BACKGROUND OF THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUEST IN NIGERIA
Nigeria’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was passed into law on May 28 2011 by President Goodluck Jonathan, after the longest legislative (11years) debate in the history of Nigeria.
The Freedom of Information Act gives everyone the right to request information, whether or not contained in any written form which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever described. The person requesting the information does not need to show any specific interest in the information or justify his/her reasons for making the request.
WHAT INFORMATION CAN BE REQUESTED?
The Freedom of Information Act provides that individuals have a right to request any recorded information held by a public authority. Recorded information isn’t restricted to information that is in written form, but also information or records that do not exist in print but can by regulation be produced from a machine.
WHO CAN YOU MAKE A REQUEST TO?
Sections 1 and 2 of the FOI Act establish the right of any person to apply for information or Records in the possession of a public institution.
You may request the information or record from any public official, agency or institution. The FOI Act does not ordinarily apply to private bodies (e.g. private companies, NGOs, etc.)
ARE THEIR INFORMATION THAT ARE EXEMPTED FROM THE PUBLIC?
YES. These Exemptions under the Act are covered by Sections 11-19, (excluding section 13). These Exemptions cover:-
- International Affairs and Defense
- Law Enforcement and Investigation
- Personal Information
- Professional and Others
- Course or Research materials
HOW CAN I MAKE A REQUEST?
You can either request an FOI request orally or in writing.
Orally- An applicant may make an oral request to an authorized official of a government or public institution, who must then reduce the application into writing and provide a copy of the written application to the applicant.
In writing- It can be through a 3rd part. For Illiterate or disabled applicants who by virtue of their illiteracy or disability are unable to make an application for access to information or, they may make their application through a third party.
IS A REQUEST FREE OF CHARGE?
The only charges for a request are limited to standard charges for document duplication and Fees transcription where necessary.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER A REQUEST IS MADE?
The Law provides that the public institution must make the information available within 7 days of receiving the request. Failure to give access to the information requested for, within the timelines provided by the Act is deemed as a refusal of access.
WHEN CAN MY APPLICATION BE REFUSED?
A refusal can only be valid when the information requested for falls under the information exempted from the public.
However, an application for information shall not be denied where the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs whatever injury that disclosure would cause.
Also, Section 20 of the Act provides for judicial review where information is denied
WHAT HAPPENS IF MY REQUEST IS REFUSED?
Any applicant, who has been denied access to information, or a part thereof, may apply to the Court for a review of the matter within 30 days after the public institution denies or is deemed to have denied the application.
The applications to the court are heard summarily. This is to ensure the prompt and expeditious disposal of the case. If the court finds that the request should not have been denied, the defaulting officer or institution commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N500, 000. Further, the court will order that the information be released as per the request.
It is also a criminal offence punishable on conviction by the Court with a minimum of 1 year imprisonment for any officer or head of any government or public institution to which this Act applies to willfully destroy any records kept in his custody or attempt to doctor or otherwise alter same before releasing the information.
CHALLENGES SO FAR?
The cardinal challenge lies in implementation. Different tiers of Nigerian government are known for making good laws and policies without implementation. Other challenges include:
- Entrenched Culture of Secrecy
- Poor record keeping practices and infrastructure.
- Low level of implementation and public awareness of the FOI Act
- Inadequate public knowledge of the FOI Act
- Absence of a Federal Information Commissioner.