LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — After years of delays, Nigeria's president signed into law the country's first Freedom of Information bill last year, supposedly cutting away old colonial-era secrecy laws and allowing the public access to government documents in this democracy for the first time.
However, a test request filed by The Associated Press for basic information from one government agency shows the problems still plaguing the oil-rich nation's creaking bureaucracy. Months after the one-week deadline allowed by law, the agency continues to refuse to release the information.
"We are coming from a culture of secrecy," said Maxwell Kadiri, a lawyer who works on freedom of information issues with Open Society Justice Initiative. "The (law) is basically coming to change over a century of a secrecy culture in the public service."
In November, the AP published the results of an examination of Freedom of Information laws and how they are administered in more than 100 countries. Nigeria was not included in the examination, as President Goodluck Jonathan had only signed the nation's own version of the law in June.
Dayo Aiyetan, a journalist who lives in Nigeria's capital Abuja and now runs a startup organization called the International Center for Investigative Reporting, later wrote to the AP and asked if its journalists could file an information request on his behalf after reading the story. He suggested the AP write the Independent Corrupt Practices and Related Offenses Commission and request a list of all the cases it is prosecuting, including the names of those accused, the charges they face and where they stood in legal proceedings.
The commission, along with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, are the premier anti-graft agencies operating in Nigeria. Officials estimate more than $380 billion has been stolen through government corruption in Nigeria since it gained its independence from Britain in 1960. Those agencies, created under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, are charged with stopping that tide.
Under Nigeria's Freedom of Information law, government agencies have seven days to produce requested information, though it can request another seven days to put records together if the request is complicated. It also makes it a criminal offense to destroy records and protects civil servants who report wrongdoing by their institutions.
Despite the law, the AP has been unable to obtain any of the records Aiyetan suggested the news cooperative obtain. A first letter by AP journalist Yinka Ibukun sent by courier service to the anti-corruption body in Nigeria's capital Abuja was received on December 8, 2011, according to the courier's records. However, the body's spokesman, Folu Olamiti, said it could not be found because it had not been addressed to the agency's chairman.
Two weeks later, the AP sent a new letter to the anti-corruption body's office, specifically addressing it to "the chairman." The spokesman later asked the AP for more time to fulfill the request as Ekpo Nta had taken over as the chairman of the commission.
Follow-up emails were sent to the spokesman on Jan. 30 and then on Feb. 27. Olamiti only responded to the Feb. 27 email, asking for more time once again.
On March 20, Olamiti told the AP that Nta himself was now involved in resolving the records request and that the records would be collected by the end of the week.
However, Olamiti offered a different response on March 25.
"Thanks for your mail Yinka am out of the country for two weeks. Stay blessed," the spokesman wrote in an email. He did not comment on the commission not following the guidelines of the law.
Journalists and civil rights organizations applaud Jonathan signing the law in 2011, saying would herald a change in governance in a nation once ruled by a revolving door of military leaders. However, government agencies still largely refuse to release information, while security personnel routinely harass, beat and arrest working journalists.
Much of the reluctance of government officials comes from Nigeria's Official Secrets Act, created in 1911 by British colonialists, Kadiri said. Government officials have pushed agencies to honor requests and a handful have, while civil society groups have sued over refusals in recent months. Private citizens also have complained to the country's National Human Rights Commission about agencies refusing their requests, Kadiri said.
For Aiyetan, he said he was not surprised about the constant delays in getting the information. He said both journalists and citizens need to be educated about the information law to properly use to it force Nigeria's government into being more accountable to its people.
"We think with the passing of the act, we have achieved our dreamland, but there's still so much more work to do," Aiyetan said.
Independent Corrupt Practices and Related Offenses Commission: http://www.icpc.gov.ng/
Independent Center for Investigative Reporting: http://www.icirnigeria.org
Open Society Justice Initiative: http://www.osiwa.org/en/portal/
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.