MRA Calls on Buhari’s Government to Strengthen FOI Implementation as Part of Anti-Corruption War

President Muhammadu Buhari
Mr. Muhammadu Buhari, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria

Lagos, May 29, 2015:  Media Rights Agenda (MRA) today called on President Muhammadu Buhari to make the effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Act a major pillar of his anti-corruption crusade, contending that it is the most effective instrument for enabling ordinary citizens join the fight to stem the menace of corruption.

In a statement in Lagos, the organization noted that although the signing of the Act into Law on May 28, 2011 remains one of the enduring legacies of former President Goodluck Jonathan, its implementation over the last four years has been lackluster in many respects with the result that it has been unable to achieve its full potential of enthroning transparency and accountability in governance.

MRA’s Executive Director, Mr. Edetaen Ojo, said: “We have no doubt about the desire and capacity of President Buhari to combat corruption in Nigeria.  However, given the scale of the problem, for his efforts to gain traction and be effective, ordinary citizens have to be an integral part of his anti-corruption strategy so that corruption can be revealed and challenged wherever it manifests.  A vigorously implemented and effective Freedom of Information Act is undoubtedly the most practical way of ensuring such citizen engagement.”

Mr. Ojo explained that it was for this reason that MRA decided to present President Buhari with a set of proposals on the day of his inauguration and a day after the fourth anniversary of the enactment of the FOI Act on how to enhance its implementation and position the Law to achieve its primary purpose.

MRA is therefore proposing that in order to overcome the bureaucratic bottlenecks and resistance to the access to information regime prevalent in public institutions, the Government of President Buhari should embark on a deliberate programme to sensitize public institutions and officials at all levels of government about the rights of the public to access information held by public institutions. Sensitization should not be limited to freedom of information officials alone but should include all staff of public institutions so that they are able to play their different roles in creating open institutions, including being able to direct members of the public to appropriate Freedom of Information officials within their institutions.  Administrative sanctions should be imposed on officials who deliberately flout the law or undermine its effective implementation.

Besides, MRA said, the Government of President Buhari should make specific budgetary provisions for public institutions to help them to properly discharge their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act, including allocating resources to assist them in putting in place adequate record keeping and information management systems as well as funding the Freedom of Information unit in each public institution.

MRA suggested that public institutions should be required to use digital and electronic records management systems to enhance the implementation of the Act. In particular, it said, public institutions should take advantage of the Internet, ICTs and social media tools in receiving, processing and responding to requests for information as well as in fulfilling their proactive disclosure obligations, including using infographics to present and explain complex data.  The Government should put in place facilities and infrastructure to ensure the availability and effectiveness of such tools.

MRA welcomed President Buhari’s pledge in his campaign document, “My Covenant with Nigerians”, to encourage proactive disclosure of information by government institutions in the spirit of the FOI Act and emphasized that the proactive disclosure provisions in the Act, if implemented, will reduce the burden on public institutions to process numerous individual requests for information from members of the public. Accordingly, it said, public institutions should be required to comply with and take advantage of this important mechanism in the law to make information available to the public as this will also enhance citizens’ trust in them and in the government as a whole.

MRA called on President Buhari to ensure that Government public outreach institutions, such as the Federal Ministry of Information, its state counterparts, and the National Orientation Agency (NOA), are required to undertake public enlightenment activities to enhance public awareness of the existence of the Act and better public understanding of its provisions as well as how to use it.  Such outreach activities, it said, should be sustained over time to achieve the desired impact.

It urged the Executive Branch of Government to liaise with the appropriate agencies within the Judiciary to ensure that proper and adequate sensitization programmes are undertaken to enable judges who have to deal with cases arises from the Act to have a better understanding of the nature and philosophy of the Law, its provisions and to put in place the special procedures envisaged under the Act for dealing with cases of denial of access to information. MRA said research conducted by it shows clearly that the Courts are not dealing with Freedom of Information cases expeditiously as the Act provides in Section 22. The findings from the research also show that it takes an average of over one year for the courts to conclude an FOI case in the court of first instance. Such a situation, MRA said, defeats the purpose of the Act.

MRA suggested that the oversight body under the Act, which the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, should be adequately funded, staffed and equipped to ensure that it provides effective oversight in the implementation of the law.  Staff in the office of the oversight body should be properly trained to ensure that they understand their functions and powers under the Law and to enhance their ability to perform their functions effectively. It said efforts should also be made to enhance the independence of the Attorney-General of the Federation with regards to his oversight functions under the Act.