24 April 2007

Niger: President Ignores Freedom of Information Bill Amid 'Charade' Elections

press release

In the aftermath of what observers called "seriously flawed" presidential elections in Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo failed to sign into law a bill that would have strengthened his battle against corruption, reports Media Rights Agenda (MRA).

President Obasanjo had 30 days to sign into law the much anticipated Freedom of Information Bill, which has been with Parliament since 1999 and was finally passed by both houses of the National Assembly this February. Although the bill was consistent with President Obasanjo's anti-corruption crusade and reform programmes, the President let it slide, reports MRA.

The law would have "put Nigeria in the league of some 70 countries around the world that have freedom of information laws and will [have made] Nigeria the fourth country in Africa to adopt such a law, after South Africa (2000), Angola (2005) and Uganda (2005)," says MRA.

For more than eight years, civil society organisations had pressed for the law, which gives Nigerians access to public records and documents. MRA argues that the law would help eliminate corruption in government, get rid of secrecy in public sector transactions, and promote public participation - enhancing people's sense of belonging and improve their trust in the country's leaders.

The bill will now be returned to the National Assembly, and, if passed by a two-thirds majority of each house, will become law and won't require the President's assent. But there are fears that because of the violence and widespread disruption that marred the recent elections, the National Assembly may not be able to reconsider the bill, and the process of passing the law may have to be started afresh.

The landslide winner of the presidential election, Umaru Yar'Adua of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), will likely face a crisis of legitimacy that will affect his administration's ability to govern the country - if he's even allowed to hold office amid widespread protests over last weekend's elections, says the humanitarian news and analysis service, IRIN.

Thousands of opposition leaders protested the elections on the streets, accusing the PDP of rigging the polls. Many of the 120,000 polling stations failed to open for hours or not at all, reports the BBC. There were a number of killings, thefts of ballot boxes and an attempt to blow up the election headquarters. Underage voters were given ballot cards. According to Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF), Nigeria's domestic intelligence agency performed commando-style raids on private television stations to control news and information in the lead up to the elections.

The European Union called the election a "charade" and said at least 200 people had died in poll-related violence in recent weeks.

MRA is focusing its campaign for access to information on the National Assembly before the assembly's tenure expires on 29 May 2007, and welcomes international support. Interested parties should contact: ene[at]mediarightsagenda[dot]org

Visit these sites:

- Media Rights Agenda: http://www.mediarightsagenda.org/press07_03.html

- RSF on television station raids: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=21802

- IRIN: http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=71764

- BBC "What Nigerian election observers say"

- BBC "Call for Nigeria street protests"

- Inter Press Service "Nigeria: What have eight years of democracy done for women politicians?"

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