisia executive budget proposal release, Malawi proposal and audit, substantial RTI improvements in Brazil, Croatia and Georgia, putting the RTI law back on track in Ghana and the Phillipines and the US, UK and Colombia joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), among others.
Citing the ruling of Justice Anthony Yeboah of the High Court of Justice in Ghana, which stated that “The individual does not need a Freedom of Information Act to enjoy the right to information in Ghana,” Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA) said if this decision is sustained, we may have a revolution on our hands in Africa with respect to the right of access to information, particularly in those countries where there are constitutional guarantees but no legislation in place.
Mr. Ojo recalled that two years ago in the same premises, MRA convened the first Africa Regional Conference on Freedom of Information Implementation during which a number of facts were established and agreed, including that despite the apparent progress that has been made in Africa with regards to the passage of a number of Freedom of Information Laws, the state of access to information in Africa remained far from impressive with over 75 per cent of African countries still not having laws guaranteeing a right of access to information for their citizens.
He cited some challenges to the effective implementation of access to information laws in Africa to include lack of critical understanding of the access to information laws by public officials as well by citizens; poor documentation, record-keeping and archival processes; inadequate funding of oversight mechanisms and freedom of information units in public institutions; the fact that most public institutions are not in compliance with access to information law obligations, with specific reference to the issues of proactive disclosure and timely reporting about the extent to which they have implemented the laws; and in most of the countries, there are no dedicated oversight mechanisms and where there are, procedures of appeal are not well spelt out.
The research studied the middle stage of establishing a right of access to information by examining and quantifying inputs necessary for effective implementation.
Its objectives were to develop first recognized set of benchmarks/good practices for implementation; diagnose the extent and, in some cases, quality of implementation of access to information legislation; provide a roadmap for improvement, based on agencies assessment findings; and supply important information for understanding implementation and for encouraging additional scholarship.
The research was conducted by assessing seven government institutions namely the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Water Resources and the National Bureau of Statistics, the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education and the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission.
The research involved desk and field research in which a questionnaire containing 60 questions that sought to determine government functions & responsibilities in the implementation of the FOI Act in agencies’ fundamental ATI functions (overarching elements); receiving and responding to requests; proactive disclosure; and records management.
It also assessed components & elements of FOI implementation in the areas of leadership, rules, procedures, resources, monitoring and through expert opinion wildcards.