Excerpts from the “Building Stepping Stones for Promoting Good Governance and Democracy in Kaduna State”.

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  1. 1.  Training Session on the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), 2011. (FOI Thematic Area); November 2012.

This training was aimed at introducing the FOI to participants who are media practitioners and CBOs/CSOs activists so as to promote openness in the public spheres, especially at the LGA where government is closest to the people. 

The facilitator started the session by asking the following questions:

What is FOI?

Who is it meant for?

How many people have seen the document or employed it to seek for information?

Below is a summary of responses from the participants:

The FOI is a document that guarantees access to information by all. It is aimed to promote transparency and accountability in governance. However none of the participants have used the FOI since its coming into being.

Having set the stage with the above questions and the response that ensued, the Facilitator made the participants to know that the FOI Act (2011) is a universal principle aimed promoting, accountability, openness, transparency and responsiveness in the public sector, particularly as it relates to governance process.  According to the Facilitator, “the underlying philosophy of Freedom of Information is aptly captured by Article IV(i) of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa which states that:

Public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good and everyone has a right to access this information, subject only to clearly defined rules established by law.

Speaking further, he said the Freedom of Information refers to “the right, which members of the public in any society have, to access information held by government officials & institutions. It is a fundamental human right established under international Law. All citizens of any country & indeed all human beings are entitled to enjoy this right.”

Giving a brief history of the FOI, the Facilitator said the quest for its becoming a law started since the return of democracy to Nigeria but only succeeded in becoming a law in 2011 when the present President accented to it after it has been passed by the National Assembly. Speaking further, he said the Act is not for the media alone as it is often misconstrued most of the time. The FOI Act gives every person a legally enforceable right of access to records, documents & information held by public institutions, subject to certain exemptions stated in the Act. Like many of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution, it applies to both Nigerian citizens & non-citizens alike.

 

Key Features of the FOI Act (2011)

  • The FOI Act gives every person a legally enforceable right of access to records, documents & information held by public institutions, subject to certain exemptions stated in the Act.
  • Like many of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution, it applies to both Nigerian citizens & non-citizens alike.
  • The types of information covered by the Act include all records, documents and information stored in whatever form, including written, electronic, visual images, sound, audio recording, etc and are all potentially accessible to the public under the Act, unless the information is specifically exempted by the Act e.g. for security purposes. However, where there is an overriding public interest involved, even exempted information may be disclosed.
  • Public institutions are required to proactively publish certain types of information through prints, electronic, online means and to regularly update the information.
  • In addition to public institutions, the Act also covers private entities performing public functions, providing public services or utilizing public funds.
  • The Act makes it mandatory for public institutions to record and keep information about their activities, operations, businesses and maintain the information in a manner that facilitates public access to the information. 
  • An applicant should ordinarily receive the information he or she is requesting for within seven days. An applicant who is refused access to information can apply to a court to review the refusal. The court has the power to examine any record under the control of a public institution to determine if it falls within the exemptions in the law.
  • The Act creates two (2) offences. The first is wrongful denial of access to information with N500, 000 fine as sanction; and the second is for any officer of a public institution to wilfully destroy or falsify any records before releasing the record to any person applying for it. It prescribes a minimum of one year imprisonment for the offence.
  • The Attorney-General of the Federation has broad oversight of public institutions in the implementation of the Act. The Attorney-General is required to file annual reports to the National Assembly on how the Law is being implemented and complied with.
  • The FOI supersedes the Official Secrets Act, the Evidence Act, the Criminal Code, the Penal Code, the Federal Public Service Rules, etc as they cannot be used to limit its scope or application.
  • Access to records & documents is not free. But the fees that can be charged are limited to standard charges for the duplication of documents and for transcription, where it is necessary to transcribe the information.

 

Implications of the FOI Act for CSOs’ and Media works

  • The FOI Act will change the way we do our work as CSO activists and media practitioners. Prior to the enactment of the Act, a major challenge for those monitoring budgets, resource utilization, etc was lack of information. Without access to information, effective monitoring is hardly possible. The FOI Act can change this drastically. We now have the real opportunity to get the information we require to effectively monitor budgets and the utilization of our national resources.
  • Using the Law, we can approach virtually any public institution and in some cases, private bodies, to request the information that is relevant for our work.
  • If the Law works well, we should be able to get the information within 7 days on average.

 

How can the implementation of the FOI Act be monitored?

The monitoring of the implementation of the FOI ACT is the duty of all and can be done in many ways like:

  • The submission of requests for information to public institutions and private entities covered by the Act as well as documenting experiences on how much they satisfy the requirements of the Law.
  • The assessment of the level of compliance by public institutions with various actions mandated by the Law and issuing reports on the findings.
  • The types of institutions we need to engage with to release the information we need, all of which fall within the ambit of the FOI Act. The institutions include: public institutions, which is defined as any legislative, executive, judicial, administrative or advisory body of the government, including boards, bureaux, committees or commissions and any subsidiary body, including their committees and sub-committees which are supported wholly or partly by public funds or which expend public funds; private entities that are performing public functions, private entities that are providing public services and private entities that are utilizing       public funds.

