By Dayo Benson, Innocent Anaba & Abdulwahab Abdulah
Almost a decade after it was initiated on the floor of the House of Representatives, the popular but contentious Freedom of Information Bill, has finally received the much awaited presidential assent. By implication, the FoI Bill has now become on Act having been duly passed by the two chambers of the National Assembly before it received President Goodluck Jonathan’s endorsement.
For Nigerians, especially the media, the signing of FoI into law is the president welcome gift following his swearing-in last Sunday.
The FoI Bill, as it then was, had traveled several distance.It may well be described as the bill that spent the longest period at the National Assembly so far. It actually witnessed three administrations namely former President Olusegun Obasanjo, late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and President Goodluck Jonathan.
While ex-president Obasanjo refuse to sign the bill into law over strong objections to its content, late Yar’Adua did not give it any attention. Obasanjo’s reason was that some of its contents were capable of compromising national security.
At the two chambers of the National Assembly, the bill also went through stormy sessions during debates.
At the end of some rowdy sessions, both the Senate and the House of Representatives saw the need to passed it. The bill was eventually passed after some amendments.
The arrow heads of FoI Act are Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa and Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, SAN.
Now that it has become law, access to official government information is guaranteed.
Reacting to signing the Bill into law, Abike Erewa-Dabiri, said “I am very happy for the eventual signing of the bill into law by the president. It makes me more fulfilled as a member of the Nigeria House of Representatives. The signing into law of the bill is historic and it is a major step in deepening the nation’s democracy.
The signing of the bill into law is not only meant for requesting for information, but means that now public officers are bound under the law to proactively disclose information.
It is a major steps in our approach to curbing corruption in the country, because moment a public officers realizes that he or she can no more keep any information secret, he will exercise some caution in his action.
“The passage into law of the FOI bill by the lawmakers was also remarkable and commendable. Though it suffered some delays, eventually it came into fruition, Nigerians, high or low can now have access to public information whenever they are in need of it,” she added.
Human Rights Nigeria, HRN, commended President Jonathan for signing into law, adding that “this gesture signposts his commitment to tackle corruption in the country.” NRN, a network of over 120 civil society and non governmental organizations, working on human rights in Nigeria, in a statement also commended the National Assembly that passed the FoI bill, despite pressure from several political quarters to frustrate the passage of the bill.
The group also commended journalists, media groups, Media Rights Agenda, the Freedom of Information Coalition, and other partners who worked assiduously since 1999 when the bill was first presented to the National Assembly to date, to ensure the promulgation of the bill.
It called on the Federal Ministry of Justice that has the responsibility to ensure compliance by public and concerned private bodies with demands for information made under the Act, to take immediate steps to set up the necessary machinery for the full implementation of the bill. All heads of MDAs must educate their officials on the contents of the new law.
HRN also calls on the judiciary to effectively ensure that applications challenging refusal for information made under the new law are expeditiously determined.
It added that in coming days, it will undertake massive awareness and education of the civil society and the media on the contents and potentials of the new Act in their work of promoting good governance in Nigeria.
Similarly, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, yesterday, commended the signing into law by President Goodluck Jonathan the Freedom of Information Act, describing it as a “turning point in the fight against high level official corruption and an important step to ending the impunity of perpetrators in the country.”
SERAP’s Executive Director, Mr Adetokunbo Mumuni, in a statement, said “we applaud and welcome the news that President Jonathan has finally signed into law the Freedom of Information Act. Surely, it will no longer be business as usual, and with the new Freedom of Information Act, the fight against corruption has surely entered into a new era.
This is an important step to ending impunity for high level official corruption, which has contributed to serious violations of human rights, including economic and social rights for many years.”
According to him, “the President should be congratulated for the courage to pass this law, which former President Obasanjo repeatedly bottled.
Now that we have the Freedom of Information Act, we urge the President to urgently establish a plan of action to review, amend or repeal all existing laws such as the Secrecy Act, the Federal Commissions (Privileges and Immunities) Act, the Public Complaints Commission Act, the Evidence Act and the Criminal Code, which contain clauses forbidding the disclosure of official information by public officials.
These laws need to be fully consistent with the FOI Act.”
Further he said, “freedom of information is a fundamental human right and the touchstone of all freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated. This right is entrenched in international and regional human rights treaties and standard guaranteeing the right of everyone to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas.”
“SERAP believes that freedom of information is necessary for reversing the endemic problem of corruption in the country and establishing an open and transparent government, which is capable of promoting human rights of the citizens.
Access to information is a basic right, not a luxury, indispensable to the functioning of a democratic society in which individuals have the opportunity to participate in making the decisions that affect them,” the group stated.
National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, also commended the President, saying that he will go down history as the only president who had the courage to sign this bill even as it assumed a controversial nature.
Executive Secretary of the Commission, Mr. Roland Ewubare noted that the bill had gone tortuous journey having been the longest in the National Assembly, as democracy entails openness, transparency and accountability and these he said are remarkable features of the FOIB .
The Freedom of Information Act he added will provide sunshine on some activities of government which in the past is shrouded in mystery.
Mr . Ewubare congratulated the Nigerian journalists as principal beneficiaries of the FOIA and urged them to seize the opportunity provided by the Act to further carry their roles of holding governments at all levels accountable to the people The regime of freedom of information provides a challenge to journalists to carry out their duties with utmost responsibility, he said.
The Executive Secretary commended the National Assembly for fast-tracking the bill and allowing it see the light of the day.