CSOs Using FOI Act to Keep Public Institutions on Their Toes, Says Federal Attorney-General

Mr. Abubakar Malami,  Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice
Mr. Abubakar Malami,
Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice

The bulk of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made to public institutions since 2011, when he FOI Act was passed into Law, have originated from civil society organizations (CSOs), according to the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN).

In his latest Annual Report on the Implementation of the FOI Act, submitted to the National Assembly pursuant to Section 29 of the FOI Act, Mr. Malami said such requests made by CSOs, “have kept public institutions on their toes and also enhanced understanding of the practical aspects of the FOI Act.”

He noted that although “the Act is relatively novel, public perception of it and its application are gradually taking root and will ultimately stand Nigeria in good stead.”

The nation’s top lawyer, who is given oversight responsibility for the FOI Act, however, highlighted “formidable challenges of implementation” confronting the Act, observing that the Law was not passed until after a period of 17 years after it was first mooted and that “unfortunately during the period of advocacy for the passage of the law, very little was done to gain public support and sensitize all operators of the Act on their expected roles in its implementation.”

He stressed the need for “concerted effort by all tiers of Government to ensure that public officers shrug off a culture of secrecy and embrace the values of transparency and openness embedded in the Act.”

The comments of the Federal Attorney-General implied, for the first time, his belief that the FOI Act applies to all tiers of government in the face of a vigorous challenge mounted by several states to its applicability to states and local governments.

Mr. Malami noted that it was “a matter of concern that in spite of reminders on submission of annual reports, public institutions under the legislative branches of government since 2012, have not submitted any report on the implementation of FOI Act to the Office of the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation, as required.”

Remarking that a “recurring decimal” in access to information is good record keeping and management, the Justice Minister said: “Unless and until government takes concrete steps towards good records management, the success of the FOI Act will be in great jeopardy.”

Other challenges, which the Federal Attorney-General said were encountered in the course of implementing the FOI Act in 2016, are that:

• There is general lack of funding for FOI activities across government departments;

• There is general apathy among those who should operate the Act, which is worsened by a high level of ignorance about the provisions of the Act and the nature of their obligations under it, as a result of which there is a need for intense and continuous sensitization of government officials.

• Public institutions invariably respond to requests well beyond the seven days required by the Act, primarily because they lack necessary structures and framework for implementing it. He illustrated the problem with the fact that most public Institutions opt for the setting up of committees rather than establishing FOI units, which will require a separate budgetary vote. But he stressed that committees cannot respond timeously to FOI requests.

• There is the challenge of bottlenecks in some public institutions as FOI letters go from one officer to another before finally getting to the desk officers usually by the seventh day. In addition, he said, some public institutions’ top management are suspicious of the Act and consequently do not cooperate with its implementation.

• The Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, which is entrusted with oversight of the FOI Act, ought to be empowered to draw up, harmonise and conduct categories of trainings for the Chief Executive Officers of all public institutions as well as FOI desk officers on a periodic basis.

The report also reflected the persistent poor level of compliance by public institutions with their reporting obligations as only 54 public institutions were reported to have submitted their annual reports for the year 2016, out of the over 800 Federal public institutions and thousands of such institutions at the state and local government levels.

Out of the 54 public institutions that submitted reports for 2016, 13 submitted the reports later than the February 1 deadline stipulated by the Act.

Submissions for previous years were 16 public institutions for the year 2011; 32 public institutions for the year 2012; 51 public institutions for the year 2013; 60 public institutions for year 2014 and 44 public institutions for the year 2015.