By Tonnie Iredia
Since a couple of days back when the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Mohammed Abba-Aji, made public his threat to frustrate the Freedom of Information (FoI) Bill, many people have reacted violently against him. I don’t think they know what Abba-Aji is capable of doing. For me, I have chosen to fervently beg him not to carry out his threat in view of the pedigree of his ingenuity.
During the President Umaru Yar’Adua dying days, Abba-Aji it was, who single-handedly thwarted the opportunity for the nation to have an acting President during the incapacitation of the incumbent. Wait a minute, am I sure of this? As a journalist, I need not be sure because in the absence of the FoI Bill, it is wrong to quarrel with media operatives for acting on rumours. What I know for sure is that there was an unrefuted allegation that Abba-Aji withheld a letter from President Yar’Adua to the National Assembly to say he was out of the country on health grounds.
This prevented then Vice-President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, from assuming leadership thus leaving Nigeria to drift. If a man who could do that is now personally threatening the nation that he won’t let the FoI Bill succeed, we better beg him, especially as he has reportedly confessed that he was among those who mobilised forces against the bill during the Obasanjo era.
When President Jonathan came on board, he, among other things, removed the clown who told the nation that Yar’Adua can govern us by remote control from wherever; dissolved the cabinet and dropped many of those who took the nation through the dark days but Abba-Aji was not touched. He is, therefore, not a man to be taken for granted. If other people are not willing to join me to plead with him, the Igbo have to, because the man is also set to thwart their Presidency come 2015.
In fairness, some of us had imagined that it would be hard to attain an Igbo Presidency in 2015 for two reasons. The first is that although President Jonathan says he would serve for only four years, anything can happen in the fourth year to change the resolution. Let’s face it, suppose all the 63 political parties either for the love of the fatherland or because the nation is really transformed during the period resolve that he should stay, so shall it be because the man is entitled to eight years anyway.
The second is that it would be difficult to persuade the North to concede the Presidency again. These two reasons are quite weighty. If we add the personal opposition of Abba-Aji to the Igbo ambition, then the Igbo must join my crusade to make friends with Abba Aji. The man is invincible and can do and undo. No one should be carried away with the government statement which distanced the President from his freedom of information talk. What the government said was that Abba Aji spoke as an individual and not for the Federal Government. But Abba-Aji never claimed to be speaking for the government; what he said was that he would stop President Jonathan from assenting to the bill. He sure knows what to do.
Another reason why we advocate friendship with the senator is that he is really not necessarily the worst enemy of the FoI Bill. The National Assembly is perhaps, worse than him. How else do we explain an Assembly well known for dealing with issues of ‘urgent national importance’ which most of the time concern their own salaries and allowances reading the information bill for12 years? At one public hearing, the leader of the House who stood in for the Speaker chastised journalists to lobby the assembly if they wanted the bill passed. That they are disposed to passing it now, is suspicious considering that our Assemblymen and women hardly do anything without personal gain. I suspect that their new posture is influenced by the fact that the majority of them are not coming back, having lost their nominations during their party primaries. As a result, they do not care if journalists use the bill to expose the wrong doings of their successors.
The truth, however, is that media practice in Nigeria which can use freedom of information in the interest of the people does not enjoy an enabling environment. For example, although Section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 mandates the media to make government accountable to the people, S39 does not grant press freedom but freedom of speech. In addition, the section protects owners and not media practitioners. This is a far-cry from what happens in other countries. In the United States of America, the first amendment to the Constitution provides that Congress shall make no law restricting the Press. In Ghana, Section 162 (14) of the nation’s constitution provides that the media “shall not be subject to control or interference by government nor shall they be penalised or harassed for their editorial opinions and views or contents of their publication.” In Malawi, Section 36 of the constitution provides that the media “shall have right to report and publish freely, within Malawi and abroad and to be accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information” But, in Nigeria the disposition of many people is anti-media.
Unprovoked police brutality, for instance, has become an inevitable hazard of media practice in Nigeria. In February 2002, when former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, addressed the Nigerian National Assembly, journalists who went there in search of information were not only beaten up by the police but their cameras were seized by security operatives. In September 2003, the police beat up a properly identified reporter who was covering the coronation of Oba Rilwanu Akiolu of Lagos at the Tafawa Balewa Square.
However, what many people don’t know is that the Right to Information is not a media issue. Rather it is for the realisation of people’s democratic rights. Thus in our plea to Abba Aji, we need to reiterate that the United Nations has since 1946 recognised that ‘Freedom of Information is a fundamental human right and the touchstone for all freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.’
This is why the FoI Bill has been passed in many countries. South Africa did in 2000 while Liberia which Nigeria resurrected to life a few years ago joined the rest of the world on the subject in 2010 leaving the giant of Africa behind to the whims and caprices of Abba Aji & Co Ltd. So, it’s time to beg this company to let Nigeria grow.