A WELCOME ADDRESS PRESENTED BY DR DAVID TOLA WINJOBI THE SOUTHWEST COORDINATOR OF SOUTHWEST FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT NETWORK AT THE CAPACITY ENHANCEMENT WORKSHOP ON ADVOCACY SKILLS FOR CSOs AND THE MEDIA ON FOI ACT IMPLEMENTATION IN THE SOUTHWEST AT RICHTON HOTEL & SUITES 62/64 EDUN ADILA STREET, IBARA HOUSING ESTATE, ABEOKUTA FROM 10TH TO 13TH SEPTEMBER 2013
I heartily welcome all of you to this two–day Capacity Enhancement Training on Advocacy Skills for CSOs and the Media on FOI Act Implementation in the South-West States of Nigeria.
As we are all aware, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law on the 28th of May, 2011 by President Goodluck E. Jonathan. It is the first law that empowers Nigerians with the right to access the records of public institutions (Ministries, Departments and Agencies) as well as the private sector, where they perform responsibilities of public nature. The Act which is a codification of the right to know and also a fundamental human right of every Nigerian citizen, grants all persons the legally enforceable right to access public held records. Moreover, the signing of the FOI Bill into law is an opportunity for the clearest demonstration ever of the power of civil society working together to influence public policy and initiate reform.
The preamble to the longish title of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 clearly sets out in a self-interpretative language the following as the objectives and thrust of the law as follows:
- Making Public Records and Information freely available;
- Provision for Public Access to Public Records and Information;
- Protection of Serving Officers from adverse consequences of disclosing certain official information and;
- Establishment of Procedures for the achievement of the above and related purposes.
The whole Act borders on the issue of the right of access of anyone to public record and information. Section 2(1) of the Act categorically declares and establishes the right of any person to access or request information “which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever described”, whether such information is in a written form or otherwise.
What is more to the above unprecedented right is the express provision in the Act at Section2(2) that an applicant, that is, any person seeking access to public record and information, need not demonstrate any specific interest in the information being applied for. This singular ancillary provision is most laudable having regard to the fact that before the Act, public institutions, offices and government agencies had effectively used the ground of lack of or insufficient interest as a Carte Blanche to refuse any application for information in the custody of government offices or officials.
Current Situation of the Act in Nigeria:
Since the act was signed into law, there is relatively low level of awareness of the FOIA among members of the public in Nigeria and especially in the southwest geo-political zone. The situation is worse in the northeast geopolitical zone for obvious reasons as many public servants are not aware of the Act while those that are aware do not know the import of the Act. Apart from Ekiti State, no other State in the Southwest has enacted a State level FOI Law. Many public institutions and officials are yet to fulfill their obligation under Section 13 of the FOI Act, requiring them to build the capacity of their workforce to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Act. The free flow of essential public information as stipulated by the FoI Act is being hampered by the lack of official websites by some public institutions and lack of regular update of information by those who have.
Most private organizations including CSOs utilizing public funds, performing public functions or providing public services, erroneously believe that they are exempted from the ambit of the application of the FOIA. Furthermore and worse still, some state governments also incorrectly opine that they are not bound by the provisions of the FOI Act. A bad example is that of the Attorney General for Oyo State who in April said that his State (Oyo) was not bound by the Act. Efforts were made to seek audience with him so as to educate him that the law of the federal republic takes precedence over those enacted by any state while each state is bound by the federal law.
Rationale and Objectives for the Workshop:
Apart from apathy from the CSOs, there is also skepticism among some of them about the safety and security of whistleblowers including the media. Though many CSOs are aware of the Act, many lack the skill needed as whistle-blowers to engage the public officials and the legislators on the need to implement the Act in their respective states.
The need to create public awareness of what Freedom of Information is and its connection to the daily lives of stakeholders is paramount. Media and the use of ICT bear much relevance in this regard. People need to see it being done and not to see what ought to be done. The demands to know and the knowledge of how to apply the information obtained in solving social, economic and political problems facing different people at different stages of life need to be addressed.
The overall objective of the Southwest FOIA Network is to contribute to the promotion of freedom of speech and human rights, deepen democratic accountability and strengthen the rule of law in Nigeria. The specific objectives of the workshop, however, are to:
- Strengthen the advocacy skills of the CSOs to lobby the law-makers in their respective states in drafting and passing acceptable state FOI laws consistent with the FOIA at the national level.
- Provide a platform for generating discussions and relevant actions around FOIA implementation.
- Identify with a view to partnering with relevant MDAs, the institutional bodies affected by the freedom of information law and development partners in ensuring unfettered FOIA implementation.
- Increase the capacity and skills of CSOs and the Media to embark on relevant activities to increase the level of awareness on the FOI Act among members of the public including those at the grassroots.
I would like to use this medium to appeal to the federal government of Nigeria to, as a matter of urgency, declare a sincere state of emergency on our educational system. In view of the current impasse between ASUU and the federal government, the latter should accede to the request of the former so that our children could go back to school immediately. The federal government should desist from violating the provisions of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) Act 2011 as it is evident that NUC has neglected its regulatory function by serving as an emergency contractor, constituting itself into a tenders board for the universities and colleges of education, and administering hostel development grant.
I also implore the media and CSOs to FOI the Federal Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission to make available the details of the salaries and emoluments (including constituency allocations) of our federal lawmakers whose controversial jumbo pay package has been the highest in the whole world. While our legislators are living in opulence, over 70 per cent of Nigerians are suffering from poverty, about 5 million youths pass out from higher institutions without jobs while over 10 million children are out of school. Paradoxically, Nigeria is rich yet its people are poor. Poverty, hunger, starvation and preventable diseases are staring the critical masses of this country in the face as our leaders lack fiscal discipline while money that would have been used for development is being leaked into private pockets.
As CSOs and the media, we need to use FOIA to demand accountability from our public officials. We need to know how our resources are being allocated or spent; it is our right to ask and it is their responsibility to answer. We need to FOI MDAs, procurement and award of contracts; revenue allocation; environment on ecological fund; constituency allowances; infrastructural development; housing; agriculture; the Public Complaints Commission; MDGs Projects; Good Governance Team etc.
I wish us all successful deliberations.
Thank you for listening.