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FG snubs ‘open govt’ law – Presidency, N/Assembly, Adoke others dodge FOIA requests

Federal government ministries, departments and agencies have shown reluctance to comply with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), more than a year after it was signed into law by President Jonathan, Daily Trust investigations revealed.

 

The Presidency, National Assembly and office of the Attorney General of the Federation are among 11 government offices which Daily Trust wrote to over the past eight months but none of them gave the information requested for.

 

President Jonathan signed the act in May last year, which is aimed at making information accessible to the public as a way of ensuring openness and accountability in government.

Weeks after signing the law, Jonathan said on July 25, 2011 at a forum on public procurement that through the act “the media and the general public now have a tool to work for good governance. It is no longer possible to hide behind officialdom as everything is now in the open.”

Then on January 29, the Attorney General issued a circular to all government agencies, asking them to comply with FOIA and stating to them the modalities for doing that. He asked government offices to “work proactively and respond to requests promptly. Public institutions are enjoined to use modern technology to inform citizens of what is known and done by their government.”

Daily Trust decided to test the law, which was received with a lot of excitement by the media and the civil society, who thought it could help reduce the secrecy in government operations.

Starting from December last year, Daily Trust wrote 12 letters to 11 different ministries and agencies requesting for information under FOIA but only five replied though none gave the specific information requested. The rest ignored us.

Of the five agencies who replied, two said categorically they would not give the information asked for, one wanted more specifics while the other two dodged giving exactly what was demanded.

The Attorney-General’s office and the State House are among those who ignored our letters even though we were merely seeking for basic information.

“Many people in the public service of affected institutions, having been used to the anonymous impunity that the darkness of secrecy accords them, cannot simply get used to the idea of operating under the sunlight of transparent and full disclosure,” chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Dr Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, said when contacted for comments.

In her reaction, member of the House of Representatives who spearheaded the passage of the FOIA, Mrs. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, said in text message to one of our reporters: “The law is very clear. Take the agencies to court. Test the law to the limits. You can also go through the National Human Rights Commission. You can’t just sit back and say they refused. As long as you are not seeking personal information, go to court after the time has lapsed. The House of Representatives has a Committee on FOI, headed by Hon Omegara. Also bring such agencies to the committees’ attention.”

Not quite an open govt

Government offices that Daily Trust wrote FOIA requests to are the State House, office of the National Security Adviser, office of the Attorney General of the Federation, Ecological Funds Office, Public Complaints Commission, Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), office of the Inspector General of Police, Federal Civil Service Commission, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Nigeria Prison Service and National Assembly.

The CCB, Public Complaints Commission, National Assembly, NNPC and Prison Service replied to our letters. CCB said it would not give the information requested, while NNPC said it would not give any information at all.

The National Assembly management, which was asked for details on certain contracts for vehicles procurement, replied to ask Daily Trust to be more specific on the information wanted, even though our letter was specific on the contracts.

For its part, the complaints commission was asked for 2011 records of complaints and fund releases but it replied to say these were not available and instead provided us with 2009 and 2010 records.

When we contacted the prisons service on details about death-row prisoners, gallows and hangmen, they first wrote back to say the information we wanted could only be released by the National Security Adviser (NSA). So we wrote the NSA, then General Andrew Azazi, who did not reply to our letter. But weeks after that, the prisons service wrote to us again and gave us broad information which was clearly not what we requested.

Regarding the Presidency, Daily Trust wrote a letter to the State House on April 20 asking for details on number of people who were on the president’s delegation during his trips to Australia, Ethiopia and Germany. First, officials refused to receive the letter because they said we used a wrong nomenclature for the addressee. So we wrote another letter the way they suggested, to the permanent secretary, State House, but there has been no reply since then.

No other government office replied to our letters despite repeated follow-ups by Daily Trust reporters, even though the law said they must reply within seven days of receiving a request.

Even the chief law officer of the Federation, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke, who issued a circular in January asking government organs to implement the FOIA, has not yet responded to Daily Trust’s letter sent to his office on April 20, requesting for a copy of the white paper on the Galtimari-led Presidential Committee on Security Challenges in the North East Zone.

How they dodged the law

When Daily Trust set out to test the law, we first wrote a letter dated December 8, 2011, to the CCB asking for copies of President Jonathan’s assets declaration details.

After several follow-ups the bureau in February 2012, responded saying a provision of the Constitution has “precluded the bureau the liberty” to give such information.

The CCB letter, dated February 20 and signed by its secretary Alhassan Ibrahim, said it needed the National Assembly “to spell out the conditions and terms” upon which it would reveal information on assets declaration by public officers.

Daily Trust also wrote a letter to the Ecological Funds Office on December 8, 2011 requesting for information on amounts of money disbursed to states for ecological projects as well as the names and locations of such projects, but there was no response from the office ever since.

Our reporter repeatedly went back to their offices to follow up on the request but was not given the information or a written reply to our letter.

