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ROLAC, SCRAP-C spreading FOI message in Nigeria - ITREALMS

MondayCommentary@ITREALMS:
From East to the West, North and South, the Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption-ROLAC programme of the European Union and the Strengthening Citizens Resistance Against the Prevalence of Corruption - SCRAP-C programme of the United Kingdom Aid have been traversing the length and breadth of Nigeria, spreading the good news of the Freedom of Information Act.

For ROLAC, an anti-corruption programme funded by the European Union, but managed by the British Council, the journey started with an assessment of the use and implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2011. The assessment, conducted in collaboration with the Freedom of Information Coalition, Nigeria – FOICN and Media Initiative against Injustice, Violence and Corruption-MIIVOC on one hand, and the Federal Ministry of Justice on another hand, focused on four states of: Adamawa, Kano, Lagos and Anambra, and of course, the Federal capital territory for federal Public Institutions and civil society organisations.

The need for empirical data on the level of citizens’ knowledge and use of the FOI Act on one hand and the level of compliance with the provisions of the Act by public institutions on the other hand informed the decision of the ROLAC programme to support a Rapid Response Assessment on same. The Assessment of the level of FOI implementation and compliance among federal public institutions, as well as state public institutions in Adamawa, Kano, Lagos and Anambra was the crux of the study for public institutions. Structured Questionnaire, Observation and Personal Interview were the instruments used for data collection. The choice of the four states and the federal capital territory was informed by the fact that they are the focal states/areas of operation of the ROLAC programme.

The study was coordinated by the leadership of the Freedom of Information Coalition, Nigeria. Findings show that the knowledge gap on the provisions and use of the FOI Act remains wide, particularly, at the state level, requiring that deliberate steps be taken to enhance same.

According to the findings, the percentage level of awareness of public institutions on the FOI Act in Adamawa is 9%; Lagos- 20%; Kano -11%; Anambra -10%; while the federal capital territory is 35%.

On compliance, the percentage level of public institutions with the FOI Act in Adamawa is 0%; Lagos - 10%; Kano - 7%; Anambra - 0%, while the federal capital territory is 25%.

On the part of the Civil Society, about 90% of the respondents in Adamawa have no knowledge of the provisions and application of the FOI Act; 87% in Lagos; 93% in Kano and 91% in Anambra do not know the provisions and applications of the FOI Act.

On the use of the FOI Act, data gathered shows that 93% of respondents in Adamawa state have never made an FOI request; 87% in Lagos; 91% in Kano and 90% of civil society actors studied in Anambra have never made an FOI request.

The findings therefore informed ROLAC’s decision to, in collaboration with the Freedom of Information Coalition, Nigeria-FOICN, Media Initiative against Injustice, Violence and Corruption-MIIVOC and the Federal Ministry of Justice to commence an elaborate capacity building programme, targeting state and non-state actors in the areas studied.

The overall objective was to increase citizens’ demand for accountability and transparency from public institutions, through enhanced awareness and capacity on effective use of the FOI Act on the demand side (civil society); and to improve compliance and implementation of the FOI Act on the supply side (public institutions). So far, two states- Adamawa and Kano have benefited from the week-long capacity building exercise, which took stakeholders through the rudiments, provisions, application and all the elements of the FOI Act, 2011. Lagos State is next to benefit from the exercise. Following the trainings, excited Kano State Civil Society actors are firing from all corners, making demands on public institutions.

The ROLAC FOI trainings are delivered by the Chairman, Board of Governors, Freedom of Information Coalition, Nigeria- FOICN, Dr. Walter Duru, Secretary of the Board of FOICN, Longe Ayode and Mr. Benjamin Okolo, Head, FOI Unit of the Federal Ministry of Justice, who always leads the Ministry’s team. Pwanakei Dala, ROLAC’s anti-corruption programme officer is always on ground to give support, while the ROLAC Staff in the focal states ensure that everything is in place for each of the trainings. ROLAC’s anti-corruption Programme Manager, Emmanuel Uche is always on ground to show leadership.

The highlights of the training are Paper presentations, practical FOI request writing by civil society participants; practical writing of responses to FOI requests by participants from public institutions, interactive and experience sharing sessions, questions and answers sessions, among others.

Speaking on the progress recorded so far, ROLAC’s Anti-Corruption Programme Manager, Mr. Emmanuel Uche expressed delight at the interest of citizens of the states to participate in governance, taking advantage of the FOI Act.

Uche, an anti-corruption expert described the Freedom of Information Act as the foundation stone for strengthening democratic values.

“The FOI Act is the most critical foundation stone for strengthening democratic values of any society. Democracy, which is also one of the core tenets of a free society is based on choice. Choice is not possible where citizens do not have perfect access to information on the available choices. Access to information law is one of the best things that have happened to Nigeria.”

Speaking on ROLAC’s interest in FOI, National Programme Manager, Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Programme, Mr. Danladi Plang described the Act as central to the work of the programme, following its capacity to entrench openness in governance.

