Explainer: Four simple steps you can take to extract information from public institutions using FOI

As a Nigerian, there is a chance that you have asked the following questions:  Why do they keep lying to us? And by “they” and “us”, you mean public officials and the Nigerian populace? Well, you are in good company on a chance to get the right answer to such questions.

In truth, on several occasions, politicians, public institutions, and public officials have put out bogus information about their activities and achievements. Worse still, most citizens, well aware of the dubious nature of some of these assertions, either accept what they are told or ignore them  and move on with their lives because of seeming difficulty in accessing the truth. But it really shouldn’t be so. As citizens, you owe to yourself and the community a moral obligation to access relevant information to function optimally in a democracy.

How do I, as a citizen, engage public officials, you ask? How do I even know where to check to verify claims made by public officials? One of the few ways of doing this is by responding to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a legislation that empowers you, as a citizen, to ask those questions and obliges public officials to provide such information to you.

FOIA offers you the right to question public officials, ask for verifications, gain access to public records and documents that could help confirm federal claims, clarify your doubts, and help you make informed decisions. 

History of the FOIA in Nigeria

In 1993, civil rights organisations made the Freedom of Information (FOI) popular through their different activities put in place to establish a legal principle that would grant the right of access to documents in the custody of government and public institutions, in a bid to establish transparency and accountability as tenets of responsible and accountable governance. 

The bill was signed into law by the Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s administration on May 28, 2011 to provide for what is known today as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 

The law which mandates all public institutions and Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) to keep records and information about all activities, operations and transactions to ensure they are under obligations to facilitate public access to such information. It is the obligation of the MDAs to make this information readily available to the public, by answering relevant questions from the public about any aspect of governance, where and when necessary.

The law, which over time, has mostly been considered useful only to journalists and media outlets, is in fact meant for every Nigerian citizen regardless of status.

It is a law that guarantees you the right to get information, speak to, or gain access to any public resources, documents, or records from any public institution or civil servant, all of which are mandated under the law to respond by providing you the needed information. Further, if you are denied such privileges, you can seek redress in a court of law.  

Means of Accessing Information using the FOIA 

Although the FOIA makes it mandatory for public/government bodies and officials to make public records available once requested, many Nigerians do not know how to use the FOIA to verify or gain access to public documents. 

The following is a three-step approach you can adopt to extract information using the FOIA. 

  1. First, you have to write an FOI request to the concerned ministry, department, or agency involved, asking for relevant information or by simply walking up to the MDA and asking to see the documents that corroborate a claim or an information they put out in the public. More so, the FOIA, as dictated in Section 3 (4) of the act, allows you to make a request orally and it obligates the public official to whom you make the request to offer you a copy of the information in writing.  However, it is advisable to put your request in writing, to serve as evidence of  your request and also for ease of reference for you and  the public institution. Also noteworthy is the fact that you need not indicate your specific interest in the information you seek. Therefore, any public institution or MDA that asks for a reason why such information should be made available to you is contravening the section 1 (2) of the act.  However, according to Section 11 (1), an information could be denied if it is one that would be referred to as an official secret, a disclosure of which may be injurious to the conduct of International Affair and the security of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But even in this situation, public interest still supersedes in the event that the information needed is in the interest of the public as contained in Section 11 (2). 
  1. After drafting the request, the next step is for you to address and then post it to the relevant MDA. Please note that the request is better addressed to the administrative head of an MDA and not the political head of such agency. For instance, it is advisable that you write to the executive secretary of a ministry for information on the activities of such ministry rather than to the minister. Don’t also forget to put your own address for easy correspondence.
  1. When you make a request using the FOI, the law in Section 4 provides that you give the MDA a seven-day waiting period to provide you with the necessary information and the MDA is mandated to respond within seven days. If for any reason the government office is not able to provide you with the needed information, the MDA should make that known to you before the expiration of the seven days and seek an extension or offer reasons why an information might not be made available. If after the expiration of seven days you do not hear from them, you could reapply or send in a reminder. Note that if the MDAs to whom you send in your application does not have the needed information, it is their duty to send your application across to the relevant public institution that has the information you have requested and then notify you of the transfer.   
  1. If after you have completed all the activities stated above, the public institution is still not forthcoming, the law provides that you could institute proceedings in court to compel such a public institution to comply with the provisions of the FOIA and provide you with the required information. This provision is contained in Section 2 (7) and Section 7 (1). 

A typical example where an organisation instituted a court case against a public official for non-disclosure of information was in 2013 when a Non-Governmental Organisation, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN), in an order of mandamus, filed a motion to compel the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, to disclose to the organisation detailed information on the multi-million dollar contract awarded in April 2013 to an Israeli company, Elbit Systems, to monitor internet communication in Nigeria. Another scenario was in 2014 when a business man in Ogun State, Mr. Adekoya Boladale, sued three commissioners in the state for their failure to provide him with the true copies of the state’s debt records between January 2011 and December 2013. 

Since its enactment, significant results have been recorded on usage of FOI requests for information. For instance, a Premium Times report showed how the media company used an FOI request to gain access to public records that exposed the misappropriation of funds in the Federation’s Excess Crude Account (ECA) by successive administrations. 

Although this law comes with a set of limitations and exemptions, public interest still supersedes those exemptions under the provisions of the law. While it is necessary to remark on the lapses in the Nigerian constitution, the average citizen must learn to take advantage of the provisions of existing laws, such as the FOI Act. 

So, when you see a news story, information, or report that seems too good to be accurate or that contains claims made by a public agency or official, quit complaining about a lack of progress, just ask the right questions through the Freedom of Information Act.

This fact-check is a republished article from Sparkling FM per our Dubawa 2020 Fellowship partnership with newsrooms and media organisations.

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