Official secrets and corruption were proclaimed to to be a thing of the past with the enactment of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which ensures right of access to public records and information for all individuals. Individuals now have the right to request public records and information, and institutions be more transparent in their functioning and business.

But secrets remain secrets if they are left unquestioned. Asking questions of public institutions and taking full advantage of the FOI Act is instrumental in reducing corruption and encouraging accountability. 

The Attorney General’s Implementation Reports for the years 2011-14 show that many of the institutions did not receive any requests for information in a whole fiscal year. In 2014, as many as 40% of institutions did not receive any FOI requests. Over 500 institutions did not submit a report and reports of others who did show that no requests have been made. For example, the Debt Management Office, the Ministry of Police Affairs, and the National Security Adviser.

FOI as a tool

Transparency in government works in direct opposition to corruption, and the FOI Act is a tool that can be used to facilitate and encourage good transparent practice in public institutions. As Nigeria returned to democratic rule, corruption was rife in the country, which was ranked as the most corrupt or second most corrupt country in the world from 1999 to 2004. In 2013 it dropped on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) to 33rd place, but there is still room for improvement and the FOI Act can help in this regard.

The FOI Act is a tool for individuals to hold public institutions accountable. Information on the salaries of politicians and expenditure of public offices is now available for any individual to request and if it is a matter of public interest then it will most likely be accepted. Public interest is not an easy concept to define but it refers to the good of society and the well-being of its members. Openness and transparency of the business of public bodies and protecting the privacy of individuals are both examples of public interest factors.

People are free to request all sorts of information, including the substantive rules of the institution; and the names, salaries, titles and dates of employment of all employees. Certain information is also more readily available than previously, for example the publications of funds, tenders and government procurement, were released by the Federal Ministry of Finance

Policing the police

The Ministry of Police Affairs has received zero requests for information since the FOI Act came into being in 2011, which is surprising for a sector that is strongly perceived by the public to be corrupt. The FOI Act here acts as a means for citizens to police the police. 

While it is stated in the FOI Act that a public institution may deny an application made about ‘by any law enforcement or correctional agency’, a request for this information will not be denied in the case where ‘public interest’ in disclosing information outweighs whatever injury that disclosure would cause.

To bring the police force, and other arms of government, out of secrecy and corruption: we need individuals to unearth the secrets and expose the corruption, by asking questions and holding institutions accountable.