National Summit on the Freedom of Information Bill
(Valencia Hotel, Abuja - August 2 & 3, 2005)
A two-day National Summit on the Freedom of Information Bill was held at the Valencia Hotel, Abuja on Tuesday, August 2 and Wednesday, August 3, 2005. It was organized by the Freedom of Information Coalition, in collaboration with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and was sponsored by ActionAid International Nigeria (AAIN) with funding from the European Commission.
The Summit brought together 61 participants, drawn from various government anti-corruption agencies, other government departments and agencies, the security and intelligence services, civil society organizations, and the media.
The objectives of the Summit were:
To engage in further consultations, especially with persons in the public sector, to ensure the emergence an effective Freedom of Information Act for the country.
To provide a platform to formally introduce the Bill to top-level government officials and staff of anti-corruption agencies who may not have had sufficient information about it;
To provide a platform for an intensive appraisal of the Bill and thereby ensure that participants, especially in the public sector, have a better understanding of its purpose;
To examine how a Freedom of Information regime will positively impact on the Federal Government's anti-corruption campaign;
To address issues and fears which participants from the various government agencies might have about the Bill;
To map out strategies for ensuring the passage of the Bill at the National Assembly and for it to receive presidential assent subsequently; and
To initiate a discussion on a plan of action for the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, when it finally becomes law.
The opening ceremony of the Summit was chaired by the Honourable Minister for Solid Minerals Development, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, while the keynote address was delivered by the Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, Mr. Bukhari Bello.
After an Overview of the Freedom of Information Bill, the Summit examined in plenary sessions the following topics:
"The Facts and Fallacies - FOI Act as an Instrument of Anti-Corruption and Transparency";
· "FOI Regime, the People and the Anti-corruption Campaign", with specific focus on its impact on the work of the National Human Rights Commission, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission
· "Between the Code of Conduct Bureau and Code of Conduct Tribunal: Building Synergy for Effective Anti-Corruption"
· "Strategies for Building Partnership between Civil Society and Government Agencies in the Implementation of a Freedom of Information Regime in Nigeria."
Participants at the Summit observed as follows:
· That the denial of access to the information and the attendant widespread ignorance in the society does more harm to the society than any harm that could possibly arise from granting access to members of the public.
· That access to information would enhance the development of any nation and stressed that there was therefore a pressing need for a Freedom of Information Act in Nigeria and that the law would be of great benefit to all sectors of the society.
· That a Freedom of Information law would place enormous responsibility on those who hold information and administer the freedom of information regime as well as those requesting information to manage information responsibly.
· That a Freedom of Information law will complement the President Obasanjo's avowed commitment to stamping out corruption in Nigeria, which he has described as the bane of the nation, and in particular, will assist various government agencies such as the National Human Rights Commission, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Code of Conduct Bureau and Code of Conduct Tribunal, as well as security and other law enforcement agencies, in the performance of their functions.
· That a Freedom of Information law will enhance the speedy dispensation of justice, especially when complemented with a Whistleblowers Act. This is because the law will facilitate the investigation of cases by law enforcement agencies and make it possible to secure the cooperation of witnesses.
· That the law would strengthen the democratic process as it will make it possible for citizens to hold the government accountable and be involved in all facets of policy formulation and implementation.
· That the Bill will trigger a number of social changes which will be a catalyst for more rapid social and economic development.
That there was a growing lack of capacity for rigorous advocacy and playing of watchdog functions among civil society organizations, which are also important sectors in ensuring effective implementation of a freedom of information law.
The participants therefore endorsed the Freedom of Information Bill and resolved as follows:
· That the National Assembly should pass the Bill as quickly as possible, while the President should also assent to it, when it is passed by the National Assembly.
In anticipation of the passage of the Bill and the need to ensure its effective implementation, efforts should be made to engage the planning, research and statistics department of virtually all ministries, parastatals and commissions to make them aware of what is expected of them when the Bill becomes law and how to respond to request for public information that are in their custody. This is because by the nature of their functions, they are the repositories of information concerning the workings of their agencies.
That efforts should be made to address the capacity problems of both government agencies and civil society organizations, which could undermine the effective implementation of a Freedom of Information law in Nigeria, as there is a particularly level of capacity deficit among some government institutions in the area of generation and storage of basic information about their activities. The capacity issues in government also include infrastructural prerequisites in the area of Information and Communication Technologies, adequate training and manpower development, funding constraints, literacy level, commitment to change, etc.
· That the record-keeping practices of the public service at various levels of government should be reformed to make them more efficient and effective and thereby ensure that requests for access to information can be processed speedily.
In order to ensure effective implementation of a Freedom of Information law, there is a need for an administrative body to be charged with overseeing the implementation of the proposed law. It was agreed that the National Human Rights Commission is best placed to play this role, but needs to be capacitated for the effective discharge of this function.
That the body charged with overseeing the implementation of the proposed law should be continuously engaged by civil society to monitor its performance in the discharge of this function. To this end, civil society organizations should consider the possibility of transforming the platforms that were used in ensuring the passage of the bill to play this role.
That there should be continuous engagement of government institutions and agencies to address their concerns in order to reduce resistance to the Bill, wherever it might exist.