By Abdulwahab Abdulah
With the recent passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, FoI,by the House of Representatives and the recent utterance of the Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on National Assembly Matters, Senator Mohammed Abba-Aji to the effect that he (Abba-Aji) and his colleagues will advise their principal against assenting to the Bill (FoI) if it was eventually passed by the Senate, Nigerians became apprehensive on the fate of the bill.
Though, the Senate is yet to pass the Bill, as if echoing Abba-Aji’s comment, the Senate President, Senator David Mark, said Nigerian should accept whatever input the lawmakers may make on the Bill before its passage, saying that “half bread is better than no bread.” Though, Nigerians have reacted to Abba-Aji’s comment, it may well be an indication of what to expect. Notwitstanding the fact that President Jonathan had denied Abba-Aji, some Nigerians have expressed concern that Abba-Aji’s should not be dismissed with the waive of the hand.
For instance, the likes of former West African Bar Association, WABA president, Mr. Femi Falana, Lagos lawyer and activist, Mr. Bamidele Aturu and a member of the House of Representatives, Abike Dabiri and host of non governmental organisations had expressed reservation about the comment of Abba-Aji and that of the Senate President.
In their believe, it is not yet time to celebrate the passage of the Bill, as more work needed to be done. Despite the fact that Abba-Aji had recounted his comment, Nigerians are still skeptical that considering that such utterance came from a senior political office holder and a former Senator, the journey to getting the FoI bill passed may yet be far.
It will be recalled that the FoI bill suffered in the hands of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who blatantly refused to assent to the Bill, after both Chambers had passed same.
Abba-Aji was quoted to have said that all public institutions have information that must be closely guided for the benefit of peace, progress and development of the society, adding that Nigeria should be wary of opening its secret to the rest of the world through “this unpatriotic FOI Bill.” In reacting to Abba-Aji’s outburst, Nigerians took on Abba-Aji, demanding strongly that he resign his position. Others further argued that President Jonathan’s denying him was not enough, as he should be sacked if his (Abba-Aji) personal view is in conflict with that of the government, and most importantly, to assure Nigerians, that the Jonathan’s government is not playing lip service to the issue of fighting corruption.
Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa, House of Representatives Committee Chairman on Diaspora, in her reaction to Abba-Aji’s comment said, “the President should sack him immediately and denounce the statement, failure of which will make Nigerians conclude that the Special Adviser was speaking the mind of the President concerning the Bill.
“Nigeria has now known those who her enemies are, especially as the passage of the controversial Bill is concerned,” she said, adding that it was shameful for a former Senator, to admittedly worked against the passage of the FoI Bill.
She said that se hadbeen vindicated over her insistence that the forces working against the passage of the Bill are outside of the National Assembly, further describing the position of Abba-Aji as “retrogressive, undemocratic, and an insult to Nigerians.
“Several countries including Africa have passed the FoI Bill and are better off for it. What is our problem, why must we continue to allow the Abba Ajjis hold us to ransom?” Erewa queried.
Expressing their feelings to the comment by Abba-Aji, some civil society organisations called for uniformity in government policy, especially on matters that borders on laws and constitutionality. They described the statement credited to Abba-Aji as unfortunate, and called for his removal as Special Adviser to the President.
The Concerned Citizens of Nigeria and Advocates of Freedom of Information, want an reassurance from the government that indeed the Bill will not be stalled. The group wondered why the government was not speaking with one voice on issues affecting the lives of Nigerians.
Other organisations, including Right to Know, R2K, Nigeria CLEEN Foundation, Open Society Justice Initiative, REPLACE, Revenue Watch, Social Action, Ogoni Solidarity Forum-Nigeria, Africa Freedom of Information Centre, AFIC and Network of National Human Rights Institute of West Africa also want firm commitment from government that the FoI bill will be passed before the general elections.
According to the groups, “although it is commendable that the President through his Special Adviser on Media, Ima Niboro denounced the statement made by Senator Abba-Aji describing the Senator “as speaking as an individual and not speaking for the Federal Government, we insist that the inconsistency in the policy statements made by two Special Adviser have the capacity to derail the democratic process.
“As long as Abba-Aji occupies any position as a member of this current administration in the capacity of Special Adviser on National Assembly Matters, he remains a consistent danger and antagonist to the ideals of any democratic society and this administration,” they added.
They called on the President to request Senator Abba-Aji’s resignation with immediate effect, failing which he should be dismissed by the President, because “he remains a threat to effective citizen participation in government and his continued stay in office constitutes a liability and an embarrassment to the President Jonathan’s administration.”
While Femi Falana argued that passage of the FoI bill by the House of Representatives, was a good development, he expressed concern with the statement credited to the Senate President that Nigerians should accept the Bill, irrespective of the version that was passed.
Falana further argued that same bill was passed under the last regime by the two legislative chambers, but efforts to make it a law, was botched at the presidency, who declined to assent to same. He noted that probably, the lawmakers, particularly, the Senate may have the intention to water down the bill, but urged Nigerians to await the final passage of the Bill by the Senators.
Further he said, “as a lawyer, I do not engage in speculation. Until it is real, we know what we will do.”
Expressing reservation over Senator Mark’s remark, Falana said, “everybody know that the FoI bill was reluctantly passed by the House of Representatives. We went beyond this level under the last administration, but the final passage of the Bill into law was aborted at the Presidency. To me, until the President sign the final copy into law, we cannot be jubilating. So, we should keep our fingers cross.
“It is difficult for the ruling class to allow the passage of such Bill into law. They have done so many things that will not allow them to support the passage of the Bill and the assent of the Bill into law by the president. The Senate may have watered down the Bill, but let us keep our fingers cross and wait till the Senate pass the Bill and we will know the next line of action,” he added.
Bamidele Aturu said, “I think Nigerians should prevail on the Senate not to look at the Bill as an individual Nigerians, but on what Nigeria and Nigerians will gain from its passage. However, we as Nigerians cannot take the law if it is not open, if its provisions are not in tune with our wishes and aspirations.
“We don’t expect the Senate to water down the Bill down in any manner, because we are hopeful that it will create a leverage to address the prevailing corruption in the country. So, no matter the office we occupy today, either as lawmaker or ordinary Nigerian, we must not think about our individual or parochial interest, but that of the larger society and what posterity holds for us,” Aturu cautioned.
The Bill, if pass into law seeks to make public records and information more freely available, provide for public access to public records and information. It also seeks to protect public interest and protection of personal privacy, protect serving public officers from adverse consequences for disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorization and establish procedures for achievement of those purposes.
The Bill is also intended to increase the availability of public records and information to citizens of the country, for them to participate more effectively in the making and administration of laws and policies to promote accountability in public affairs
The bill is made up of 34 clauses, out of which 33 was passed by the House of Representatives. Clause 18, which has to do with the right of refusal by the head of government or public institution to disclose information, was deleted. The said Section 18 would have made nonsense of the essence of the law.
It will be recalled that the FoI Bill was first passed in 2004, but was denied accent by then President Olusegun Obasanjo. However, his refusal ignited the emergence of a coalition of agitators, who busted the airwaves and used online campaigns to inundate the lawmakers to look beyond self protection and see it as a potent instrument for democratic advancement. Before now, the bill was seen as a media affair, meaning that its passage would give the media practitioners unfettered access to private information, thus making public officers vulnerable to undue smears and blackmail.
The Bill has so far been applauded, not only is the applause coming from the civil society groups, but also from the Federal Government, which hailed the effort of the lawmakers. However, Nigerians expect nothing short of the passage of the bill into law, as that is the only guarantee for a free and non corrupt Nigeria, which will promote effective national development.