Concerned by the level of corruption in the education sector and its effect on the standards, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and others stakeholders in the country have advocated for the use of Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in tackling the issue.
The stakeholders declared that without free access to information in the sector, the campaign against corruption would only amount to mere policy without implementation.
They submitted that the cardinal purpose for which the FOI Act was passed is to enable the public to access certain government information in order to aid their knowledge and also to know their right.
Besides, the stakeholders agreed that the Act contained far-reaching provisions capable of transforming the culture of secrecy in governance, especially, in the education sector that has, until now, been existing in Nigeria.
SERAP, which led other stakeholders and Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos (UNILAG). Prof. Ayo Atsenuwa, who was the guest speaker at a public hearing tagged: “Building the Capacity of Citizens on the use of the FOI Act as a Tool for Promoting Transparency and Accountability in the Education Sector in Nigeria” made this known recently.
The FOI Act is a law that guarantees the right to information within the control of public institutions to all Nigerians, regardless of age, class, or occupation. It effectively gives the ‘right to know’ to every Nigerian.
Section 1 of the FOI empowers a person to request information from a government institution whether he has a reason for requesting such information or not provided such information is not one excluded under the Act for national interest. This right is enforceable in court if the requested information is not provided within seven days of making the request.
The Act also makes it compulsory for public institutions to keep records of their activities. This is meant to enable public access to these records, thus encouraging transparency. The FOI Act was signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan on May 28, 2011.
In his address, Mr Adetokunbo Mumuni, Executive Director of SERAP said that the aim of the public hearing was to bring together citizens who are affected by the poor delivery of public services particularly in the education sector in the country.
“The public hearing also aims to encourage and sensitise the citizens on how they can deploy the FOI Act as a tool for promoting transparency and accountability in the education sector.
“The complaints received at the public hearing as well as the conclusions and recommendations will be sent to anti-corruption agencies and other appropriate agencies and authorities,” Mumuni said.
The guest speaker, Prof. Atsenuwa, called for training of government officials on the knowledge of FOI Act. According to her, the culture of secrecy of government information has become entrenched among both public servants and the Nigerian public.
“The culture of secrecy makes the notion of public scrutiny an alien concept. As such, changing the mindset of public officers and even private sector managers from a culture of secrecy to openness remains the biggest roadblock to implementing the FOI Act.
“There are lots of obstacles affecting the implementation of the FOI Act including lack of political will and non-domestication of the act at the state level”, she said. .
Prof. Atsenuwa said Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution recognises the right to Freedom of Expression and that the FOI Act was enacted by government, in furtherance of that section of the Constitution.
“No public official has a right to argue against the FOI Act.There should be training for directors in government institutions and a debriefing. A debriefing is necessary because most of them were brought up on a diet of official secrets.
“Now, any person can request for information under the FOI Act, such application for information can be written or oral. There is now a paradigm shift, those who want to keep information must now show cause why they wanted to withhold information,” she said.
Atsenuwa said government has a duty to ensure press freedom and assure the citizenry of access to information held by government officials and institutions.
She, however, noted that information may be refused if it will be injurious, affect the public interest or interfere with law enforcement proceedings.