As a graduate student and later a Government staff in the United States of America I followed closely the evolution of the Freedom of Information Act of the United States of America.
In the process, I became so interested that I promised myself that whenever Nigeria frees herself from the shackles of military dictatorship and gets around instituting democracy, that I will champion a Freedom of Information Bill if God favoured me to be elected to the National Assembly.
Late 1998 and early 1999 Nigeria began the process of democratization. I had always wanted to be a legislator and I was quick to return home to Nigeria to contest for a seat to represent Idemili North and South Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives. I joined the Peoples Democratic Party, (PDP), contested for the nomination and was duly nominated. God answered my prayer and I had an overwhelming victory at the polls to become a member of the House of Representatives.
Even before I returned home to Nigeria I had completed the Freedom of Information Bill. It did not matter to me that there was an election to go through before getting to the National Assembly because I would be satisfied with having to sponsor the Bill through any member if I did not make it to the National Assembly. My victory gave meaning to my desire and inspiration to be one of the foot soldiers in the fight against corruption in Nigeria and one way I believed the war could be won was through a Freedom of Information Law that will grant everyone unfettered access to information and expose corrupt people.
A few days after my swearing -in as a member National Assembly in June, 1999. I presented the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Buhari with a draft Bill for an Act of National Assembly to make it easy for Nigerians to have access to information, otherwise known as Freedom of Information Bill. My communication was subsequently directed to the Legal Department to work with me, review the Draft Bill, and ensure its conformity with the accepted mode of drafting and presentation and forward for gazetting and eventual presentation on the floor of the House for consideration. Several sessions were organized between the Legal Department and myself as the Assembly was new and many people were still learning the ropes. The legal Department in my several discussions with them confessed that the Draft Bill I presented was as detailed, organized and complete as is required that no amendments were needed to bring it to conformity. The Draft was forwarded to the printing department and gazetted accordingly. In other words, the Freedom of Information Bill was one of the first private member Bills presented in the House of Representative in 1999.
It was a long hard road to convince my colleagues to buy into and support it on the floor of the House. It was highly misunderstood and shot down many times on the floor of the Assembly. This was no surprise to me as Nigeria was newly getting out of the shackles of dictatorship and all the attendant symptoms were visible. Many believed that it would cause government to pry into their private lives, while others believed that it was necessary at that time in the stage of our democratic development where many had been tented with colours of military corruption and not yet willing to shed the toga. It was a tedious effort and hard work to bring other members on the same page but at very long last, after rigorous defending and long hours of meeting and public hearing, the Bill was finally passed by the House of Representatives toward the end of the session of the 4th Assembly. The Bill was transmitted to the Senate for concurrence, but the Senate did not get to consider it before the 4th session of the National Assembly ended. The end of the 4th session of the National Assembly without concurrence by the Senate meant the end of the road for the Bill.
On my return to the 5th session of the National Assembly and the House of Representatives in 2003, I re-initiated and re-introduced the Freedom on Information Bill. With the gruelling experience I gathered in the 4th session of the National Assembly, it was easier to convince my colleagues to support the Bill. So before long the Freedom of Information Bill again was passed by the House of Representatives in 2005. Drawing from my past experiences, it was easy to form a coalition of the media, other agencies and non Governmental organizations to put pressure on the members of the Senate for concurrence. Finally in 2006 the Senate concurred to the Bill passed by the House of Representatives and the Freedom of Information Bill was transmitted to the President for assent.
Everyone waited patiently for Mr. President's assent to the Bill but it was not forthcoming. We began to ask questions and even began to brace up for an override. As events unfolded, it was obvious some thing was amiss. Probing further, the Presidency "claimed" that the Bill was never transmitted to Mr. President. It sounded like a joke knowing that the process of transmitting Bills from the National Assembly to Mr. President was not so complicated that the Bill could get lost in transit. Incidentally, year 2007 crept in and nominations and electioneering reached a crescendo and no one could spare the time for Freedom of Information Bill anymore. Soon after the 5th Assembly of the National Assembly and the Federal Executive Council were dissolved without a Freedom of Information Act.
In 2007, the 6th session of the National Assembly was convened. I did not return to the Assembly but was appointed to serve as Nigeria's Ambassador to Austria with concurrent Accreditation to Slovakia. At the resumption of the 6th and with my absence in the National Assembly, Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who as a news anchor of the NTA up until 2003 assisted me to publicise the Bill in the media circle, and when she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2003 I enlisted her support for the Bill on the floor of the Assembly. Because I did not return in 2007 and by convention the Bill became dead at the end of the 5th session, she took up the challenge and dusted up the Bill and re-introduced it in the House of Representatives in her name. The Bill equally faced some initial difficulties when she re-introduced it but n the previous eight years we had done so much work that there was hardly anything extra that needed to be added to the Bill. With the support of those members who had followed the journey of the Bill so far joined hands to pull the Bill through the House of Representatives. Subsequently, the Senate quickly concurred and President Goodluck Jonathan willingly assented to the Bill soon after it was transmitted to him. A Freedom of Information Act was finally born and my dream was realized at last! Thus the long walk for freedom came full circle.
Dr Ugokwe, a former member of the House of Representatives, was Nigeria's ambassador to Austria.