How Weak Edo Response to FOI Requests Undermine Open Governance

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku
Open Government Partnership

One of the states in Nigeria with a strong record of as a champion of transparency and accountability in the conduct of governance was Edo. Just two years after the Federal government signed on to the Open Government Partnership, OGP, in the UK, Edo made serious attempts to domesticate that international treaty by creating an OGP office. Edo mandated her Attorney-General and commissioner of Justice during Mr Obaseki’s first term as governor to set up a ‘co-chair’, ‘co-creation’ mechanism where civil society and stakeholders were to be ‘carried along’ the governance value chain. The pertinent thematic areas that the Edo government appeared to be interested in included access to information, fiscal responsibility, zero corruption, and citizen engagement. Edo also enacted a procurement law in 2012, and to demonstrate how much the state attached to the political dynamism at the intersections of governance, Edo revised that law in 2020.

Edo people are therefore bewildered and shocked that a state with these strong credentials scores very low when it comes to how she responds to requests for information from Edo residents and stakeholders. For instance, in 2021 alone, we sent up to nine FOI requests to Edo public institutions, and to public officials in Edo state. Two of those requests were to a foreign government over funds allegedly stolen by an Edo person and stashed in Canada; one was to the EFCC over the same matter, the other to the Edo State Public Procurement Agency, EDPPA, the Ministry of Energy and Electricity, another to the VC of the University of Benin and its Registrar. There were several to the Secretary to Edo State Government Osarodion Ogie, and lastly to a private individual seeking a contract with the Edo state government.

Of these institutions, only the EFCC, the EDPPA and the Canadian government responded. The matter we wanted the EFCC office in Benin to verify was information published by an online medium.  But quickly referring us to Section 12 of the FOI, the EFCC alleged that our request would possibly undermine the investigation, unwittingly verifying that indeed an investigation was ongoing on the matter. The Canadian embassy in Abuja also adopted the EFCC strategy.  Responding to our FOI, told us that all the officials who would have provided the info we needed concerning their complicity or otherwise with funds stolen from Nigeria being stashed in their country under Justin Trudeau’s watch had been flown home to Canada to escape Covid 19. After our story was published though, they eventually came out with policy against some of the issues our application sought information on.

It is difficult at this point to say categorically that responses to FOI requests by Edo public institutions are perfunctory.  This is because in seeking information from the EDPPA concerning award of contracts for the lighting of the Airport Road in Benin City, the EDPPA responded within the stipulated time frame, and provided useful information concerning the contract. Part of the information that the EDPPA provided us in our request not only helped us to direct our inquiry in the right direction, but it also helped to  identify who was responsible for the darkness on the Airport Road in Benin City.

But many other public institutions in Edo state have not been as willing to respond to FOI requests. For instance in June 2020, we submitted FOI requests to authorities at the University of Benin, in Edo state. Upon the expiration of time frame stipulated by the FOI, we followed up with phone calls to authorities in this institution. But no deal, and mum has been the word ever since. Not only UNIBEN but the Ministry of Energy and Electricity, the NEWMAP office in Benin City, the Secretary to the Edo State Government and several others.

What pervades in many circumstances in Edo state is a paddy-paddy-who-know-man style of providing information. What this means is that rather than get a response to your FOI application, you would have to know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. Irregular channels and amorphous interactions and institutions unknown to all precepts previously adopted by the Edo state government on openness of governance prevail.  Most officials prefer to engage with you mostly under backdoor conditions of anonymity. Sometimes they tell you only the Secretary to the Government can give you information. And part of the reason why there is so much speculation over government policies is that the Edo government and its public institutions appear rather shy to empathically engage the public.

But we ask though: why would an administration genuinely interested in the development of human and material resources be engaging lawyers to prevent residents of Edo from accessing relevant public information? Why would be the rationale for an administration that committed to citizen engagement, fiscal responsibility, zero tolerance to corruption and access to information in 2018 begin to pussyfoot when it came to signing a draft state action plan of the OGP slated for implementation?

The consistent refusal of the Edo government to respond to FOI requests tell one story twice differently. It is either that they know that they can ignore an FOI and get away with it or that the reason why public institutions cannot respond is that with opaqueness pervading the corridors of the Obaseki administration, corruption would thrive.  Either way, we encourage the Edo government, and its public institutions to put their act together by responding to these applications. A response to an FOI is not a sign of weakness but a resolve at engaging with the citizenry, giving them and co-ownership of the process, and gives them greater levels of participation.

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