End of a Tortuous Journey
After more than a decade of delay, sometimes total rejection, the Freedom of Information Bill is now signed into law
It was first gazetted on December 8, 1999. For five years afterwards, it was ignored despite widespread clamour for quick action on its passage. Three readings, one hearing and cancelled public hearings spanning eight years later led to the passage of a harmonised version to the executive. But, surprisingly, former President Olusegun Obasanjo refused to sign it into law. The whole process restarted and was again stalled during the Yar’Adua administration. Eventually, after a long, torturous journey, President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Right of Information Bill, Saturday, May 28, 2011.
Justus Abuah, deputy director of information, office of the special adviser to the president, in a statement, in Abuja, said the president signed the bill into law a day after the outgoing National Assembly forwarded it to the presidency.
Abuah highlighted the contents of the law. Its passage will make public records and information more freely available and will also protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy.
The bill also gives freedom to any Nigerian to access public information including government records stored in public institutions or private bodies which are carrying out public functions for Nigerians and non-Nigerians in whatever form that the applicant wants it, in so far as the preservation or presentation of the information remains unaffected. The request must be answered within seven days of its application.
A person who is denied access to any kind of information may, however, sue the public institution within 30 days and the court is mandated to hear the case summarily under the provisions of the act. Accordingly, it is an offence punishable by three years imprisonment, for any public officer of a public institution to destroy, alter, falsify or deliberately misrepresent information kept in their custody.
The implication of this bill’s passage is enormous. Apart from checking corruption, workers in both public and private sectors will no longer hide under the Official Secret’ Act to withhold document under their care.
Passage of the bill will also enhance investigative and transparent reporting in the country.
The signing of the bill into law raises Nigeria’s integrity in the comity of nations and human rights groups worldwide as a nation protecting and nurturing its citizens’ rights to information.
It is no surprise that its passage is generating excitement in the country. Gbenga Adefaye, president, Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE, said he “received the news of the assent of the president to the Freedom of Information Bill with gratitude to a president, who has kept his words.” He explained that the passage of the bill will ensure that Nigerian citizens can participate in their own affairs. “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 the journalists to hurry to press with half-truth and misinformation when they can officially verify their facts,” he said.
Abike Dabiri-Erewa, chairman, House Committee of Nigerians in the Diaspora, and sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives, said she is particularly elated about the bill’s passage because it represents the successful completion of a bill that she also struggled to ensure its passage into law despite unwarranted hostility from some quarters.
But, a lot still needs to be done to make the bill enforceable for Nigerians. Lanre Arogundade, executive director, International Press Centre, Lagos, said the Act does not state which arm of ministries, parastatals, agencies or private sector would handle such requests. This is unlike what obtains in the United States where specially trained personnel designated to specific agencies are in charge of handling these queries. Therefore, President Jonathan should ensure that specially trained personnel are assigned to every local government and public and private companies to handle such queries.