On Thursday afternoon, Nigeria's Freedom of Information (FoI) bill was passed by the house of representatives, without much opposition. However, it still needs to pass the senate and be signed by the president before it becomes law. And with certain areas like law enforcement, the economy, international affairs, and defence potentially exempt from the bill, not all information will be equally accessible. By REMMY NWEKE.
It was breaking news in Nigeria that the house of representatives had passed the much-anticipated Freedom of Information bill. In Nigeria, for any bill to become an Act and, eventually, law, it must go through the two chambers of the national assembly, both the house of representatives (“Green Chambers”) and the senate (“Red Chambers”).
However, this is not the first time the FoI bill has been passed by the Green Chambers. Noteworthy is that during the former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s eight-year tenure, the same bill, though amended greatly now, was passed and went through both chambers. The discussion in the media at that time was there was initially trading of words on the exact whereabouts of the bill after it purportedly left the national assembly en route to the presidency for Obasanjo's signature. But after a long debate on the location of the bill, the Obasanjo presidency alleged there were some changes that needed to be made – including the title – before the president could sign it into law.
Unfortunately, these changes could not happen before the handover date of 29 May 2007, when former president Umar Musa-Yar’Adua took over. During Yar'Adua's time in office, his ill-health prevented him from attending to the bill, not to mention other projects.
These were some of the interplay that bedevilled the bill before the death of Yar’Adua and power was handed to his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan. Only when Jonathan became president did the house of representatives decide to reopen debate on the bill.
It is described as: “An act to make public records and information more freely available, provide for public access to public records and information, protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy, protect serving public officers from adverse consequences for disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorisation and establish procedures for the achievement of those purposes and related purposes thereof.” Many Nigerians have lauded the progress so far. However, others have withheld opinion.
For some information analysts, media practitioners and observers in the country, for the bill to escalate to “Uhuru” – a Swahili word for “freedom” – there must be an attempt to repel the Official Secrets Act of 1962. The FoI bill states if any information is denied after 30 days, the person demanding the information has the right to approach the courts. But the key issue is how many people would go to court where it affects a political bigwig or the incumbent government and its officials.
Another suspicion is the bill has been terribly watered down to necessitate its passage through the house of representatives, regardless of the notion now dissipating that the bill is mainly of interest to journalists. Equally of concern for information experts in Nigeria is the unfortunate purported embargo on “law enforcement, economy, international affairs and defence” failing within the aegis of the bill.
For these areas to be classified as “no-go” would not be helpful and, should the matter go the legal route, gaining access to this information would call for an extreme proactive interpretation by the court. Some experts have made the point, for instance, that no one could ask for information from the police without a court order or injunction-cum-affidavit.
Regarding defence, its parameters have not been clearly defined. This makes it subject to interpretation which could now depend on the know-how of the judges. They could easily say to an applicant: “You don’t have the locus standi” – not taking into account that the defence budget is funded by taxpayers’ money. Another issue is that of the economy. If economic matters are embargoed under the FoI bill, this would mean no one had the mandate to inquire on the amount of money voted to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and how it’s spent, which will also rest on court interpretation.
It worries many observers, especially political ones, that so much information being available to ordinary citizens could see Nigeria go the route of Egypt.
In addition, concerns are being expressed about whether the supposed records or information that could be demanded or requested are even available at all ministries at the federal, statal and local governments. This has paved the way for calls to digitise government records, beginning with the FoI bill. This would enable all Nigerians to offer their input and even see what is being amended in the bill.
Section 22 of the bill reportedly gives the media the right to hold government accountable, but as the bill begins another journey to Uhuru, its implications extend beyond the media to the larger Nigerian society. Though it’s firmly agreed by observers that transparency in governance in Nigeria will be a booster, doubts seem on the rise, with claims that the ruling party may want to use the passing of the bill for political gain, by fast-forwarding its passage through the senate and gaining presidential assent before 29 May.
But considering how long it took the house of representatives to get to this point, that assumption may not hold water. All members of the national assembly – both those who have secured return tickets and those who have not – as well as the presidency, are engrossed with politicking until after the April polls. Settling down into a new administration could take until June to stabilise. The already long-delayed passing of the Freedom of Information bill may just have to wait until the second half of 2011. FAM
Photo: Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan. (Reuters)
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