What could have kept one glued to the Television on the 1st day of the year? Perhaps, the English Premier League, The Big Bang Theory , or Grey’s Anatomy. None of them! It was Platform, showing on the “Largest television network in Africa” – Nigeria Television Authority, popularly known as NTA on Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 11 – 12 pm. Interestingly, the guest was Honourable Matthew Omegara, chairman, House on committee on Reform on Government, while the topic – The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act kept me glued. The Freedom of Information Act, that has been on the front burner since 12 years ago was signed into law by the President, Goodluck Jonathan on May 28, 2011. The House of Representatives passed the Bill on February 24, 2011, while the Senate passed it on March 16, 2011. Both House harmonized it, and was passed by both chambers on May 26, 2011. As this act can deliver Nigeria from the shackles of corruption and accountability, 19 months after it has been signed into law, analysts say there is still a lot that is missing in the Act.
As part of the Committee’s function, they are to engage people from the public and private sectors, the non-government organizations on how best to enforce the act to achieve the goals it was meant for. “It is time for civil society organizations, and the public at large to wake up and start enforcing this Act. Since the bill was passed 2011, we haven’t seen much petitions from the public, especially the media hasn’t been up to the task” said the Honourable The FOI Act has been domesticated in Ekiti State, while in Lagos; it has passed the second reading in the State House of Representative.
The Honourable mentioned that the request for information should be forwarded to MDAs (Ministry Department and Agencies) with respect to the issue at hand. Putting things into perspective, Mr Adamu, from Kunguru village read it in the newspaper that 20 million was allocated to the Ministry of Health a year ago to build a primary healthcare centre in Kunguru. Meanwhile, no primary health care structure is visible at Kunguru. Mr Adamu is meant to verify the authenticity of the news, afterwards forward a letter to the MDA responsible, which in this case, is this Ministry of Health. Honourable Matthew further said, one should get the information requested for in 7 days, and if otherwise, one can proceed to the court of law. Alternatively, “petitions can be forwarded to the Secretary, Committee on Reform of Government, at the House of Representative” the Honourable member said.
As much as analyst has taken down prospects of the Act, the Honourable seems excited about the FOI Act, he equally stated that states adopting the Act shouldn’t be a challenge, since they all adopted the former Official Secret Act, which has been replaced by the recent FOI Act. “By 2014, any MDA that doesn’t set up its FOI Department would not get approval for its budget” confirmed Honourable Matthew Omegara. As much as the challenges of the FOI Act remains conspicuous – such as information relating to national security, request for information exceeding the mandatory 7 days, and bureaucracy in the MDAs, it shouldn’t make us lose sight of the fact that some positives might come out of it. Some days ago, I was discussing the FOI Act with a Legal Practitioner, and he reiterated the fact that writing to any MDA alone to ask for information could put pressure on them. “Its one step in the right direction and I wouldn’t want to say that all request might end up as a court case because most MDA wouldn’t want to be involved in legal tussles” he said.
Several times, it has been said that, getting citizens to participate in issues that concern nation building isn’t an easy task, owing to the grave loss of public confidence in the government. By the way, one may have asked, where are the CSO’s, media houses, investigative journalist that agitated for the FOI Act? They aren’t sleeping, Right to Know has been monitoring the FOI Act, how it is been implemented, and perhaps sensitizing the public; The Media Rights Agenda, has also been holding workshops on the FOI Act for CSOs. What does this mean for Open Data and Open Development in Nigeria? It means Startups like BudgIT and Follow the Money could use this medium in tracking aid flows from the government to communities, at least to an extent, which could have never been achieved before.
The Honorable mentioned how they have started the sensitization in regions of the country with support of UKAid, CIDA and UNDP. Sometimes in December last year, I attended the Ministry of Information sensitization on the FOI Act at the Nicon Luxury. Awareness and education on the FOI Act wouldn’t stop, however stories of how organizations have started enforcing the Act should be told, lessons learnt can then be used in decision making. In all, it was a pleasure, listening to those that make our laws on TV; the truth is that at long term, enforcing the Act can help in making information public, and also tracking funds that flow from the government to communities!