Nigerian Senate President Says No 2010 Action on FOI

10 December 2010

The Senate President of Nigeria, David Mark, has ruled out action this year on freedom of information legislation.  

Speaking to the Nigerian Union of Journalists, who gave him an award as the Most Outstanding Speaker of the Decade, Mark linked passage of the bill with the creation of a board to oversee the activities of journalists, according to a media report.  Mark said he supported the FOI bill. Another key legislation offered similar comments in September. (See previous report.)

Meanwhile, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, is quoted in the Nigerian Tribune by Kolawole Daniel as saying he would do everything possible to have the FOI bill passed, and that parliamentarians are looking at the possibility of having persons who deliberately defamed public officials pay a price.

A member of parliament, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, in the same report, argued for passage of the bill as a way to fight corruption.  “By not passing the FoI bill, we are not  protecting the parliament, but other arms of government,” she said.

She said such a law would help parliament because “as I speak with you, there are about 31 agencies  of government that we don’t even know their budget: their budget is not subject to scrutiny, it is not part of the national budget and nobody can answer the question.”

“Even when we want information it is difficult for us, so by passing the FOI bill, we will actually be making our work as parliamentarians easier,” she said.

The Nigerian Bar Association recently “threatened to declare all National Assembly members unfit to represent the Nigerian people and fight against their re-election, if they refuse to pass many people oriented legislation presently pending before them, including the Freedom of Information Bill,” according to a story in Vanguard.

WikiLeaks Sparks Calls for FOI Law

U.S. diplomatic cables about Nigeria released this week through WikiLeaks have highlighted the opacity of the Nigerian government and renewed editorial calls for passage of a FOI law.

The Brisbane Times reported:

Australia’s top-ranking executive at oil giant Shell claimed it had inserted staff into all the main ministries of the Nigerian government, giving it access to politicians’ every move in the oil-rich Niger Delta, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable.

Ann Pickard, then Shell’s top executive in Nigeria, told US diplomats in October 2009 that Shell knew ”everything that was being done in those ministries”.

Other reports quoted the cables as saying that three key individuals required bribes before oil could be lifted from Nigerian oilfields.

Officials disputed the accounts.

A Next editorial said:

“The storm set off by WikiLeaks’ release of a substantial number of hitherto confidential diplomatic cables provides an opportunity for Nigerians to resurrect the debate on the necessity of the freedom of information in a democratic society. That debate, active when the much-delayed Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill was still being deliberated upon by the National Assembly, died a tragic death immediately our lawmakers threw the bill out.

Another editorial, in the Daily Independent, was largely devoted to Wikileaks, and concluded:

But whatever the outcome, at least there is room for debate in the US, as anyone can see from a brief trawl through the very internet that is causing the problem. Not so here in Nigeria, where our legislators have consistently refused to pass the Freedom of Information Bill that has been before them since the return to what we are pleased to call democracy in 1999. Why? What do they have to hide? Could it be, for instance, that they don’t want revelations concerning contracts awarded but not executed to companies in the names of their wives and mistresses? Tony Anenih once famously remarked that there was no pot big enough to cook him in when questions were asked about the billions he received as minister of works when people were sleeping on the Lagos-Benin Road for a journey that should otherwise have taken four hours. But then he was right. Information is the sum total of the ingredients used for making the soup. No ingredients, no soup. That is what Jefferson meant: it is a choice between secrecy and openness, and it is the former, not the latter, which damages national security, is antithetical to the national interest and does – not may – kill people.

An anonymous blogger for the Nigerian Compass newspaper ended his Wikileaks piece by writing:

In Nigeria, WikiLeaks has just provided an opportunity to revive the FOI (Freedom of Information Bill) issue which recently went back into the cooler, after it was thrown out by the federal legislature. The Official Secrets Act is a colonial statute with a 1962 reincarnation (amendment), whereby classified files can contain as trivial as a newspaper cutting for which one could be jailed.

Perhaps, we all ought to ponder the famous words of McLuhan, “Only puny secrets need protection.” For how much longer shall Nigeria continue like this?

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