The Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on the Freedom of Information (FOIA), Rep. Cornelius Nnaji on Friday expressed deep concern over the lukewarm attitudes of the Ministries, Departments and Agencies MDAs of the Federal Government on the compliance with the provisions of the Freedom Of Information Act on the disclosure of Information and warned against its consequences.
Speaking at the 10th-anniversary celebration of the coming into effect of the Freedom of Information Act, in Abuja, Rep Nnaji lamented that “only 73 of the over 900 public institutions in the country are complying with the provision of the Act.”
The lawmaker also lamented that the Official Secrets Act (OSA) of 1962 had continued to impede the implementation of the FOIA as it had continued to dominate the thinking and practice within the public service.
He pointed out that public officials have remained unwilling to adhere to the information structure established under the FOIA despite the amendment of the OSA of 1962 by FOIA.
He disclosed that 90 per cent of MDAs were not aware of the existence of the Act or committed to its implementation, a situation that called for intensive broad-based awareness creation by Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and other stakeholders on the right to access information through the mass media to reverse this ugly trend.
While saying that the Freedom of Information has been described as the “oxygen of democracy” by Article 19 of the Global Campaign for Free Expression, Nnaji said this “implies that, without access to information and adequate disclosure within a democratic setting, quality delivery of goods and services, as well as democracy dividends, will always be a mirage to citizens.”
According to him, “the FOIA seeks to enable the public to access information in the custody of public institutions and relevant private bodies with a view to entrenching the culture of transparency and accountable leadership.”
He explained that the aim of the Act was to make public records and information more freely available to the public while also protecting certain public records and information to the extent that consistent with overriding public interest as well as protecting serving public officers from adverse consequences for disclosing certain kinds of information without authorization.
He added that the FOIA required public institutions to proactively publish about 44 categories of information as outlined in (Section 2) for information produced by or in relation to such bodies with present timelines in accordance with Section 7 of the Act.
He suggested that the Freedom of Information units in all government agencies should be well resourced so that they would have the requisite capacity to execute their proactive disclosure mandate.
He also suggested that a service-wide circular should be promptly issued by both the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and the Head of Service of the Federation directing all public institutions to henceforth take concrete steps to prioritize compliance with their proactive disclosure obligations under the FOIA.
The Head of Service, he said should also encourage public institutions to digitalize their records which would make them preservable and easily accessible, while Government should ensure that capacity-building training on the Act takes place on a routine basis as opposed to an ad-hoc basis while ensuring that there are adequate funds provided for it.
According to him, “there is the need to encourage all institutions to embrace both their statutory obligation of ensuring proactive disclosure of information and also responding to request for information as essential steps for promoting the culture of transparency and accountability.
“The organizations should ensure that Freedom of Information activities are mainstreamed in their core business mandate/activities so that they leverage on the already available funds to do various Freedom of Information activities as a matter of course
“The Attorney General of the Federation should also ensure effective realization of the objectives of the Act, by virtue of Section 29 should ensure that all institutions to which the Act applies comply with the provisions of the Act.
He further explained that while the FOIA offer some sort of protection for Whistle-blowers, there was the need for job security and protection of the families and funds of whistle-blowers, adding that Nigeria should learn from African countries such as Ghana, Uganda and South Africa which have enacted Whistle-blowing legislations.
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