What can be monitored?

  •  All public institutions and private bodies covered by the FOI Act have certain obligations under the Act and some of these bodies are specifically mandated by the Act e.g. the office of the Attorney General of the Federation.
  • Others, while not specifically mandated by the Act, will be necessary for them to process requests for information efficiently.
  • We can monitor compliance with these obligations.

 

Obligations of Public Institutions under the FOI Act

  • Every public institution must ensure that it records and keeps every information about all its activities, personnel, operations, businesses and other relevant or related information or record - Sections 2(1) & 9(1). They must also ensure the proper organization and maintenance of all information in their custody in a manner that facilitate public access to such information. – Sections 2(2) and 9(2).
  • Every public institution should designate an officer to be in charge of public requests
  • S. 2(3)(f) requires every public institution to publish the Title and Address of the appropriate Officer to whom an application for information under the Act should be sent.
  • But the failure to publish this information will not negatively affect the public’s right to access information in its custody.
  • Every public institution is required to ensure the provision of appropriate training for its officials in the following areas: on the public’s right of access to information or records held by government or public institutions and on the effective implementation of the Act.
  • Public institutions need to establish basic rules and procedures for submitting requests for information and giving responses. The rules may include mandatory registration of applications for information and the issuance of receipts to applicants for every application. Such receipts may include the registration number, the date of submission of the application, the name and contact details of the applicant and the information requested.
  • Public institutions may wish to develop an Application Form for those seeking information. The Form may require the applicant to provide the following information: name, surname and title of the applicant, address phone/fax number(s), E-mail address, profession/occupation, description of the information sought, the form in which the information is required, any other information which it may require for analysis of users of the Act.
  • An applicant should not be required to state any reason(s) why s/he needs the information being applied for. – Section 1(2)
    • Also an official to whom an applicant makes an oral application for information is required to reduce the application into writing & give a copy to the applicant. – Section 3(4).
    • Public institutions and relevant private bodies must respond to applications within seven (7) days. The responses may be:
  1. i.         Where it decides to deny the application, a written notice to the applicant that access to all or part of the information will not be granted, with reasons for the denial and the section of the Act under which the denial is made. – Section 4(b)
  2. ii.        Where part or all of the application is refused, the notice must include the grounds for the refusal, the provision of the Act that it relies on. It must also state that the applicant has a right to challenge the refusal in Court. – Section 7(1)
  3. iii.       The notice must contain the names, designation and signature of each person responsible for the refusal.
  4. iv.        The institution must also indicate in the notice whether the information or record applied for actually exists. – Section 7(3)
  5. v.         The response of the public institution may also be to make the information available to the applicant. – Section 4(a)
  6. vi.       The information should be made available in the form the applicant requested.
  • The institution may extend the 7-day time limit by not more than 7 more days; if:

 i. The application is for voluminous records and meeting the original time            limit would disrupt its operations – Section 6(a); or

  1. ii.         Consultations are necessary to comply with the application & these    cannot be completed within the original time limit. - Section 6(b)
  • If a public institution receives an application and it is of the view that another public institution has greater interest in the information, it may within 3 days but not later than 7 days after the application is received, transfer it and if necessary, the information, to the other institution. In such a case, the institution must give a written notice of the transfer to the applicant.
  • Where the institution fails to give access to the information applied for within the time limit set in the Act, the institution is deemed to have refused to give access. – Section 7(4).
  • Where a case of wrongful denial of access is established, the defaulting officer or institution shall on conviction be liable to a fine of N500, 000. – Section 7(5).

 

Conclusion

The Freedom of Information Act 2011 is a powerful tool every citizen particularly CSOs and media practitioners now have in their hands to make their work of the fourth estate of the realm much easier. It took a long time to have it passed into a law. We must therefore now take advantage of it to make a difference in our works and change our country and general society for the better. It is hoped that participants will begin to use the new knowledge acquired to engage with their elected representatives especially at the LGAs.

 

Group Work

The participants were divided into three groups and requested to write a sample letter to any ministry, department and private corporation on Access to Information of planning meeting for the purchase of 250 laptops for the senior officers. Copies of the decisions and the award letter containing details for the procurement. This was done by the different groups and their presentations were made during plenary. Comments and critiquing were done on the presentations after which the Facilitator rounded off the session by showing the participants a draft sample letter.

A question was posed on whether there is need for the state Assemblies to domesticate the law bearing in mind that the law makers at the national assembly that passed the law are elected from the states; and the need to take a cue from Ekiti state that has already domesticated the law. The response was that there shouldn’t be any need for domestication because any law made by the National Assembly is binding on all the federating units of the nation, however, because of the peculiarities in the federating states’ laws regarding different issues like income generation, financial management etc the need for domestication is encouraged so that state governments will not be able to shy away from any request being tendered to them, using the FOI Act.

The participants appreciated the session for its in-depth and thorough analysis of the FOI which has simplified it for easy understanding and usage. 


