28 February 2011

Nigeria: Passage of FoI Bill Will Rekindle Citizens' Confidence - NCS

Last week's passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill by the House of Representatives, no doubt, raised hope of many Nigerians who have been living under a dark cloud created by government.

Freedom of Information, also known as the public's right to know, gives citizens access to official information from government and other public authorities. The FOI Bill spells out the rights of people in accessing government information. The Bill, when signed into law as currently being agitated for, will automatically give every Nigerian a legal right of access to information, records and documents held by public and private bodies carrying out public functions.

Pleased with the passage of the Bill, President of Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), Prof. Charles Uwadia commended the efforts of members of the House of Representatives, but insisted that the delay in the passage of the Bill has shown that governance had not been transparent and that the people were cut off from vital information, since there had been no free access to certain information in the country.

According to Uwadia, the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) had long declared that information must be free, open and available to everybody and that WSIS is a United Nations document, which Nigeria assented to, yet, the government had kept information hidden from the people for decades.

Although Uwadia said the passage of the Bill by the House of Representatives was commendable, he explained that Bill has to cross other hurdles before Nigerians could heave a sigh of relief in celebrating its passage. According to him, the Senate would also deliberate on the Bill and pass it, before the two legislative chambers will harmonise it and make it ready for President Goodluck Jonathan to sign it into law. All these, he said, would take some legislative processes and time, but Uwadia strongly urged the legislative bodies to expedite action on the Bill, owing to its importance in nation-building.

The passage of the Bill by the House of Representatives followed the submission of a report by the joint committee on Justice and Orientation set up penultimate week to look into the Bill and consider it for accelerated passage. Both committees were headed by Henry Dickson and Aliyu Wadada, but the report was submitted by Henry Dickson.

Addressing the implications for the prolonged delay in signing the FOI Bill into law, Uwadia said the situation created rumours among the public and that it painted a scenario that citizens were lost with the developments at local, state and Federal government levels, and that academic researchers could not complete several vital researches for lack of necessary information.

He called on the government to take the issue of FOI Bill seriously and give it speedy passage. Speaking on the importance of the Bill, Uwadia said it would make government accountable to its citizens and that it would give Nigerians the opportunity to engage government about governance.

Nigerians had long clamoured and struggled for the passage of FOI Bill, which equally seeks to give press freedom to the media, but the purpose of such struggle is yet to be achieved.

The struggle for press freedom in Nigeria dates back to the colonial era, when the first newspaper, Iwe Irohin was published from 1859 till 1867. The colonial masters, it was gathered, enacted the first of such laws, the Newspaper Ordinance of 1903 and later enacted the Seditious Offences Ordinance of 1909, following the fear of the spread of newspapers then.

According to 'Nigerian Press Law and Ethics,' a book written by Dr. Innocent Okoye of Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, the struggle for press freedom started since the colonial administration, and continued till Nigeria obtained independence on October 1, 1960, when Nigerians took over the mantle of leadership of independent Nigeria from the colonialists.

The Media and Civil Society, it was gathered, initiated the FOI Bill which was adopted in 1966 and amended in 1986 by a group called the Freedom of Information Coalition (FOIC).

The Freedom of Information Coalition is a network of over 150 civil society organisations in Nigeria comprising civil rights, grassroots and community-based non-governmental organisations campaigning for the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill and the eventual implementation when it becomes law.

In 1999, Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a non-governmental organization, pushed for the Bill to be passed and that same year, the FOI Bill was first presented to the National Assembly.

After the first presentation of the Bill to National Assembly in 1999, it was considered in the first and second readings at the House of Representatives on February 22 and March 13, 2000 and sent to the House Committee on Information for further consideration on March 27, 2000. The committee submitted its report to the House of Representatives on July 25, 2000. Based on the submission, the House of Representatives then debated the Bill during the third reading on March 15, 2001. The House then held a public hearing on the Bill from October 3 to 4, 2001. But at the end of the day, the Bill was not signed into law. The inability of the first lower chamber to pass the Bill led to its re-presentation in 2003 following the dissolution of the first National Assembly and the inauguration of the second.

After it was re-presented, the Bill went through another round of readings and the House of Representatives eventually passed it in 2004. The Senate, however, passed it in 2006, after it was considered at several readings.

As at November, 2006, the two chambers of the National Assembly were expected to harmonise the Bill for then President Olusegun Obasanjo to sign it into law, and they did harmonise the Bill, but the former president did not sign the harmonised Bill into law until he left office in 2007.

Between 1999 and 2003, the Bill was not passed into law, and it was re-presented in 2004. Between 2004 and 2007, hope was high that the former President Obasanjo would assent to the Bill, after it had passed through the normal readings in both chambers of the National Assembly, but the former president refused to assent to it.

After President Obasanjo vacated office in 2007, the leadership of the National Assembly resolved to direct the then Clerk of National Assembly, Alhaji Nasir Arab to re-forward the harmonised version of the Bill to the late President Musa Yar'Adua, who took over from Obasanjo on May 29, 2007, to assent to it. Then controversy set in as to whether President Yar' Adua has the legal backing to sign a Bill that was carried over from the previous government. The Court, however, ruled that the Bill has to be re-presented to the new National Assembly for deliberations and passage, based on the 1999 Constitution.

Following the demise of President Yar'Adua in office on May 5, 2010, Goodluck Jonathan stepped into his shoes and became President of Nigeria till date, a situation that demanded for another fresh approach to deliberations and passage of the FOI Bill.

Last week's passage became the first time in the new dispensation after the Bill had suffered several setbacks from previous governments.

Uwadia, however, cautioned the incumbent government to take seriously the issues concerning passage of FOI Bill and not to allow the Bill go the same way as experienced with past governments.

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