© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
How MDAs frustrate Nigerians’ access to public information despite FOI law
ON Friday, September 7, The ICIR submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Federal Ministry of Education. The purpose of the request was to obtain procurement details of contracts approved for the ministry by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) between 2015 and 2017. Five weeks after, prospects of getting the needed information are still very slim.
When The ICIR reporter visited the ministry on September 25, armed with a reminder letter, he was told not to bother submitting as the original request had already been sent to the appropriate department. For hours, he moved from one office to another to get updates on the request.
According to the minister’s office, the request had been sent to the office of the Permanent Secretary on September 11 and was already sent to the Director of ICT for action. But the desk officer at ICT unit directed The ICIR reporter to the Director of Procurement. There, it was said that the request was sent to the Deputy Director (DD) of the unit on September 20. The DD’s records then showed that the request had been stuck with the Chief Procurement Officer (CPO) since September 21.
Edith Onyegbula, the ministry’s CPO, told The ICIR that she assumed the position in 2017 and has only the custody of FEC records of 2018. The office in charge of documenting such information, she said, is the Permanent Secretary’s.
At the last visit on Monday, it was resolved based on directives from the office of the PS, that Onyegbula would write to the Procurement Deputy Director about her challenge. And her report would then be transferred to the Director, and to the Permanent Secretary who would grant final approval.
It took nearly two weeks for the request to get to the CPO’s desk from the Permanent Secretary’s records office. In the light of the observed challenges, it is unclear when the document will be finally made available.
Four months of frustration by public institutions
In the last four months, The ICIR has sent FOI requests to 13 public institutions and has recorded frustrating experience dealing with each of them.
On June 12, 2018, two FOI requests were sent to the Ministry of Finance and the Office of The Accountant-General of the Federation (OAGF), requesting for the details of 2017 capital releases.
The OAGF responded and delivered the requested information on June 26 — after 10 working days as against the seven working days stipulated by the Freedom of Information Act, 2011. The Ministry of Finance, on the other hand, directed The ICIR to the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation for the details five days after the request was made.
In July, The ICIR filed a series of FOI requests to various public institutions with about 90 per cent of the requests yet to be responded to.
On July 19, The ICIR sent another FOI request to the OAGF requesting for the updated details of 2013-2017 budgets capital releases and receipt of actual spending from the capital releases of 2013-2017, up till date, the OAGF has neither written to ask for an extension nor responded to the request.
On July 20, an FOI request was also sent to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), asking for details of election results from 1999 to date. On July 25 (five days after), INEC responded by notifying The ICIR of the commission’s acknowledgement.
The ICIR finally got the requested information on September 4, after 32 working days of filing the request.
The experience with other agencies is worse. The ICIR filed series of FOI request on the details of stamp duty recovered by the Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST) from the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement Systems Plc, (NIBSS) and the Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST) – these are the relevant agencies who by law have records of the requested information.
The SGF wrote back on 9th of August (after the stipulated seven working days) to inform The ICIR that the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) is the custodian of the information.
Excerpt from the letter obtained from the SGF said: “…after careful review of the application, the Office is of the view that the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) has a greater interest and is the custodian of the information sought and therefore be in better position to provide same.”
It further said in the letter that the application was referred to the FIRS and advised the ICIR to deal with it directly.
The CBN in its response obtained on 8 August, said the request is being processed and will revert to The ICIR as soon as possible.
After 41 working days (precisely 26 September) of waiting for a response from the FIRS, CBN, NIPOST and NIBSS, The ICIR did a reminder to them all, 14 working days after, the request is still pending as they all have not responded.
In August, The ICIR sent an FOI request to INEC for the certified true copies of academic credentials of Sen. Ademola Adeleke, Osun state PDP governorship candidate in the last state election. The information was delivered after 15 working days, precisely 31 August.
An FOIA was invoked on The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to produce details of 2016 contract for the ‘production and airing of a documentary on IDPs’. Two months after, NEMA has refused to respond to the request.
Recently, on 8 October, The ICIR filed another FOI request to the office of the Special Adviser to the President on Economic Matters to ask for a copy of “evidence-based research studies conducted in 2017 financial year” as provided for under the 2017 budget with OCEAP85893258 as the project code.
In a response dated 9 October 2018, the Special Adviser, Dr. Adeyemi Dipeolu, said the budget item is not under the Special Adviser to the President on Economic Matters in the office of the Vice President. But Dr. Dipeolu’s claim is inaccurate because the budget document showed OCEAP85893258 is indeed a code for the provision in Office of the Chief Economic Adviser to the President.
In contrast, the Universal Basic Education Commission responded promptly to the FOI request. When The ICIR requested the status of 2015 Library projects on 2 August 2018, the agency responded within four days.
What the FOI Act says
The FOI Act was signed to law in 2011 by former President Goodluck Jonathan and since then, all requests for information received by a public institution have to be dealt with in accordance with the FOI Act.
Sections 1 and 2 of the FOI act establish the right of any person to apply for information or records in the possession of a public institution. Generally, these rights are:
- The right to access or request any information or record that is in the custody or possession of any public institution or private bodies providing public services, performing public functions or utilising public funds.
- The right to be told whether the information or record exists.
- The right to have the requested information or record released if the information or record is in the custody or possession of a public institution.
- The right not to demonstrate any specific interest or purpose in the requested information or record.
- The right to receive information that public institutions are obliged to proactively disclose under the Act.
- The right to take legal action in Court to compel any public institution to comply with the provisions of the Act, including discharging their proactive disclosure obligations under the Act.
Also, according to section 29 of the FOI Act, every public institution must submit its annual report on or before February 1 of each year to the AGF on all applications of FOI request they received.
For 2017, only 73 out 900 public institutions in Nigeria complied to that provision of the FOI act. This amounts to about only 8.1 per cent compliance to section 29 of the FOI act by public institutions.
The ICIR had earlier in the year reported how budget provisions meant for the implementation of FOI request have not been utilised fully to ensure compliance with the FOI Act.