Media Rights Agenda (MRA) today named the Ministry of Defence as the 70th inductee into its “Freedom of Information (FOI) Hall of Shame”, accusing the Ministry of refusing to submit itself to civilian oversight by failing to abide by its duties and obligations under a democratically enacted Law.
In a statement in Lagos, Mr. Ayode Longe, MRA’s Programme Director, told the Ministry that the mere fact that its functions touch on security and defence matters does not exempt it from the requirements of transparency and accountability, adding that as a public institution, it is bound to comply with and fully implement the FOI Act, 2011.
Established on October 1, 1958, the Ministry of Defence is tasked with overseeing the defence profile of Nigeria from the perspective of the Armed Forces. The Ministry supervises the Defence Headquarters and the Services namely, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force as well as the Tri-Services Institutions/Parastatals.
MRA accused the Ministry of not submitting itself to democratically enacted laws by its failure to comply with the duties and obligations imposed on it by the FOI Act as a public institution.
Mr. Longe noted that contrary to the spirit and letters of Section 2(3) and (4) of the FOI Act, the Ministry has failed to proactively publish the categories of information and records that the Act requires it, as a public institution, to publish and disseminate even without members of the public first requesting the information.
According to him, having failed to proactively publish these categories of information and records as required by the Act, the Ministry is also clearly in breach of its obligation under Section 2(5) of the Act to periodically review and regularly update the information whenever changes occur.
Mr. Longe observed that the Ministry has only submitted just one annual FOI implementation report to the Attorney-General of the Federation in the last seven years out of a total of seven reports that it ought to have submitted by February 1, 2018, adding that the Ministry has also neither published nor disseminated any such report to the public through any of the media that the FOI Act requires all public institutions and other government agencies covered by the Act to disseminate their annual FOI implementation reports.
He stressed that by reason of this failure, the Ministry has been in persistent violation of Section 29 (1) and (2) of the Act as well as the Guidelines on the Implementation of the FOI Act issued by the Attorney General of the Federation pursuant to his powers under the Act.
He said with the Ministry’s persistent failure to submit its annual FOI implementation report, there is no publicly available record of the level of its responsiveness to requests from members of the public for information, particularly the number of applications for information that it received and the number of such applications that it processed as well as how many requests for information it has granted or denied over the years if at all.
Mr. Longe accused the Ministry of also failing to designate any official to receive and process applications for information under the Act, saying no information about such an official is available on the Ministry’s website or in the Database of contact details of FOI Desk Officers compiled and published by the Federal Ministry of Justice.
He said: “It would seem that these acts of defiance by the Ministry, including its failure to designate any of its officials as FOI Desk Officer, its refusal to train its staff and officials on the public’s right of access to information and for the effective implementation of the Act, among others, are intended to enable the Ministry to distance itself from the public and shield its activities from public scrutiny by making the public believe that because its functions touch on security and defence, the public cannot seek information from it. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Mr. Longe noted that one of the consequences of the Ministry’s decision to be overly secretive in virtually all aspects of its activities, operations and businesses is that it is unable to win public trust, confidence and support, adding that it is of vital importance that the military and the Nigerian Defence sector are able to carry citizens and residents along, particularly at a time like this when the military is engaged in a prolonged battle against Boko Haram insurgents in the North-East.
He argued that in the face of recurrent allegations of misapplication, embezzlement or even outright looting of public funds meant for security and defence matters, coupled with frequent reports of poor funding of the military, including non-payment of salaries and allowances to troops as well as claims that soldiers engaged in the battle against Boko Haram insurgents are not properly equipped for the task, it is only by being transparent and accountable that the military can gain the confidence and cooperation of members of the public in that enterprise.
This will necessarily entail better compliance with the provisions of the FOI Act as well as better systems and practices for information disclosure to the public.”
Mr. Longe called on the Ministry to demonstrate its respect for the concept of civilian oversight of the military by complying with all its duties and obligations under the FOI Act.
To this end, he said, the Ministry should designate and train an official to oversee the implementation of the FOI Act; it should proactively publish and widely disseminate all the categories of information that the FOI Act requires it to publish; it should clear its backlog of unsubmitted annual reports to the Attorney-General of the Federation and ensure that in future, it submits such annual FOI implementation reports every year as soon as they become due.
MRA launched the “FOI Hall of Shame” in July 2017 to draw attention to public officials and institutions that are undermining the effectiveness of the FOI Act through their actions, inactions, utterances and decisions.