Nigerian Legislator Discounts FOI Bill’s Chances

12 July 2010

The long-running effort to pass a Freedom of Information law in Nigeria continues to face serious challenges, according to recent media reports.

Ahmed Aliyu Wadada, the new chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Information and National Orientation, told reporters July 6 that passage this year was not guaranteed but that lawmakers were working on various “grey areas.”

“The objectives of the Freedom of Information Bill as they are correspond with the feelings of the lawmakers. But the way the bill is packaged is the problem. Once the grey areas are sorted out, the bill will see the light of day. However, I can not tell you if it will be passed during my tenure as Chairman of the House Committee on Information and National Orientation,” Wadada said, according to a report by Onwuka Nzeshi in This Day Online.

His comments were interpreted by some reporters as dashing hopes for the bill’s passage this year.  

“ `The legislative process is what will sort out those grey areas, and once those grey areas are sorted out, the Freedom of Information Bill will eventually see the light of the day,’ he said,” according to a report by James Ojo in Sun News.

The reports did not go into much detail on the grey areas.   

Quoted by Sam Olukoya of Inter Press News Service, the deputy chairman of the committee, Francis Amadiegwu, said, “The bill has generated a lot of interest and we are fine tuning aspects that will affect national security. Thereafter it should be passed.”

Sun News also reported:

Another member of the committee, Mr Uzoma Nkem-Abonta explained that in passing the Bill, there was need to guard against the abuse of the freedom so sought by the proposed law. “It is all about how you get information freely, and how you manage it. If there is an abuse, there should be punishment also,” the lawmaker added.

IPS’s account provides background on the 11-year-old campaign for a FOIA law. The campaign is backed, among others, by the Freedom of Information Coalition, a network of over 150 civil society organizations in Nigeria.

Some supporters of the bill believe that President Olusegun Obasanjo opposes the key opponent of the bill, according to IPS. “The president is afraid that the bill (will) give the media too much power to probe the activities of those in government,” according Lanre Arogundade of the International Press Centre, a group backing the bill.

But, IPS reported that presidential advisor Julius Ihonvbere denied the allegation, “claiming that Obasanjo simply has reservations about provisions of the bill that would allow foreigners access to official information.”  A bill was sent Obasanjo for his signature in February 2007, but he refused to sign it, according to a review of the history of the bill written by Tolu Ogunlesi for Next.  Another retrospective article, by Emma Maduabuchi, was published last year in all

 Years of Disappointment

Efforts to pass a FOI law in Nigeria date back to 1999 when Nigeria returned to democratic rule.

Commenting the current situation in Nigeria, IPS reported:

Virtually all government information in Nigeria is classified as top secret. Longe Ayode of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a Lagos-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), says this veil of secrecy makes it difficult to get information from any state agency.

“If you want useful information from a government department, they will not give it to you. They will tell you it is classified information,” he told IPS. 

A  plethora of laws prevents civil servants from divulging official facts and figures, notably the Official Secrets Act which makes it an offence not only for civil servants to give out government information – but also for anyone to receive or reproduce such information.

Further restrictions are contained in the Evidence Act, the Public Complaints Commission Act, the Statistics Act and the Criminal Code – amongst others.

“The idea behind these laws is to protect vital government information, but the level of secrecy is so ridiculous that some classified government files contain ordinary information like newspaper cuttings which are already in the public domain,” says Tunji Adeleke, a legal practitioner.

So impenetrable is the veil of secrecy that government departments withhold information from each other under the guise of official secrets legislation. There are also instances where civil servants refuse to give the National Assembly documentation after being asked to do so.

The result of this is that journalists are denied access to information that is critical for accurate reporting, and unraveling the web of corruption in Nigeria.

“When you are in public office and have soiled your hands in the pot of corruption, you will try to prevent your being exposed by classifying as top secret documents that can implicate you,” journalist Ayodele Ojo told IPS.

The International Press Centre, an NGO that supports the independent media in Nigeria, is asking supporters of the bill to send text messages to the mobile phones of legislators.

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