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6 years after, Lawyers decry poor usage of FOI Act

.Blame media practitioners for not taking advantage of law

.Say adequate use of legislation will compel accountability from leaders

.Daily Times invokes law, seeks information from CBN, NASS, NNPC

Lateef Ibrahim and Francesca Iwambe, Abuja

Prominent senior lawyers have decried poor usage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) by Nigerians, especially media practitioners, six years after former President Goodluck Jonathan signed the historic act into law.

The lawyers added that it was regrettable that the media practitioners are not taking the advantage of the law, arguing that adequate usage of FOI Act would have compelled leaders, government officials from the three ties of government, MDAs and corporate bodies to give account of their stewardship.

The senior lawyers, Prof Konyinsola Ajayi (SAN), Mallam Yusuf Ali (SAN), Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) and Mr. Jiti Ogunye, who spoke in separate interviews with The Daily Times on Sunday, blamed poor usage of the FOI Act on ignorance and laziness on the part of Nigerians.

Ajayi, who blamed Nigerians for not taking good advantage of the FOI Act, said that there is the need to overcome three issues before the law could be used adequately.

He said: “It is unfortunate that Nigerians, especially media practitioners are not making use of the law.
“But we have to address three issues before we can solve the problem. They are mediocrity, ignorance and lackadaisical attitudes of Nigerians.

“Once we face these issues squarely, Nigerians will be empowered to demand for accountability from our leaders.”

On his part, Ali said one of the reasons for the poor usage of the FOI Act is lack of information.

He said: “There is lack of information on the efficacy of the law. Some people are not even aware of the existence of the law. There is therefore the need for the media and public analysts to sensitise Nigerians on the importance of using the law for accountability.

“Another point is that the law is new. Though the law is six years old, it has to pass through adequate usage while attendant publicity should be given where the law is tested at our various courts.

“The third issue militating against adequate usage of FOI Act is the attitude of Nigerians and the penchant to believe in rumour mongering and hearsay.

“And when you ask those who make astonishing allegations to come and substantiate their allegations, they develop cold feet.

“Lastly, there is this issue of what I call act of wickedness/cowardice. Our people will say, ‘I don’t want to be named as the one that caused somebody’s downfall’. They are afraid of naming and shaming indicted individuals.

“So long as we have this attitude, it will be difficult for some people to make use of FOI Act, knowing fully well that the action will affect the image of the errant individual at the end of the day. ”
Commenting on the matter, Falana said: “The media practitioners must wake from their slumber and perform their constitutional role.

There is no excuse for not making adequate use of the law.

“And if any judicial officer is acting contrary to the law, such officers will be exposed and account for his infamous act. We must resist impunity and demand for how our commonwealth is being used by our leaders.

“Once our leaders realise that the citizens are now demanding for accountability through the FOI Act, they will sit up and govern responsibly.”

For Ogunye: ” Media practitioners must step up their game now and do the needful on the law. They cannot sit on the fence and lament frustration. The time has come for us to demand accountability from our leaders and corporate entities.”

The Daily Times recalls that six years after the enactment of the FOIA, the Nigerian public has not made sufficient use of the Act.

This startling development was contained in a report from the office of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF).

But The Daily Times had invoked the FOI Act to demand for relevant information from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), National Assembly and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and others.

The FOI Act, which was signed into law on February 24, 2011 by former President Jonathan, guarantees access by the general public to most data and information held by government agencies; exempting few like issues of national security.

It is also instructive to note that Sections 4, 5 and 7 of the law provides that all public institutions must grant access/response to any request for records or information within a time limit of seven days and a wrongful denial of such information by any institution of public officer attracts a fine of N500, 000 payable on conviction.

But in spite of these laudable provisions and its attendant guidelines, the report from the AGF office disclosed that the federal ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) received very few requests for information from the public through the FOI Act.

It is important to note that some of the MDAs have devised different methods to frustrate FOI Act requests and refused to comply with the law.

According to the annual performance report from the AGF’s office in 2014, 2015 and 2016, over 53 per cent of government agencies received “just one or no request for information in the years under review.”

