Nigeria: Jonathan Signs FoI Bill

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Abuja — After 12 years of struggle and lobbying by civil society groups and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Freedom of Information Act has become reality. President Goodluck Jonathan has signed the FoI Bill into law.

The presidency stated, in a press statement last night that Jonathan assented to the bill on Saturday, May 28, a day after it was sent to him by the outgoing National Assembly. The two chambers of the National Assembly had passed the bill last Thursday and sent it to the Presidency on Friday, May 27, 2011, for the president’s assent.

The president’s assent brings to an end the controversy and mixed reactions the delay in its passage had attracted from stakeholders.

A statement from the office of the special adviser to the president on media and publicity, signed by the deputy director of information, Mr. Justin Abuah, stated that “the objective of the Act is to make public records and information more freely available, and to also protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy.”

“The Freedom of Information Act also seeks to protect serving public officers from any adverse consequences of disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorisation, and to establish procedures for the achievement of these purposes,” the statement added.

Before the bill was signed by the president, virtually all government information in Nigeria had been classified as “top secret”, making it difficult to get information from any state agency.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo had maintained his ground that he was not going to assent to an earlier FoI Bill passed by the National Assembly on the grounds that it would have negative implication on national security.

The Right to Know initiative, Media Rights Agenda and Open Society Foundations said yesterday that the signing of the FoI Bill into law was a “victory for democracy, transparency, justice and development”.

“With the new law, Nigerians finally have vital tools to uncover facts, fight corruption and hold officials and institutions accountable,” Ms Ene Enonche, coordinator of the Right to Know Initiative, said.

The promoter of the bill said that, under the new legislation, all institutions spending public funds would have to be open about their operations and expenditure while citizens would have the right to access information about their activities. It said whistleblowers who report malfeasance by their employers or organisations would be protected from reprisals.

“The new law will profoundly change how government works in Nigeria. Now we can use the oxygen of information and knowledge to breathe life into governance. It will no longer be business as usual”, said Maxwell Kadiri , associate legal officer, Open Society Justice Initiative .

Nigerians have fought a long battle to institutionalise transparency and accountability as pillars of governance in the country. The FoI Bill was first submitted to Nigeria’s fourth National Assembly in 1999 when the country returned to democracy but it did not make much progress. It returned to the legislative chambers in the fifth National Assembly in 2003 and was passed by both chambers in the first quarter of 2007. However, Obasanjo refused to sign it into law. It returned to both chambers of the 6th National Assembly in 2007 and was finally passed on May 24, 2011.

A broad coalition of Nigerian civil society groups has long worked and advocated for the passage of the FoI Bill under the leadership of the Right to Know Movement, Media Rights Agenda and the Open Society Justice Initiative in partnership with its sister organisation, OSIWA.

Edetaen Ojo, executive director, Media Rights Agenda, said: “The signing of the FoI Bill into law is the clearest demonstration ever of the power of civil society working together to influence public policy and initiate reform. We are committed to continuing our concerted efforts to ensure that the new law achieves its ultimate objective of making government work for the people.”

Coalition partners praised the decision of President Jonathan to sign the new law and efforts by legislators to harmonise the bill in time.

“We congratulate the leadership and members of both chambers of the National Assembly on their steadfastness and the speed with which the bill was finalized. Their support for the expeditious completion of the work of the joint conference committee of both chambers in the twilight of the current parliament finally made this dream a reality,” said Dayo Olaide, OSIWA’s coordinator of Nigeria programmes.

The Right to Know Initiative, Media Rights Agenda and the Open Society Foundations restated their commitment to collaborate with government agencies, the private sector and civil society to ensure democratic consolidation and urged all agencies of government and non-state actors to prepare for the effective implementation of Nigeria’s new FoI law.

Similarly, the NUJ said it appreciated the development which clearly shows that the president is not only a man of his words, but also a focused leader who has a vision for this country.

According to the NUJ: “The struggle for this law, which spanned the greater part of a decade, will certainly give adequate attention to openness in governance, remove unnecessary bureaucracy and encourage the fight against corruption.

“The Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) therefore extends its appreciation to the outgoing National Assembly members, civil society groups, clerics, labour leaders, UNESCO and all those whose relentless efforts made the passage of the bill and its signing into law a reality.

“We urge all journalists to note that this freedom goes with responsibility and, therefore, in the exercise of this freedom, adequate attention and strict adherence to the ethics of the profession must be observed. This is the only way the media can earn the confidence of the people.”

Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission yesterday lauded Jonathan for signing the FOIB into law. Executive secretary of the Commission Mr. Roland Ewubare said in a statement that though the bill had gone through a tortuous journey, having been the longest in the National Assembly, Jonathan will go down in history as the only president who had the courage to sign this bill even as it assumed a controversial nature

According to Ewubare, 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 were shrouded in mystery.

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.

Also, the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), has described the assent of Jonathan to the FoIB as a demonstration of his personal commitment to openness, transparency, accountability and good governance.

The president of the Guild, Gbenga Adefaye, in a statement issued in Lagos yesterday said the body received the news of the passage with gratitude to President Jonathan.

“The Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) has received the news of the assent of President Goodluck Jonathan to the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill with gratitude to a president who has kept his words,” he said.

President Jonathan had during the last Presidential debate, made a public commitment to sign the FOI Bill into law it was once presented to him by the National Assembly.

Adefaye said by signing the FOI Bill into law, the president has more than anyone else empowered the citizens to participate in the governance of their own affairs.

“The people can now legitimately seek public information, corroborate their facts and make useful suggestions towards achieving greater good for the majority. With access to information, citizens can fight corruption and closet government and confront the few who misappropriate our resources to themselves alone.”

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