2.     Training Session on organizing Town Hall Meetings (Good Governance Thematic Area)

The Facilitator who anchored this session commenced by asking the participants to do a mental map of their communities and identify the various stakeholders and resources found in them and then determine how well these stakeholders and resources have been utilized or otherwise for the development of their respective communities. Subsequently a one – page questionnaire titled “Individual Perspective of Community Assessment Tool: What I know about my Community” was given to all the participants to fill. The questionnaire has a set of questions and three variables viz:

  1. “True”
  2. “Don’t know”
  3. “False”

The participants were asked to grade each question and the count the number of “True”, “Don’t know” and “False” they scored. Anybody that scored 13 and above knows his/community well; between 8 and 12 is good and below 8 is not good enough and so the person need to begin to know his/her community better and better.

This exercise prepared the stage for the session following which the facilitator gave the meaning of Town Hall Meeting as “an informal public meeting that gives the members (stakeholders) of a community an opportunity to get together to discuss emerging issues and to voice concerns and preferences for their community.” It can also be seen as a medium for mobilizing community members (residents and those in diaspora) to bring about community development. According to the facilitator, this can only come to be when a higher number of the people are interested in the community’s advancement.  

Why the Need for Town Hall Meetings?

Before citing some of the reasons why communities should organise Town Hall Meeting, the Facilitator asked a question that “if powdered pepper was thrown into the air in a room where a fan has been turned on, what would happen?” The consensus answer from the participants was that everybody in the room will be affected because the fan will spread the pepper everywhere. The Facilitator then said that so also are the issues of development in any community. If there is no platform like Town Hall Meeting for identifying issues and tackling/addressing them at the onset, such issues easily spread like the powdered pepper and then begin to affect the people adversely. He then went ahead to list the following as some of the reasons why communities need to organise Town Hall Meetings: 

—  It helps inform the citizens about emerging issues.

—  It gauges where a community stands.

—  Provides platform for communities to identify problems and jointly implement/proffer solutions to the problems.

—  It provides the platform for the rest of the community members to know about the issue first hand.

—  It helps communities to pass on their messages across to the public by generating news and media coverage.

—  It helps in jump starting local advocacy efforts/initiatives.

—  It helps in identifying the people that can be involved/consulted so as to bring about the advancement of the community and for future activities.

 

How to Organizing a Town Hall Meeting

According to the Facilitator, the following are some of the useful tips required by any community group or association to be able to organise/host a successful Town Hall Meeting:

—  Appoint/nominate a Planning Committee

—  Understand the unique characteristics and stakeholders of the community

—  Identify objectives why you are organising the Town Hall Meeting

—  Determine the format of the Town Hall Meeting (whether Open or Representative)

—  Outline the logistic needs, choose the venue time and date, identify and invite panellists, Moderator/facilitator, prepare panellists/media spokes people, prepare materials for on – the - site distribution, promote the Town Hall Meeting before the scheduled date and involve the media as much as possible.

—  Dialoguing is paramount and violence should never be encouraged or permitted.

—  Need to recognize the individuals/groups’ voices. As much as possible “voice” must be given to the “voiceless”

—  100% participation should be encouraged

—  Decide on next steps after each Town Hall Meeting has ended.

The Facilitator concluded that in organizing Town Hall Meeting, the organizers must note the following:

—  Emerging issues

—  Where the community stands

—  New messages for new situations/developments

—  Generation of news and media coverage

—  Jump starting/loop local advocacy efforts. This enables community to link up previous processes to new ones and carrying the process beyond the current one thus encouraging improvements instead of hiccups.

—  Identify people to be involved in organization’s/community’s future activities

—  Keeping minutes of the Town Hall Meeting

—  Disseminate previous minutes

—  Where possible issuing publications to the larger community members than just the people that attended the Town Hall Meeting for the purpose of Mass feedback.

 

Building Teams for Community Development

According to the Facilitator, in determining who is made to be a part of the Community Development Committee, the following should be considered:

—  Who is willing/capable?

—  Who is available?

—  Who can be encouraged to participate?

—  Who will work without remuneration?

—  Who needs some form of compensation?

—  Who commands authority?

—  Who do others refer to for direction?

—  Who gets the job done?

—  Who seems to know everybody and everywhere?

—  Who works easily with more people? (Avoid spark plugs!!!)

To drive home essence of team building in community development, the Facilitator told the story of a community where he inspired a young man to mobilise the entire community to rebuild a bridge that was fallen by an articulated vehicle. According to the Facilitator, after the young man got inspired and fired up for the work, he volunteered himself in mobilising the community members and the resources needed for the work and with series of advocacies to the Local Government Authority (LGA), an expert was despatched for the Works Department of the LGA who provided the technical expertise and eventually, the bridge was rebuilt.

 

Group Work

Participants were then divided into two groups to role play Town Hall Meeting sessions. After each group has finished presenting their role plays, a general discussion of: what went well?, what went wrong?, and what can be improved upon? followed. This helped the participants to discover in a practical way, the tit bits for organising successful Town Hall Meetings.

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