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Ten years after promulgation, stakeholders pick holes in FOI Act

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Ten years after promulgation, some media stakeholders have alleged arbitrary use of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act as well as violations by some government agencies.

They insisted that access to vital information under the act was being abused by some individuals to blackmail government officials and private business entities.

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They spoke at a one-day roundtable for Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) organised by Civic Voice Against Corruption (CIVAC) in collaboration with Freedom of Information Coalition, Nigeria (FOICN).

They also tackled government agencies for contravening the provisions of the FOI Act that mandate them to disclose relevant information on demand.

The (FOI) Act, which was signed by the administration of Goodluck Jonathan in 2011, grants citizens the legal right to access information, records and documents held by government agencies and related entities.

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Speaking at the event, lead convener, CIVAC, Abdulrazaq Alkali, said it was unfortunate that the act was being ‘misused’ to generate stories that betray the greater truth.

According to Alkali, certain actors, especially CSOs, are abusing this right by accessing vital state information to blackmail government institutions, adding that the law has, on many occasions, been misused at court levels to stonewall public projects through stay of execution order and shady out of court settlements.

Alkali said it was regrettable that the act provided sanctions for violators of its provisions but it didn’t spell out sanctions for people who are abusing the law.

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He said: “We can all agree that the existing version of FOI Act is serving its intended purpose by making public records and information available to citizens, but at the same time, it is allowing unscrupulous elements, especially, some evil CSOs to weaponise and use it in a manner that threatens the confidence of our institutions, perpetrates all sorts of corruption, extortion, blackmail and demeaning our democracy gesture.”

He urged the government to consider reviewing and introducing changes to limit the scope of the FOI Act in order to provide sanity on how public information is accessed and used.

Aligning with Alkali’s position, National President of Association for Public Policy Analysis (APPA), Comrade Princewill Okorie, observed that it was a criminal offence for individuals to apply the provisions of the FOI Act and turnaround to use the information to harass and extort money from government officials or institutions.

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Okorie, who is also the co-convener of CIVAC, encouraged victims of such criminal harassment and extortion to bring it to public attention, adding that the act cannot, on its own, give Nigerians the expected result and benefits without active citizens participation in the civil space.

Chairman, Board of Governors, FOI Coalition, Dr. Walter Duru, argued that while it is a general consensus that the act must not be abused, care must be taken not to create loopholes that would further weaken the operations of the law.

He observed that public institutions rarely comply with the Act provisions that direct them to submit a yearly report of all applications of FOI requests.

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Section 29 of FOI Act (2011) had said every public institution must submit its annual report on or before February 1 of each year to the Attorney-General of the Federation, on all applications of FOI request they received.

Duru said that violators of such provision should be appropriately sanctioned. He explained that the failure of the law to achieve its desired objectives was because citizens were yet to take advantage of the law to participate in the business of governance.

“In this country, the FOI Act is clear on what citizens can ask of. I am a little bit skeptical of some of the advocacies on the way citizens are using the act but we must also be careful not to discourage citizens from using the law.

“While it is difficult to completely eradicate corruption, if the FOI Act is vigorously implemented in Nigeria, we shall reduce corruption to the barest minimum,” he stated.

Head, FOI unit, Ministry of Justice, assured that government would look into the recommendations from the engagement and do the needful where necessary.

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