In an attempt to ensure the effective implementation of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2011, the Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN), held a two-day consultative forum with key stakeholders to discuss and review the implementation guidelines issued by him earlier this year.
The forum, which held on November 27 and 28, 2012 in Abuja was a collaborative effort between the Federal Ministry of Justice and Democratic Governance for Development Project (DGD) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to inspire a seamless implementation of the Act by public institutions.
In his opening remarks at the forum, Mr. Adoke restated his commitment to full implementation of and compliance with the provisions of the FOI Act giving the assurance that his office will make all resources available and provide continuous support to the process that will guarantee the effective implementation of the Act.
“It is worth recalling that the implementation of FOIA is one of the cardinal strategies of the HAGF being pursued under the aegis of the Panel on the Implementation of Justice Reforms (PIJR) chaired by Justice Ishaq Bello.” he said, adding that “The sixth platform of the AGF’s plan outlines as priorities the development of FOIA guidance manuals for government agencies, training programmes for the agencies and the facilitation of desk officers for the management of FOI information and privacy issues.”
According to Mr. Adoke, the primary target of his office is to see that as many Nigerians as possible, both in the public sector and in the private sector are included at every stage in making the Act work in such a way that its goal of being an instrument for public participation as well as enthroning transparency and accountability in government is achieved.
He said “Conscious of the need to have a participatory approach to the FOI Act process, I have initiated a process of updating the guidelines through a participatory process with the hope of publishing the revised version later this year. This process is supported by the Democratic Governance for Development (DGD) project, a joint donor-funded project with the overall aim of strengthening the democratic character of Nigerian political process and promoting outcomes that consolidate and advance democratic governance and accountability to achieve the country’s stated development priorities and goals specified in the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the United Nations Development Assistance Framework. (UNDAF) and the Country Programme Action Plan (CPAP).”
The review included an overview of the draft guidelines issued by the Attorney-General, its implementation, the challenges in operating the draft guidelines and amendments to the reviewed implementation guidelines.
The DGD project director, Dr. Mourtada Deme, in his welcome speech made glowing remarks about the quality of work and efforts put into the draft, saying that it will lead to the deepening of the culture of transparency and accountability in public institutions in the country.
He said “We welcome the initiatives of the Federal Ministry of Justice on the Freedom of Information Act and appreciate the efforts of the AGF Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN) at ensuring transparency and accountability of public institutions through the effective implementation of the FOI Act in Nigeria.
“We are honored to be the lead supporter, working with the Ministry of Justice to support improved compliance and reporting of public institutions on the status of their compliance with the FOI Act to the National Assembly and the public. DGD’s support covers the revision of the National Reporting Guidelines with stakeholders’ input, publication and dissemination of the revised guidelines, six regional trainings of members of FOI Committees in ministries, departments and agencies, the coordination of an FOI Stakeholders Forum, publication of an FOI newsletter by the stakeholders forum and an FOI website containing information collated from ministries, departments and agencies.
According to Dr. Deme, “Over a year ago, the Freedom of Information Act was signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan. It was hailed as an historic moment all around the country because of the potential of the FOIA to demystify institutions of governance and encourage active citizen participation in the governance process. It is important that government institutions are sensitized and equipped to supply information based on request from individual citizens, civil society and other groups. Access to information is critical for national development and strategic for peace, security and conflict resolution. Government MDAs need to effectively implement the FOI and put in place solid record management procedures, proactive information disclosure and trained personnel who can speedily respond to requests for information within the stipulated time frame of the Act.”
The DGD Director reaffirmed the commitment of the DGD project and it’s international partners in supporting the Federal Ministry of Justice in its initiative to ensure the successful implementation of the FOI Act in Nigeria.
The senior special assistant to the Attorney-General, Professor Deji Adekunle, in his overview of the draft of the revised guideline, drew attention to the objective of the FOI Act which is openness and transparency in governance.
Explaining the origin of the guidelines, Adekunle said the Attorney-General was showing an example to other public institutions by being compliant to the provisions of section 29 of the Act where the office of the Attorney-General is obliged to ensure that all institutions to which this Act applies comply with the provisions of the Act.
Prof Adekunle noted that “The objective of the Act is to provide for the public, access to public records and information that is consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy. The Act endorses the use of guidance in terms of reporting obligations of public institutions. It is best practice given the overwhelming number of enquiries to FMOJ from public institutions on FOI Act matters.”
The Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda, Mr. Edetaen Ojo, who is also a member if the expert panel noted in his presentation ‘Proactive Disclosure Requirements under the FOI Act’ that “Many Freedom of Information laws around the world place an obligation on public authorities and institutions to publish, on an automatic or proactive basis, a range of information that are of public importance. Many modern FOI laws now contain very extensive provisions imposing proactive publication obligations on public institutions with guidelines for their implementation”.
Underlining the importance of proactive disclosure in the FOI Act he said “Proactive disclosure is addressed in Paragraph 1.5 of the current Guidelines on the Implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. The issue is addressed in about 4 short paragraphs. In summary, the view of the Panel is that more emphasis and details are required on the issue, given the importance of proactive disclosures”.
Mr. Ojo recommended that “the revised Guidelines should contain advice and guidance for public institutions on how they can progressively increase the range, types and number of information, documents and records to be published proactively. This will help them improve their compliance with the provisions of the FOI Act while also benefitting them in other ways.”
He also proposed other amendments including that the current Foreword in the Guidelines be amended to briefly highlight the proactive disclosure requirements in the Act; that Chapter 1 of the Guidelines dealing with “Fundamental Principles” be amended to incorporate relevant principles for proactive disclosures; that Paragraph 1.5 of the Guidelines should be elaborated and possibly turned into a new chapter with details on proactive disclosure; and that the new chapter should emphasize the right of the public to proactively disclosed information and the corresponding duty on public institutions to comply with their proactive disclosure obligations under the FOI Act.
Mr. Ojo said; “This could conceivably include a recommendation that once any information has been requested and disclosed, such information should be published in a publicly available platform such that it forms part of the institution’s proactive disclosures for the benefit of those who may seek the same information in future”.
Mr. Maxwell Kadiri, Associate Legal Officer, Africa Programme at the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), and a member of the expert panel, presented a paper titled ‘Processing Request: Procedures and Timelines’ where he reechoed the standard procedures that requests for records, information and documents should be dealt with promptly and inexpensively.
He explained that the guideline has gone further to make such procedures easier by dividing the process into 9 stages which are referred to as the nine ‘R’s. They are; Read, Record, Responsibility, Retrieve, Refer to others, Redact and Separate, Review, Reply and Release to Publication Scheme under Section 2.
Mr. Maurice Asielue of Westfields Legal Practioners and member of the expert panel, made a presentation on the issues of exemptions under the FOI Act saying “the FOI Act 2011 contains seven exemptions to the right of access and they set boundaries to this right of access.”
Mr. Asielue noted that ‘Public interest’ is not defined under the Act. He said “under FOI Act, public interest is weighted in favour of refusing the information,” and concluded that “There is a presumption that the specified harm outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
Participants thereafter engaged the presentations in discussions and contributions which gave the needed feedback to the forum.