Nigerian House of Representative Passed Freedom of Information Bill

Date: February 24, 2011

The House of Representatives, Thursday , responded to yearnings of the populace to have accountability in our public life as it passed the Freedom of Information Bill, 11 years after it was first introduced in the National Assembly.

The passage of the Bill was immediately hailed by the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE, and other Civil Society groups which have mounted a sustained campaign to make Nigeria join the league of other civilised societies by passing the Bill

The Joint Committee of the House had, Monday, rounded off work on the 34 clauses of the Bill with input from the Open Society Justice Initiative and other media rights groups. Before passing the Bill, the House however deleted clauses 12 and 18.

Clause 12 was deleted because the issue that the section seeks to address is already dealt with by Clauses 11 and 21 of this Bill while Clause 18 was deleted because it relates to information that have not been perfected and no public institution can be held responsible for proposals and decisions not perfected.

The House at 1.35p.m., yesterday, suspended its Order 7 Rule 2(2), dissolved into a Committee of Whole and passed the 34-clause bill after considering and adopting the recommendations of the joint committees on Information and National Orientation and Justice.

The bill with the long title: “An Act to make public records and information more freely available, provide for public access to 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,” was passed without opposition.

The Bill would have been read for the second time, but the Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Rules and Business, Rep.Hashimu Abdullahi, PDP, Kiana-Nassarawa, had the relevant rules suspended in order to have the piece of legislation read the third time.

The committee’s consideration covered a myriad of areas such as: the rights of access to records, information and government institutions, request for access, notice about where access to records are requested, transfer of request, extension of time limits, where access is refused, and action for waivers, destruction or falsification of records and where information is not available in discreet form.

Areas of waivers in the Act which were treated are International Affairs and Defence, in which case the head of government or public institution may refuse to disclose any record which may be “injurious to the conduct of international affairs and the defence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

The bill had earlier been rejected severally by the members of the House as many lawmakers had expressed fears of misuse of the information that may be made available to the media.

A key sponsor of the Bill, Rep. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, was elated at the passage of the Bill, as she extolled the efforts of the Civil Society groups in the Country.

She said: “With the passage of this bill, we’ve taken a major step and I am happy that the bill has been passed under the leadership of Dimeji Bankole.”

The lawmaker hoped that the Senate would hasten to concur.

In his remarks at a press briefing, the Minority Leader of the House, Rep. Femi Gbajabiamila said the passage of the Bill was as a result of the persistent struggle of opposition forces to the status quo and a sign that the House is disposed to democracy.

His words: “It’s a welcome development and its long overdue. It will stimulate good governance which is predicated on access to information. This shows that the House of Representatives is a listening House.”

On his part, spokesman of the House, Rep. Eseme Eyiboh, told reporters that the passage of the bill by the House will bring more responsibility and accountability into governance, adding: “We have now entered into a new regime of responsibility and accountability.”

Editors commend Reps for passage of FOI Bill

The Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) in a statement by its President, Mr. Gbenga Adefaye, said: “The Guild has received with great joy the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill by the House of Representatives.

This is  the second time within a decade, that the House would respond to our collective hunger for openness and transparency in the administration of the Federal Republic of  Nigeria. The FOI law will certainly aid accountability in our public life.

“For the Guild, it is remarkable that the leadership of the House of Representatives has kept its words to the Guild, to pass this bill because it agrees that the nation (not just the media) needs it. The Guild will like to note also the concurrence of the leadership of the House that a Freedom of Information Law will make legislation easier as nobody in the Ministries and the MDAs can withhold information that is needed for public good – whether for legislative purposes or basic information and education of the citizenry by the media.

“The Guild now calls on the Senate to borrow a leaf from the House of Representatives by passing the Bill early enough for Presidential assent. We are delighted that the Minister of Information and Communication, Mr. Labaran Maku, had during the biennial convention of the Nigerian Guild of Editors in Lagos last month, publicly committed to lobbying for Presidential assent of the Bill once it is passed by the National Assembly. We expect him to honour his words, once the Senate does its patriotic duty of opening up the system for accountable government.

