Adedayo Akinwale in Abuja
A former chairman of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR), Dr. Joe Abah, has lamented that despite the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act being the second most powerful accountability mechanism under the Nigerian law, it has been grossly underutilised as the media rely more on press statements from the government.
He said the media has the responsibility to raise awareness about issues, demand answers, accountability, raise and praise; name and shame.
Abah disclosed this in Abuja while presenting a paper on: “National Accountability Stewardship and the Role of Public Servants” at a town hall meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) organised by the African Centre for Leadership, Strategy & Development with the support from the MacArthur Foundation.
He noted that the co-creation of the OGP National Action Plan by government and civil society was a step in the right direction.
According to him, “Nigeria has in place a Freedom of Information Act, 2011. Unfortunately, this immensely powerful legislation is grossly underutilised. Apart from a few exceptions, the FoI Act says that the only law that you can rely on to deny a request for information under the Act is the Constitution.”
Continuing, Abah stated: “It is not immediately clear how well the media uses the FoI Act in its work. It seems to rely more on press releases issues by government officials, and investigative journalism does not appear to be common, except for some online media platforms.
“It is my view that the media should make more use of the FoI Act in its work and should also help to apply pressure on government to comply with the provisions of the Act. For instance, the performance of the National Assembly on FoI requests should be under constant scrutiny by the media, since it was the National Assembly that passed the law and it is a public institution under the Act.
“Government’s track record of response to FoI requests has been poor. Year-on-year, many public service organisations fail or even blatantly refuse to respond to FOI requests. There do not seem to be any administrative sanctions for an organisation that fails or refuses to provide.”
To this end, the former BPSR boss called on the federal government to urgently issue a circular to this effect, noting that many public servants are still not sure about how the FoI Act affects the Official Secrets Act.
He said anyone that has worked in the public service knows that public servants relate more directly to rules and circulars than to laws.
Abah explained that a few organisations, such as BPSR and the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), have been practising proactive disclosure by complying with FoI request, but argued that the FoI Act should be amended to provide some administrative sanctions for non-compliance with its provisions.
“For instance, the Public Procurement Act, 2007 says that the Bureau of Public Procurement can recommend the removal of a Chief Executive that fails to comply with the Act or recommend investigation of any perceived infraction by the anti-corruption bodies such as EFCC. Therefore, chief executives tend to jump when they get a letter from the BPP that reminds them of those provisions of the Public Procurement Act. The FoI Act should be amended to include similar provisions if it is to be taken seriously by government officials.”