CSO Derides Petroleum Ministry for Alleged Abuse of FoI Act, Information Hoarding


* PWYP: It’ll be disappointing for Buhari to withhold assent to PIGB

Chineme Okafor in Abuja

For allegedly failing to comply with its duties and obligations under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act 2011, the Ministry of Petroleum Resources was on Monday placed by a civil society organisation (CSO) — the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) — on its “FoI Hall of Shame”.

MRA launched the initiative in July 2017, to highlight public officials and institutions that are undermining the effectiveness of the FoI Act through their actions, inactions, utterances and decisions.

However, it said in a statement released in Abuja, that the ministry had from 2011 allegedly violated all aspects of the FoI Act, hence its induction into the ‘hall of shame’ which also has a couple of the federal government’s ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) in it.

“The Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources has violated virtually all its obligations under the FoI Act since the law was enacted seven years ago.

“We are at a loss as to how the ministry hopes to perform its function of ensuring compliance with all applicable laws and regulations in the oil and gas sector when it is itself not complying with a major law of the land.

“It cannot possibly have the moral authority to insist on compliance by other entities with laws when it is not complying with other laws that apply to it,” said MRA’s Legal Officer, Ms. Chioma Nwaodike, in the statement.

Nwaodike explained that the ministry clearly recognised its principal mandate to ensure that Nigeria’s oil sector is well managed, but does not recognise the need to be transparent to Nigerians.

According to her, “It is ironic that although the ministry appreciates that its main function is to ensure that Nigeria’s major revenue earner is managed for the benefit of the country and its people, it does not appear to recognise the need for it to be transparent and accountable to the people of Nigeria and is clearly unwilling to make the effort.

“How it hopes to fulfill its mandate without being transparent or accountable to the citizens of Nigeria whose interests it is established to protect remains a mystery to us.”

Justifying the induction of the ministry into the “FoI Hall of Shame”, Nwaodike stated that it failed to comply with Section 2 of the Act, which requires it to proactively publish certain types of information even without anyone making any request for such information and to update such information regularly.

She noted that the ministry has been bedevilled by secrecy, which has left the country and its people in the dark about its activities.

“This cult-like secrecy has prevented the ministry from proactively disclosing information that can contribute to informed public debates about the management of the country’s natural resources and better policies on the issue which will in turn promote good governance,” she explained.

She also accused the ministry of non-compliance with Section 29 of the Act, which makes it mandatory for it, like all other public institutions, to submit annual reports to the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) on its implementation of the Act and make such reports publicly available.

According to her, the ministry had not submitted any report to the AGF since the Act was passed in 2011 and has not published any such report to the public, when it should have submitted and publicly published seven such reports as at February 1, 2018.

She said such serial disobedience of a valid law was unacceptable and an egregious act of impunity, which should lead to the disengagement of its headship.

The ministry, she noted, has also not designated an appropriate officer to whom requests for information from members of the public should be sent nor has it proactively published the title and address of such an officer either on its website or anywhere else, as required by Section 2(3)(f) of the Act and the FoI implementation guidelines issued by the AGF.

In addition to the reported failure of the ministry to designate an FoI desk officer to receive and process requests for information as provided under Section 2(3) (f) of the Act, Nwaodike explained that the ministry has also failed to provide the required training for its officials on the public’s right of access to information which will enable relevant officials to effectively implement the law at any time as provided by Section 13 of the Act.

She said an administration such as that of President Muhammadu Buhari, which has as one of its cardinal programmes the fight against corruption, ought not to stand by and allow the level of impunity in institutions such as the Ministry of Petroleum Resources to go unchallenged or unsanctioned.

She thus called on Buhari, who is also incidentally the Minister of Petroleum Resources, to take urgent measures to address the rot in the oil and gas sector and to return the nation to the path of probity, integrity and good governance by tackling the persistent corruption, crude oil theft and shady deals within the sector as well as the lack of transparency and accountability which has enabled these vices to persist and flourish.

Meanwhile, another CSO in the country’s extractive industry, the Publish What You Pay (PWYP) Nigeria Office, has said it will be disappointing for Buhari to withhold his assent to the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) and allow renewed efforts on the bill go to waste after several years of trying to get it passed.

Speaking at a press briefing to update reporters on the status of the PIGB and three other bills — the Petroleum Industry Host Communities Bill; Petroleum Industry Fiscal Bill; and Petroleum Industry Administration Bill — which were created from the omnibus Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), the National Coordinator of PWYP, Mr. Peter Egbule, said Buhari had the right to withhold assent on the bill, but that such decision if he does, would not be in the interest of Nigeria.

According to Egbule, both Buhari and the National Assembly can get the PIGB and three other bills passed into law before the tenure of the current administration ends in 2019, if they really want to.

He also commented on the whereabouts of the PIGB, which the National Assembly recently said was no longer with it, saying that a clarification on its whereabouts was needed considering that the Presidency once said it was not with it, and the legislators subsequently said they withdrew it for some amendments.

“Although we hope and expect that the president will assent to the PIGB and the other bills whenever they are transmitted to him, but we also recognise that it is his right to refuse assent. If the latter happens, it will be disappointing to well-meaning Nigerians, resulting in another round of legislative reconsiderations, political intrigues, delays, and public frustrations.

“This will be a major setback in our collective interest in establishing a more responsive and socio-economically impactful Nigeria petroleum industry, as well as send the wrong signal to Nigerians and the global community at large,” Egbule said.

He further stated: “We appeal to the National Assembly to immediately refocus on the passage of the bills, and intentionally dedicate substantial time for the legislative processes required for the passage of the bills before they become engrossed in the obviously heightening political activities towards the 2019 general election.

“We implore the National Assembly to take the path of national reverence in passing the bills. This is our expectation on the National Assembly, and we are confident that when the time comes, they will do so with visible swiftness, in the interest of all Nigerians.

“In anticipation of the transmission of the bills to the president, we entreat him to act in line with his incessantly proclaimed stance on corruption and expedite action on his assent to the bills.”