Until recently, I really had no idea there was an act called the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act talk much less of knowing what it was all about.This, I am pretty sure is also the reality for majority of Nigerians. In the little time I have been working in the transparency and accountability and open government scene, some facts have become clear and this article really is about sharing some of my experiences in invoking the powers that the FOI Act affords me as a Nigerian citizen.
First of all, let us examine the Act and summarize just a little bit. For Nigerians who are still where I was up until a few months ago, here are a few things you need to know about the FOI Act:
- It was signed into law by former president Goodluck Jonathan in 2011
- It gives every Nigerian citizen the right to request for information from any public institution from all arms of government; executive (presidency), legislature (lawmakers), judiciary (courts) or any other parastatal supported by public funds () or private organisations that provide public services or utilize public funds
- You can present your request in a written form but this is not compulsory. Verbal requests are also in line with what the law says and in the case of a verbal request, it is the duty of the institution to put the request in a written form on your behalf. However, given that the implementation of this Act is still in its nascent phase, it may be advisable to do a written request (for evidentiary purposes mainly)
- ANYBODY- regardless of age, race, sex, religious, cultural or socioeconomic status CAN request information under the Act
- You do not need to give reasons or explain why you need the information you are requesting for; you just need to ask!
- A mandatory reply is expected from the institution not later than 7 days from the date of the request and a failure to provide information within this time is seen as a no response which is cause for the requester to file a complaint in any Nigerian court of law
- Under certain clauses in the Act, the institution MAY decide to decline your request and they are mandated to state why they have refused.
- If you feel that the institution’s refusal is not covered in any of the clauses, you can file a complaint against them in any Nigerian court of law
- You do not need to pay any processing or other fee with regards to your request. The only fee that may be required is in cases where there will be extra costs in reproduction (such as photocopying) of information requested for
- You can download a copy of the Act here
Now that we know some of the basic stuff about the FOI Act, let me now go on to share some of my most recent experiences in invoking the powers of the Act as a Nigerian citizen:
At Connected Development, some of my major duties involve writing FOI letters to institutions, liaising with and following up with these institutions to get information on some of the projects we undertake when we Follow The Money in the areas of health, education and environment.
In my interactions, I have found that there is still a lot of non-information or misinformation of the general public about what the Act really is about. This may be in part due to the general lackadaisical attitude of Nigerians when it comes to issues we generally consider to be technical and that we perceive may bear little or no effect on our present or future personal standing. To tackle this, it may become expedient that the Act be gazetted, translated into local languages and widely circulated so that Nigerians can easily access and become acquainted with it.
Another finding is that there is still some level of reluctance in the manner and timing that institutions respond to requests. They either do not see the need to reply or even acknowledge the requests and even when they do respond, they never comply with the mandatory 7-day response timing or see the need to ask for and give reasons for an extension period. This problem may have persisted as a result of the fact that no precedents have been set. The law is very clear about what should happen in the case of non-compliance but how many examples can we cite of cases where institutions have actually been held to account?
Now to the issue of who exactly is responsible for handling FOI requests in these institutions: most times, it takes a longer period to get a response because the requests have to be passed around multiple offices before it becomes clear who exactly should handle the requests. This is a very laborious and painstaking process which stalls productivity and response and can be clearly avoided if institutions designate a particular department or officer to the handling of FOI requests and these contacts should be made publicly available on the institutions’ public spaces for easy access.
Finally, it would be really great if public institutions can become proactive in the sharing of public information. We really do not need to wait for individuals or civil society to send so many letters and requests for information that should ordinarily be publicly available to citizens. This can be a very good way for Nigerian government to reiterate its commitment to the Open Government Partnership and show greater responsiveness to its citizens by making data open.
Now, as to whether the ACT is working or not…you decide.