THE Nigeria Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC) has emerged winner of the 2021 edition of the National Freedom of Information (FOI) Compliance Ranking, while the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) and National Orientation Agency (NOA) came second and third place, respectively.
The FOI ranking held at NAF Conference Centre, Abuja on Tuesday, was organised by a coalition of civil society organisations, including the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), Public-Private Development Centre (PPDC), Basic Rights Watch (BRW), Right to Know (R2K), Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and BudgIT.
The ranking is organised annually.
Chief Operating Officer of the Private and Public Development Centre Gift Maxwell, who delivered the opening remarks, said the programme was designed not to tarnish the image of any institution but to improve their level of disclosure and encourage citizen’s participation in governance.
During the panel discussion, Editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (The ICIR) Ajibola Amzat noted that less than 25 per cent of public institutions in Nigeria complied with the FOI Act, an indication that government institutions under the Buhari administration were not as transparent as expected.
He characterised the poor compliance as a breach of the Open Government Partnership agreement signed in 2016 by President Muhammadu Buhari in London.
In response, a Legal Officer Mariah Obafemi, who spoke on behalf of the Head of FOI Unit of the Federal Ministry Of Justice Gowon Ichibor said the ministry had made several efforts to drive compliance among all public institutions.
Obafemi said the effort included holding training on FOI for ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and sensitizing staff of various public institutions on the need to provide free access to public information.
She expressed hope of greater compliance by the time the ministry began a new round of awareness campaigns in October.
Also speaking at the programme was Senior Legal Officer for Africa Regional Work of the Open Society Justice Initiative Maxwell Kadiri, who played a crucial role in drafting the FOIA 10 years ago.
Kadiri said one of the challenges faced since the enactment of the FOI Act was the lack of political will to implement the legislation.
“We haven’t even implemented 20 per cent of this legislation, due to lack of political will,” he said.
He queried the rationale behind the moral suasion approach adopted by the Ministry of Justice towards implementing FOIA rather than enforcing sanctions provided by the Act.
Obafemi attempted to clarify the position of the law, saying the Act didn’t empower the Ministry of Justice to punish non-compliant MDAs, but only to encourage them.
But Kadiri disagreed.
He argued instead that there were penalties embedded in the Act, including a fine of about half a million naira for negligent denial of information and a minimum of 1-year imprisonment for disclosing false information.
Section 7 (4) states that “Where the government or public institution fails to give access to information or record applied for under this Act or part thereof within the time limit set out in this Act, the institution shall, for the purposes of this Act, be deemed to have refused to give access.
Further, section 7(5) states: “Where a case of wrongful denial of access is established, the defaulting officer or institution commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N500, 000.”
Assistant Director NIPC Sambo Isiaku said one of the reasons for low compliance to the FOI Act was the loyalty of most institutions to the Official Secrets Act.
“Until the Official Secrets Act is expunged and replaced with the FOI Act, the problem will persist,” he said.
He encouraged other MDAs to regard the Act as a law with penalties attached to it and comply without hesitation.
Kadiri again noted that the Official Secrets Act had been amended by Section 1 of the FOI Act.
The section states that: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other Act, law or regulation, the right of any person to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever described, is established.”
The NIPC has held a history of high compliance with the FOIA over the past few years.
While receiving the award for the first position, Isiaku assured the audience that the commission would hold the first position tenaciously.
The number of public institutions featured by FOI Ranking has grown from 66 in 2014 to 213 in 2021.