“Well, ROLAC has three central themes - Criminal Justice, Anti-corruption and Access to Justice. Our work on the FOI supports and complements the work on anti-corruption, particularly, in the area of prevention. Increased citizens’ use of the FOI Act will improve transparency in the system. When public institutions realize that citizens now have a law that empowers them to ask questions about government business and get the answers they desire, they will be a bit more circumspect. There is no doubt that effective implementation of the FOI Act will prevent and reduce corruption in Nigeria”

Lamenting over the low compliance level with the Act, Plang identified low awareness on the existence and provisions of the Act as one of the challenges, promising that ROLAC will do more in spreading the message of the FOI Act. He added that the “FOI Act can help to open up government for citizens participation,” making a strong case for grassroots advocacy on the Act.

Frowning at the reluctance of some state governments to implement the FOI Act, Plang argued that “a reasonable government should encourage the citizens to participate in governance, if they are genuinely interested in the welfare of the citizens.”

Adding her voice, Component Manager on Enhancing Civil Society Engagement in Criminal Justice and Anti-Corruption Reforms, Toyosi Giwa described ROLAC’s Civil Society FOI engagements as strategic.

According to her, “for Civil Society to effectively engage the government, they need to have their capacity enhanced. Our interest in training Civil Society on the use of the FOI Act is aimed at deepening their understanding of the provisions and applications of the Act to enable them apply same effectively. Government is not usually too responsive to the citizens. One of the tools to hold the government accountable is the FOI Act. We are committed to enhancing citizens’ capacity on FOI Act to increase their participation in governance, with a view to ensuring that transparency is a culture in Nigeria’s public institutions.”

Impressed by the impact of the engagements so far, Giwa stressed: “Available statistics show that some of the civil society actors in the states we have trained are already using the law. This is very encouraging. Reports we are getting from Kano State, for instance are very encouraging. It shows the quality of engagement; but we are not there yet. We want to start seeing the outcome of those FOI requests and positive responses from public institutions.”

Continuing, she stressed that “low knowledge and application of the FOI Act is as a result of opaqueness of government. If government is open, it should even be promoting the FOI act. The ongoing training is timely. The approach of ROLAC is also very good. Training public institutions alongside civil society is a brilliant approach, so they are on the same page. A lot of awareness still needs to be created.”

She however advised civil society actors in Nigeria to remain steadfast in their efforts in speaking for the people.

In another development, as part of its support towards ensuring openness in public service and effective citizens’ participation in governance, the Strengthening Citizens’ Resistance Against Prevalence of Corruption - SCRAP-C Project organised a 3-day training (in three different locations) for civil society organisations and citizens in Nigeria on the use of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011.

The first phase of the training was held in three locations: Lagos (for south-west participants), Uyo (for south-south participants) and Enugu (for south east participants). The training was carefully designed to build the capacity of participants to have a working knowledge of the purpose, provisions, application and benefits of the FOI Act. It was further intended that at the end of the training, participants drawn from across the Southeast, South-South and South Western states of Nigeria, were empowered with enhanced capacity in the use of the FOI Act. It was aimed at deepening participants’ understanding of the law.

The training was delivered by four resource persons: Newton Otsemaye, Project Manager, SCRAP-C; Chairman, Board of Governors, Freedom of Information Coalition, Nigeria and Executive Director, Media Initiative against Injustice, Violence and Corruption-MIIVOC, Dr. Walter Duru; Dr. Tope Olaifa of Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta and Mr. Ezenwa Nwagwu of ‘Say No Campaign’.

Speaking on the relevance of the training, SCRAP-C Project Manager, Newton Otsemaye explains:

“SCRAP-C is interested in enhancing the capacity of civil society to participate actively in the anti-corruption war. The FOI Act is a veritable tool for the citizens to hold the government accountable. The idea is that ensuring that the citizens understand the provisions and application of the FOI Act is one sure way of increasing their participation by asking relevant questions regarding government activities. We are interested in ensuring that the citizens take advantage of the FOI Act to make the government more accountable.”

The SCRAP-C project is a 5-year UKaid supported project through the Anti-Corruption in Nigeria (ACORN) Programme. The project seeks to address corruption through change in social norms and attitudes that encourage corruption in Nigeria. The project is managed by a consortium of three National Civil Society Organisations: ActionAid Nigeria, Centre for Democracy and Development, and Centre for Communication and Social Impact.

With the great efforts of ROLAC and SCRAP-C in FOI implementation, donor agencies have shown that they are indeed interested in the development of Nigeria by supporting initiatives that will open up government to the citizens.

ROLAC, in addition to operating at the federal capital-Abuja, has four focal states of Adamawa, Kano, Lagos and Anambra. SCRAP-C has six states- Akwa Ibom, Bornu, Enugu, Kaduna, Kano/Jigawa and Lagos. Other donor agencies should quickly take steps to support the spread of the message of the FOI Act to other parts of the federation.

Citizens must therefore take advantage of the FOI Act to participate in governance, hold the government accountable and secure the future of the citizens yet unborn.

Until citizens own the anti corruption war, it may not go far. One sure instrument for an effective war against corruption in Nigeria is the FOI Act. All Nigerians must therefore embrace it, take advantage of it and participate in the business of governance.

Public Institutions/office holders themselves must realize that they manage the people’s resources on trust. Any government that claims to have the interest of the citizens at heart must therefore support the vigorous implementation of Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act.

A culture of transparency and accountability in governance is the surest solution to Nigeria’s woes. This, the FOI Act can achieve. No genuine anti-corruption war can be won without the vigorous implementation of the FOI Act.

Let’s implement it NOW!

*Contributed by Walter Duru, PhD

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