Vanguard (Lagos)

4 June 2011

Nigeria: Foi Act And You! How the Freedom of Information Act Affects You

The signing of the Freedom of Information,FoI, Bill into law by President Goodluck Jonathan represents a remarkable leap forward in the country's quest to ensure more transparency and openness in government. Considering the long and tortuous road the bill took from 1999 when it was first introduced till 2011 when the two chambers of the National Assembly harmonised their various versions of the bill and sent it to the President for his assent, it was a long but worthy wait for Nigerians, especially media practitioners, who had appropriated to themselves the bill because of the vital role the media play as the Fourth Estate of the Realm.

For the proponents of the bill, which was passed by the fifth Assembly but was not assented to by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the passage represents a bold step by the legislature, coming on the heels of fears that the bill may not be signed by President Jonathan considering the fact that the Presidential Adviser on National Assembly Matters, Alhaji Abba Aji, had sensationally revealed that the bill was 'dead on arrival'.

But, to close observers of the Senate, though the passage of the bill was unusually delayed, there was always a glimmer of hope that it would be eventually passed. Nothing underscored this hope than the assurance given by the President of the Senate, Senator David Mark, who said that, contrary to the perception in some quarters that the upper house was averse to the FoI Bill, the Senate, indeed, was at the forefront of its passage because the parliament as an institution stood to benefit immensely from the action.

During a meeting with members of the Newspaper Proprietors' Association of Nigeria (NPAN) in his office, penultimate week, Mark assured them that the Senate would pass the bill with a caveat that media practitioners should demonstrate responsibility in the discharge of their duties in its application.

According to him, the "passage of the bill into law is not a problem but we must show enough restraint and responsibility in order to avoid recklessness in the discharge of our duties."

The lofty goals espoused in the original version of the bill, were, however, the direct opposite of the contents of the bill that was eventually signed by the President. It may have represented a step for its proponents but a giant step for a country that has become notorious for the opaque way it conducts its business in government and in corporate governance.

But part of the problems that hindered the early passage of the bill is the mutual suspicion between the public servants and the media. It is a mutual suspicion that is embedded in the disparate roles of the two institutions. But, at the end of the day, it is obvious that, no matter how blurred emotions are able to make issues appear, logic would always prevail.

Though the Act does not capture the very essence of its proponents who sought to make governance as open as possible, it is, nonetheless, a remarkable progress for our country.

For instance, Section 3 provides that every public institution "shall ensure that it records and keeps information about all its activities, operations and businesses" and "shall cause to be published" such information in accordance with the provisions of the Act.

The Act also provides that any request for access to information from a public or government organisation shall be attended to by the head of such organisation not later than 30 working days from the date of receipt of the application.

One other good aspect of the Act is the divesting of powers from the head of government institution to refuse application for access to public records. By the provisions of Section 8 of the Act, if, for any reason, the head of such institution refuses to provide the information requested by the applicant, "the head of the institution shall state in the notice given to the applicant the grounds for the refusal, the specific provision of this Act that it relates to and that the applicant has a right to challenge the refusal in court."

The Act, however, empowers heads of institutions to decline access to information if such access would jeopardise national security, affect the conduct of international affairs or would amount to the release of trade secrets of the country.

Though the law is not a true representation of what its initial proponents wanted it to be as it is cautious on the side of public servants, it is nonetheless a worthy step in the direction of making governance more open and transparent. Expectedly, the enactment of the Act has opened a floodgate of accolades for President Jonathan who ignored the advice of some of his aides to sign the bill into law in record time.

According to the President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Mr. Gbenga Adefaye, the signing of the bill into law "has expanded the frontiers of press freedom for Africa's most vibrant press.

"The Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE, has received the news of the assent of President Goodluck Jonathan to the Freedom of Information Bill with gratitude to a president who has kept his words.

"President Jonathan had, during the last presidential debate, made a public commitment to sign the FoI Bill into law once presented to him by the National Assembly as a personal commitment to openness, transparency, accountability and good governance. President Jonathan has really started well with this sign-post for good governance", the Guild said.

"By signing the FoI Bill into law, the President has, more than anyone else, empowered the citizens to participate in the governance of their own affairs. The people can now legitimately seek public information, corroborate their facts and make useful suggestions towards achieving greater good for the majority. With access to information, citizens can fight corruption and closet government and confront the few who misappropriate our resources to themselves alone.

"For the media, the signing of the FoI law has expanded the frontiers of press freedom for Africa's most vibrant press. No more will it be permitted for journalists to hurry to press with half-truth and misinformation when they can officially verify their facts.

"While the NGE congratulates every Nigerian for this all-important citizen's law and commend the outgoing National Assembly for freeing the democratic space for citizens' involvement in our democratic adventure, we call on everyone to use the law, responsibly".

Now that the FoI Bill has been assented to, real work will have to begin to ensure that, like many laws in Nigeria, it is not subverted by those who have benefited so much from the shadowy conduct of government business in the country.

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