Nigerian House Votes to Advance FOI Legislation

11 February 2011

The Nigerian House Feb. 10 voted to speed up action on freedom of information legislation that has been pending for 11 years.

In an unexpected move, the House sent the measure for  “thorough scrutiny” by two of its committees — Information and National Orientation and Justice — withdrawing a 2007 order that had held the bill up. The committees were given a week to report back.

Ita Enang, the chairman of House committee on Business and Rules, who led 20 others to ask for the new decision, said “the need has now arisen for the house to revisit the said decision on the bill in the public interest,” according to a report by Ini Ekott in Emeka Ihedioha, the Majority Whip of the House, seconded the motion.

“When the presiding officer, Hon. Bayaro Nafada, Deputy Speaker, House of Representatives, opened the floor for debate, there was clamouring on the floor asking that the matter be put to vote immediately,” according to a story in The Vanguard by Luka Binniyat.

There was a “clear majority” for the motion, The Vanguard reported.

FOI bills have been pending for more than a decade, coming closest to passage in 2007 only to be rejected by then President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Minister of Information Supported Bill

The Minister of Information and Communication, Labaran Maku has been urging passage of a FOI bill, including at a House hearing this week. He also recently told ministries to provide more information affirmatively.

Maku urged passage of a FOI bill during a meeting of a House committee Feb. 8, according to The Vanguard.  “You need to pass the Freedom of Information Bill, otherwise the media will get information unofficially and such information can be sexed up, and when they do that, it will cost the government more than if they were given officially,” he advised. The paper also reported:

The Minister who called for a more media-controlled censorship body, explained that only an institution free from government control could check unethical practices in the profession.

While responding to questions posed to him by the committee on alleged media misrepresentations of facts, he suggested that “There are two ways to getting the press to do their job properly: You have to throw it back at the practitioners and let them censor themselves, because if you want a government-controlled body to censor them, they there will be a problem”.

In his reaction, the Chairman, House Committee on Information, Rep. Aliyu Wadada said “I don’t think there is any serious representative that will not support the passage of the FOI Bill”.

He however lamented that the piece of legislation has been in the National Assembly since the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo, and asserted that “if passed by the National Assembly, the law will not be negative for us as politicians and as a polity”.

Some Nigerian legislators have linked the movement of a FOI bill to media controls. (See previous report.)

In a related development, the presidential candidate of Action Congress of Nigeria, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, has spoken in favor of the FOI bill.

At a recent meeting of editors, Maku said the government would lobby for legislation in collaboration with Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), according to an article in The Nation.

Maku “opined that probably the National Assembly has not been fully convinced about the essence of the bill, which was why it has witnessed some setbacks,” The Nation summarized. It also reported:

He said: “I am committed to it and have discussed with NUJ, NPAN, NGE to re-mobilise efforts towards passing the bill,” adding that convincing members of the House of Representatives will be another strategy to advocate for the bill to be passed into law.

Seeking More Information From Ministries

Maku said that Feb. 2 was the deadline for Resident Information Officers to computerize projects and activities in all their ministries. He urged every ministry to provide daily reports about ongoing activities.

The Nation quoted him as saying: “We want to know all the major projects, allocations, costs and those handling them across every ministry. We need electronic copies of these projects because we want to build a body of information that everybody can verify as it will make it possible for anybody anywhere to have access to information.”

Continuing, he said: “Every ministry, through its internal mechanisms and the special adviser to the ministers, must collate information to the media and make every pieces of information available to the public and the press.

He also said: “If by the middle of February we do not see improvement both in terms of quality, volume of news emanating from the ministry in the media; we would consider such attitude disapproving and necessary disciplinary measures shall be taken.

Historical Perspective

Reflecting on the national situation, huhuonline recently recounted the so far frustrated path of the legislation: checks have it that the Freedom of Information Bill was sponsored in 1999 by the Coalition for the Freedom of Information Bill, it has become the longest bill that has suffered the harshest persecution at the National Assembly. If the bill passed into law, it will provide for the declassification of and public right of access to information. At the twilight of his tenure, former President Olusegun Obasanjo refused to sign the bill into law. Since it was re-presented in the House of Representatives in 2008, lawmakers have refused to pass it. Some of the parliamentarians have also blamed the non implementation of the bill on lack of real practice of journalism in Nigeria. After a detailed appraisal of journalism practice in Nigeria today as opposed to yesteryear, the Chairman Senate Committee on Aviation, Sen. Anyim Ude, has concluded that the large dose of indiscipline, lack of social responsibility and sundry unethical practices characterize the profession today, and to him that contributed in making the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill unpassable over 10 years.

It would be recalled that Deputy speaker, Hon. Usman Bayero Nafada, had, earlier in the fourth quarter of 2009, while trying to save the face of his fellow ”honourables” declared that the leadership of the House had stepped up efforts in educating members and ensured that the bill was passed into law while receiving a coalition of civil society stakeholders. Also in form of solidarity for the support over the passage of the bill, journalists covering the House have condemned the position of the chamber over the long delay in the passage of the bill, they however threatened to stay away from covering house activities, if the FOIB is not considered within a reasonable time to facilitate its passage.

However, some distinguished lawmakers have distanced themselves from this long delay by repudiating their colleagues over what they call ”foot-dragging”. Some of them are Abike Dabiri, Femi Gbajabiamili etc. They said the delay is all about the fear of the media, and that the bill will help to promote transparency. But there is a misconception that it is a bill that will make the media so powerful, they however affirmed that they will give up, but continue to talk to their colleagues that it is not a media bill and there is nothing to be afraid about. Lagos has set the ball rolling it is left for the federal legislature to make so that part of the ingredients to sustain our democracy would not be downplayed.

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