Citing 2014 for instance, 60 public institutions submitted FOI reports out of which 26 of them received no request from the public while 12 received just one request for information.

The report added that the remaining 22 received requests for information ranging from two to 133.

It also stated that the Nigeria Institute of Social and Economic Research (NISER) received the highest of such requests.

The report further stated that in 2015, 16 of the 44 public institutions that sent in reports said they did not receive any request for information while five of them received just once.

The Ministry of Budget and National Planning had the highest request at 45 while the performance was not better than 2016 as the trend continued.

It also stated that 20 out of 54 public institutions that submitted their reports had no request for information that year while five received just one request.

The remaining 29 received multiple requests with the Ministry of Budget and National Planning having the highest request at 77.
For many, this trend in this three- year period may be a pointer to the fact that the Nigerian public including media practitioners made poor use of the law in recent years.

Former President Jonathan signed the bill into law in 2011 after it had been stalled at the National Assembly for 12 years. The presidential assent came after a spirited outcry by media practitioners and bombardment of the lawmakers by campaigners.

While the House of Representatives passed the bill on February 24, 2011, the Senate followed suit on March 16. The harmonised version was later passed by both chambers on May 26, 2011.

The harmonized bill was conveyed to Jonathan on May 27 while the former president signed it on May 28, 2011.

But the management of The Daily Times in invoking the Freedom of Information Act (FOI 2011), wrote to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), seeking for information over the alleged crisis in Etisalat Nigeria, following huge debt of $1.2billion (about N541billion) from 13 Nigerian banks.

The letter, addressed to the CBN governor, was dated July 4, 2017.

The Daily Times also invoked the law and wrote to the management of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), requesting for details of the controversial $25billion contracts awarded by the corporation.

In the letter dated October 9, 2017 and addressed to the NNPC Group Managing Director, Dr. Maikanti Baru, The Daily Times also requested the corporation to furnish it with the details of the contracts including names of beneficial contractors, details of the contracts, the technical and financial bids as well as details of companies who were disqualified from the bid or who could not secure the contracts.

The newspaper added that the requests have become necessary following the controversy surrounding the said $25billion contracts award, saying that the development will go a long way in bringing the full facts before the public.

It also stated that the response from the NNPC will bring to an end, the claims and counter-claims from the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, Baru and other stakeholders.

Similarly, prodded by the demands from certain sections of the public on the need to know the actual amount of money spent by the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu-led Joint Committee of the National Assembly on Constitution Review, The Daily Times had written to the Management of the National Assembly to demand for the exact figures.

Invoking the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, 2011, the newspaper is further asking the Clerk of the National Assembly to furnish it with the full details of the amount budgeted for the constitution amendment exercise in both the 7th and current 8th National Assembly.

In the FOI letter dated Friday, July 28, 2017 and addressed to the Clerk, National Assembly, The Daily Times is also asking the National Assembly management to make available the actual amount released to the Ekweremadu- led committee with a view to assisting it in carrying out the constitution amendment exercise.

The newspaper also copied the President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Yakubu Dogara, with the content of the FOI letter.

The newspaper further stated that the public is awash with the information that humongous billions of naira was spent by the committee, saying that there is the need to make the actual amount available to the public and prevent speculations.

The resolve of the newspaper to seek information on the matter was sequel to agitations by some Nigerians who were angry over the decision of the National Assembly to reject the Bills on Devolution of Powers, Resource Control and others that would eventually promote the much awaited restructuring of the country.

These Nigerians have also been inundating The Daily Times with requests to know the amount of money spent by the members of the Ekweremadu -led committee during their sittings in Lagos as they were of the opinion that the money had gone down the drain.

There have been speculations that since the National Assembly commenced the process of amending the 1999 Constitution in 2007, a whopping N8.5 billion had so far been committed to the processes, which Nigerians believe have produced little results.

A joint Committee of the National Assembly on Constitution Review set up in the 7th Senate was said to have spent a total of N1.5billion while little results reportedly trailed the efforts of the Committee.

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