“While we wait to see the content of the Bill as passed by the House of Representatives, the Guild would like to put the media on notice that a Freedom of Information Law only helps to foster a  more informed and socially responsible press.”

A victory for democracy, says NUJ’s President

Reacting to the passage of the FOI Bill, President of the Nigeria Union Journalists, NUJ, Mr. Garuba Mohammed, said it was a victory for democracy as it would promote accountability, transparency and good governance.

The NUJ President said it would also enhance investigative journalism and the credibility of the Nigerian Media which he said, was the most vibrant in Africa. Saying the passage was a welcome development and a progressive decision by members of the House of Representatives.

He noted: “It is a welcome development and a very bold progressive decision by the House of Representatives. As you are aware, the agitations for the FOI have been for a while. It is very progressive. It is a victory for Democracy. It will enhance accountability, transparency and good governance.

For the media, it will enhance investigative journalism. We hope the Senate will also pass the bill before the legislative year so that the two Chambers can harmonise it for Presidential asset.  I commend the House of Representatives. I have gone through the bill as passed, I think it is fair.

As leaders, we will try to ensure that our members do not abuse it because that has been the fear. It will benefit the politicians more. Like I said, it will enhance accountability, transparency and good governance.  You know that Nigerian media is the most vibrant in Africa; the FOI will enhance credibility of the media. It is a welcome development.”

Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) in its statement welcomed the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill by the House of Representatives describing it as “an important development, which will improve the waning fight against corruption in the country.”

In a statement signed by SERAP Executive Director Adetokunbo Mumuni, the group said that, “Every elected leader has a responsibility to enable and ensure that the citizens fully enjoy their human right to know, and we applaud the role and leadership of the House of Representatives on the passage of the bill.”

The group called on the Senate “to move swiftly to pass the bill, and on President Goodluck Jonathan to sign the bill into law as soon as it is sent to his office. Once the bill finally becomes law, the government will need to establish a plan of action to review, amend or repeal all existing laws such as the Secrecy Act, the Federal Commissions (Privileges and Immunities) Act, the Public Complaints Commission Act, the Evidence Act and the Criminal Code, which contain clauses forbidding the disclosure of official information by public officials. These laws need to be fully consistent with the FOI Act.”

Media Rights Agenda
The Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda Mr. Edaetan Ojo said the passage of the FOI bill by the House of Representatives is a welcome development after the prolonged delay. He said Nigerians should continue to mount pressure on the Senate which delayed the passage of the same Bill in the last dispensation.

The delay was cited by former President Olusegun Obasanjo for not signing the Bill into Law. We have to continue work on the Senate to pass the Bill to enable president sign it into law before the end of this dispensation.

Carol Ajie, a Lagos lawyer.
In her reaction, Lagos lawyer, Ms Carol Ajie said: “Great, long overdue though, the journey has been tortuous for those who believe in transparency and the rule of law, hence the Senate must speed up its passage and we hope Mr. President will assent to it as soon as it gets to his desk with a view to leaving a lasting legacy for posterity and democracy; unlike the former President who dribbled the civil society through it and let the previous legislative house laboured in vain. President Jonathan must know that this being election time, unlike former President Obasanjo who had ran out his term before the Bill was sent by both Chambers, the more transparent his posturing, the more likely good he is scored by Nigerians.

Professor Chidi Odinkalu
Professor Chidi Odinkalu of the Open Society for Justice Initiative said “I commend the House for passing the bill after so many years. By passing the bill, the House of Representatives has done the needful and this is a great momentum that will spur the Senate to do the same thing. I therefore urge the senate to pass the bill immediately”.

Network of NHRIs in West Africa
Saka Azimazi, Executive Secretary, Network of NHRIs in West Africa (NNHRI-WA) said: “The passage of FoI Bill by the House of representatives today (yesterday) marks an important historical victory for all advocates of transparency and accountability.

While commending the lawmakers on their re-awakening on this important piece of law, we note that it has taken close to a decade for them to get to this juncture.However, we eagerly await the concurrent passage by the Senate and eventual assent by Mr. President before the change of guards in May 2011.”