Adviser to Nigerian President Opposes FOI Legislation

1 March 2011

Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on National Assembly Matters, former senator Mohammed Abba Aji, vowed Feb. 28 to scuttle freedom of information legislation.

The leader of a key Senate committee, however, told The Vanguard newspaper that the bill will pass.  FOI legislation recently passed in the House (See previous report.) Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media, Senator Ayogu Eze said the bill would be passed “as soon as the Senate leadership meets and decides on its passage. I cannot give a definite date for now but it is not going to be delayed further than necessary.”

Abba Aji, on the other hand, told journalists in Maiduguri that he was disappointed by the House passage and called the bill unconstitutional.  Abba Aji said he would advise President Goodluck Jonathan not to assent to the bill. The Vanguard termed his statement a “bombshell,” but noted that Abba Aji said he led the group that opposed the passage of the bill on the floor of the National Assembly in 2007.  It passed, but former president Olusegun Obasanjo declined to sign the bill.

“The former senator insisted that all public institutions had information that must be closely guided for the benefit of peace, progress and development of the society,” The Vanguard said, continuing, “He said Nigerians should be wary of opening the nation’s secret to the rest of the world through this unpatriotic FoI Bill, insisting that instead of the Bill what needs to be promoted is the freedom of the press.”

“On the unconstitutionality of the FoI, the aide to the president argued that every public officer, including the president, was under oath of secrecy that is in the constitution and this is what this new bill is trying to oust,” wrote Vanguard reporters Ben Agande and Ndahi Marama.

The Nigerian Compass reported:

The presidential adviser argued that every public officer, including the President is under oath of secrecy as entrenched in the Constitution, saying this is what “the new bill is trying to remove”.

He added: “If the bill is allowed to sail through, it means that anybody can seek for any information, explaining that any public officer who fails to give such information within a very short period stands to be punished.

“This includes information about our defence, the presidential villa and everything. No responsible country should pass FOI bill.

“As a Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, I will not allow the President to be misguided on the FOI bill; I will certainly advise the President not to assent to the bill.”

He said Nigerians should be wary of opening the country’s secrets to the rest of the world through the FOI Bill, insisting that instead of the bill, what needs to be promoted is the freedom of the press in the country.

In the Sun News story, Abba Aji is quoted as saying that if this bill is allowed to pass, “it will constitute threat to public institutions.” Sun News also says Abba Aji said he expects a majority of senators to oppose the bill.

While querying public support for the Bill, he said it was regrettable that the passage of the Bill continued to drag for long, adding that; “no government or organization will offer its official secret to members of the public or the press anyhow.”  The report also said:

The former senator insisted that all public institutions had information that must be closely guided for the benefit of peace, progress and development of the society. He claimed that the Nigerian press remains the freest in the world. He cited the US where he said information was classified.

A cautionary overview of the situation even before the presidential advisor’s comments was  written by Emma Maduabuchi in The Daily Independent.

Timing of Senate Action Unclear

The timing for Senate consideration of the bill seems uncertain.  A report in 234Next quotes Senator Eze on Feb. 28 as  saying the Senate will pass the bill like their counterparts in the lower house “soon.”

Demeji Bankole, Speaker of the House of Representatives,  told 234Next that the House will send its version of the bill to the Senate, probably this week.

Another report, by Adetutu Folasade-Koyi, in The Independent, said the Senate could pass the House bill, but that a second option “is for the Senate to go ahead with its own version which is heavily criticised by the public for seeking to criminalise libel.” The report continued:

“If the Senate passes its own version, both Chambers would have to constitute a Harmonisation Committee to resolve the differences before the Bill goes to President Goodluck Jonathan for assent.”

Time is a key determinant in the passage in the Senate as the timetable released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) shows that formal political campaign for the April vote starts this week.

Senate Spokesman Ayogu Eze promised on Sunday that the Chamber would soon approve the Bill.

“We will meet the leadership. We will pass it soon,” he said in a telephone interview.

Eze chairs the Senate Information and Media Committee which is presently considering the Bill.

The Senate on resumption of plenary on January 25 set the passage of the Bill as one of its priorities in this legislative calendar.

Eze, a former journalist, assured media stakeholders that the Senate is keen on passing the Bill now pencilled for Third Reading.

“The agenda we are setting is to make sure that we fulfill the promise we made to Nigerians that we will pass (it) within the life of this legislature, this sixth Senate.

“Very soon, we will be slating that Bill for Third Reading.

“I want to assure Nigerians that we are determined to pass that Bill because it is a very crucial Bill that we need to pass first of all to conform to international practice and to convince our development partners that we are very serious on the issue of cleaning up our house and fighting corruption with our gloves on.

“We have a determination to pass the FoI Bill and when we pass it, we are going to pursue it to make sure that it is signed within the life of the Sixth Senate; maybe that will make the difference.”

Last week, the House broke the four-year jinx that stalled the passage of the Bill into law, delivering on recent repeated assurances to expeditiously do so to ensure good governance.

Among others, the Bill, which creates ripples in different quarters, seeks to:

  • Make public information and records more freely available.
  • Provide for public access to public records and information.
  • Protect public records and information consistent with public interest and the protection of personal privacy.
  • Protect serving public officials from adverse consequences for disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorisation.

Article 19  Suggests Improvements

The London-based freedom of expression group Article 19 welcomed the Nigerian House action, but urged strengthening the bill. Article 19 on Feb. 28 said:

If adopted by the Senate, the bill will require government bodies to collect and maintain records, affirmatively publish 16 categories of information and respond to information requests within seven days. Government bodies are allowed to withhold some information including for national defence purposes, law enforcement, personal privacy and economic interests. Some of the exemptions have a public interest test and the Official Secrets Act is specifically overruled. There are also some rudimentary protections of whistleblowers provided in the bill. Individuals can appeal denials of requests to the Federal Court. Officials who stymie requests or destroy information can be jailed for up to three years.

ARTICLE 19 recommends that the bill be amended to create an independent oversight body to enforce the law, clarify exemptions relating to economic interests, law enforcement and personal privacy, and include a comprehensive public interest test for all exemptions. The bill should also require public bodies to create detailed implementation plans and increase protection of whistleblowers to ensure that they are not subject to job-related or other sanctions.

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