1 May 2007

Nigeria: 'Obasanjo to Return Information Bill to NASS'

Abuja — A law that gives people the power to demand information from governments and corporations is at risk of being killed by the presidency, a media rights group has warned.

President Olusegun Obasanjo is refusing to sign the Freedom of Information Bill because he does not believe Nigerians should have unrestricted freedom to information, the head of a Lagos-based Media Rights Agenda said in a letter to other non governmental organisations.

The letter was posted on a discussion forum for Nigerian NGOs two days ago and is signed by MRA's executive director, Mr. Edetaen Ojo.

According to the letter the president believes he should be able to decide what information is released, and what isn't, in the interests of "security".

Mr Ojo said: "He said the idea of freedom of information is imported from somewhere."

Mr Ojo wrote that he reminded the president that all the security agencies had been consulted when the bill was drafted. Mr Ojo said: "None of them objected to this part of the bill. But he [Obasanjo] said it is because "none of them practices security at the level which I practice it.'"

Mr Ojo was unavailable for comment yesterday.

The bill was approved by the Senate in November last year. It was passed to the president to sign on March 23 this year.

The National Assembly can override the presidential veto, a constitutional lawyer told Daily Trust, but Mr Ojo said the president would leave it up to his successor to deal with.

The president's special adviser on media Remi Oyo refused to comment on the matter.

In the letter, Mr Ojo said he met the president in the early hours of the morning of Thursday last week.

The letter said: "He said he would not sign it for two reasons. He is opposed to the title.

"He said the bill should have been called the 'right to information bill' and secondly was his disagreement over section 13[1] of the bill which provides that the head of a government or public institution may refuse to disclose any record, the disclosure of which may be injurious to the conduct of international affairs or the defence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria."

The president's refusal to sign the bill was condemned by human rights groups. Diego Okenyodo of the Alliance for Credible Elections told Daily Trust that the president's reasons are "untenable".

He said: "The bill enhances our rights and if one has information about something, he will certainly have informed decision. Therefore his decision violates human rights".

Mr. Okenyodo said the bill does not portend any danger and the human rights groups are going to press on until it is passed.

Kano-based constitutional lawyer Professor Auwalu Yadudu, said the bill is not dead because if the president has refused to sign it there is constitutional provision for the national assembly to override his veto. "The assembly with two-third majority can override his veto and go ahead to pass the bill", he said.

He also said the constitution has given the president the right to reject the bill, adding that "it may be a good bill and the assembly has the right to override his veto"

The United States and the United Kingdom both have Freedom of Information Acts. Under the law people write to an independent information commissioner requesting information and documents are provided through the commission. "Top secret" national security documents are exempted from the law in the US and UK

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