MDAs defending FOI suits instead of releasing records, says Aigbokhan
Founder, FOI Counsel, President Aigbokhan has lamented that Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs) are not complying with the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, but are defending suits rather than releasing records.
Aigbokhan said payments of lawyers to defend FOI requests are topping MDAs budgets, when litigation ought to be the pill and not the snacks of FOI applications.
He disclosed this during the FOI Litigation Surgery and Awards organised by FOI Counsel in Benin City to mark its 12th anniversary of FOI Act 2011. He added that some agencies give pseudo-replies to FOI requests.
To plug the hole, he said, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) needs to audit MDAs’ responses to FOI requests and litigation. He noted that Nigeria became the fifth African nation with a freedom of information law, when on May 28, 2011 the seal was put on the bill.
“Although the FOI Act is not the only legislation that allows access to information in Nigeria, its emergence was to create a law that catered for documentation of public record, compliance reporting, review and enforcement.
“The law came principally to give bite to disclosure by establishing a legal right to such demand and review procedures. It is meant to simplify public access to governance and to allow the citizens a peep into government decisions and proposals.
“It is not enough to say MDAs responded to a request; the content of the response must be placed side-by-side with the request submitted. It is not all requests that must be treated positively, but in all cases, notice must be issued (whether of approval or denial).
“When the information sought for is exempted, the requester can be informed by a notice of the status of the request relying on the section of the law that exempts the class of information. Failure to issue the notice means MDAs deliberately refused to give information or records and that is a breach of the law,” he explained.
The president added that FOI Counsel does not believe that FOI Act needs to be legislated upon at the sub nations.
He commended those who have taken the initiative to influence the passage of the law at various states like Delta, Kaduna, Imo and Ekiti State even though there are some parts of the law at the sub national that need to be reviewed.
His words: “Beyond court fines in lieu of imprisonment, there should be a letter of caution and sanction from the AGF for defaulting MDAs. The current court fine for defaulters is not beneficial to FOI requesters as the fine goes back to the government.
“Strengthening the implementation of the law requires more hands for judicial review and support of stakeholders.”