Also, the Inspector General of Police has not as yet responded to our letter dated December 12, 2011, demanding for information on the existing framework on personal firearms possession, the number of people granted personal firearm licences and the number of certified firearm dealers in the country.

When the new IGP came in, we wrote a reminder on April 12 this year but still there is no response.

On January 7, Daily Trust wrote a letter to the Federal Civil Service Commission seeking to know the total number of staff in each ministry and their states of origin but there is no reply up to now.

On March 1, we wrote the Public Complaints Commission seeking information on number of complaints received and handled, and budget releases in 2011. But on March 27, in a letter with reference number PCC/HQ/ADM.16/74 and signed by Mr. C. Nwosu, the commission said the “information you requested are not yet available.” Instead, the commission gave us its reports for 2009 and 2010.

Also, on March 1, Daily Trust wrote the Nigeria Prison Service, requesting for the number of condemned prisoners, which prisons they are held, number of hangmen and number of gallows available. The service wrote back on March 14, 2012, saying that we should route our inquiries to the office of the NSA.

We then wrote the NSA on March 27, 2012, seeking for the same information, and referring the NSA to what the Prisons Service told us.

On May 3, 2012, the Prison Service, in a letter with reference number NPS/771/Vol.14/34 and signed by Babatunde Owolabi, provided general information, warning that the data “may be sensitive and injurious” to the service if used inappropriately. They did not give us the number of gallows available or prisons where condemned inmates are held as we requested.

For the National Assembly, we wrote on April 20 and asked for details of contracts for the procurement of Jeeps for Senators and Camry cars for members of the House of Representatives for their committee work. But the National Assembly wrote back demanding for specifics of the contracts referred to.

Another letter written to the National Assembly requesting for Hansard of specific sessions of the Senate and House of Representatives was not replied to at all.

On July 12, Daily Trust wrote to NNPC and requested for the details of its recent recruitment exercise. But in a letter dated July 17, with a reference number CSLD.1099 and signed by legal adviser Mr. Anthony C. Madichie, NNPC said it is not bound by the provisions of FOIA because it is a “statutory corporation” precluded by section 31 of the act.

When the NNPC came under fire from lawyers and activists because of this, its group managing director spoke at an event to say that the corporation conducts its business in the open.

No FOIA desks at ministries, others

Adoke’s circular issued in January and published in the newspapers, was titled ‘Implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 and the Reporting Requirements under Section 29 thereof.’

Among others, the circular said all agencies and other government offices should to establish FOI units with direct responsibility for determination and compliance with the act, as well as designate a senior official (at the Assistant Director level or its equivalent) to handle FOIA requests.

But no agency appeared to have complied, because of what an official who did not want to be named said was lack of budgetary allocation to support setting up such units.

In his reaction, the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Dr Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, said the difficulties and constraints in implementing the FOIA are as a result of out-dated mind-sets.

“The claim allegedly made by an entity like the NNPC, for instance, that it is not within the purview of the Act is beyond belief or deliberately mischievous. There has also been a good deal of failure to comply with the reporting obligations under the Act,” he said.

“Most MDAs have not yet responded adequately to the Federal Attorney-General’s reporting requests contrary to the Act. It’s also true that several civil society entities have been over-enthusiastic or not sufficiently skillful in the reading and use of the Act, especially in understanding the scope of the Act and the limits of the exemptions. All this means that there remains a lot of work to be done in realising the provisions of the FOIA,” Odinkalu added.

Kaduna-based lawyer, Alhaji Yahaya Mahmud, SAN, said that the country is in trouble if the MDAs are not responding to FOIA requests.

“The Federal Government and the president have repeatedly assured us that they are committed to fighting corruption…. If MDAs are not responding to letters seeking information, we are in serious trouble. Without transparency in governance, no meaningful transformation can be achieved,” he said.

Spokesman for the opposition Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Engr. Rotimi Fashakin, said “the FOI law, which is touted as an achievement of the Jonathan regime, has failed to stem the tide of opacity in government business.”

He added: “Does this not show clearly that, contrary to the well-rehearsed rhetoric about commitment to transparency, this Jonathan regime has a lot to hide? Is it really interested in entrenching culture of subordinating government to the Nigerian people? Is it possible for a corruption-compliant regime to lead the fight against impunity and corruption? The answer is blowing in the wind!”

Also, Malam Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, Executive Director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), said that refusal of government officials and agencies to comply with FOIA has “grave consequences to democracy, fight against corruption and good governance…it is an indictment of the present government drive towards anti-graft war.”

Spokesman for the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP), Mr Osita Okechukwu, said the act “is meant for Nigerians to halt the dangerous slide of the country to a failed state,” therefore “we have nobody to blame if we fail to utilize the FOI Act to halt the monumental corruption which is stifling the rehabilitation of our dilapidated infrastructure, decayed social services and eradication of gross unemployment.”

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