Freedom of Information Bill Goes Through Second Reading in New National Assembly
Report by Iyobosa Uwagiaren, Secretary, Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Abuja Council
The Freedom of Information Bill, which was re-presented to the new National Assembly in July 2003 following the failure of the dissolved Federal Legislature to pass it, has gone through a second reading in the House of Representatives.
Following the second reading, the Bill has been referred to the House Committees on Information, Human Rights, and Judiciary for vetting. The committees are expected to report back to the entire Assembly for the third reading and passage of the Bill.
Re-presenting the Bill to the House of Representatives, Honourable Jerry Ugokwe said the Bill which seeks to promote access to Information is crucial for democratic values and norms, which he described as transparency and accountability.
According to him, “No act of corruption can be successfully prosecuted without access to information.”
He therefore enjoined his colleagues to speed up the enactment of the Bill into law in the general interest of the socio-political development of Nigeria.
Speaking in the same vein, Honourable Farouk Lawan, the former chairman of the Committee on Information in the dissolved House of Representatives who now heads the Committee on Finance, said the Bill “is very important especially under the kind of system we operate in Nigeria today”.
Arguing that the Bill is “crucial and very important” to democracy, Honourable Lawan said: “we recognize some institutions that have to be restricted for security reasons, but the institutions of democracy with be strengthened if we enact the Bill”.
Hon. Lawan admonished his colleagues: “Pass this Bill and we will open up the possibility of great success for our democracy.”
Honourable Abdul Oroh, Deputy Chairman the Committee on Human Rights, added his voice to the calls for the enactment of the Bill.
The former Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) was of the view that the Bill would promote the socio-political and economic values of the country.
Honourable Oroh said: “Indeed, secrecy or lack of access to official information undermines participation in democratic processes and governance.”
Honourable Victor Lar (from Plataeu State) argued that the press and legislators would not be able to perform their constitutional duties without access to Information. “If passed, we would have grown the necessary ingredients for transparency and accountability," he said.
Honourable Abike Dabiri, the Chairman of the House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, advises her colleagues to enact the Bill without further delay as the society has so much to benefit from such action.
A strong indication that the Bill would receive accelerated passage emerged as no lawmaker opposed the Bill during the debate. Consequently, the Bill was referred to three committees, namely Information, Human Rights and Judiciary, for final vetting.
Various stakeholders and interest groups have welcomed the accelerated consideration the Bill is receiving. Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), who hosts the Secretariat of the Freedom of Information Coalition, said that despite the disappointment arising from the experience of the last four years when the former National Assembly failed to pass the Bill before it was dissolved in June, he was hopeful that it would sail through this time around.
He noted that the absence of a law giving members of the public a right of access to information belied President Olusegun Obasanjo’s often stated commitment to fight corruption in all its facets in Nigeria and consequently undermined the government’s efforts to attract foreign investments into the country.
In a statement in Abuja, the Press Freedom and Human Rights Bureau of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Abuja Council, expressed its appreciation over the determination of lawmakers to enact the Bill into law.
“It is an indication that our lawmakers are responsive and sensitive to the request of the society” NUJ, Abuja council stated.
During a recent courtesy visit to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Honourable Aminu Bello Masari, the Executive Council of the Abuja Council of the NUJ, led by its Chairman, Mr. Abdul Adebayo Jeli, requested the Speaker to speed up the process of enactment of the Bill into law as everybody in the country stands to benefit from the Law.
The Freedom of Information Bill was first presented to the House of Representatives in 1999 —one of the first bills to go before the National Assembly after its inauguration. It made impressive progress through the legislative process culminating in a public hearing held in October 2001 at which all speakers expressed strong support for it and canvassed its speedy enactment into law. But for reasons which are not clear, the Legislature failed to pass it before its dissolution in June this year.