The House Finally rejects the FOI Bill

Nigeria: Last week, Thursday, January 21, Dimeji Bankole and his fellow members in the House of Representatives finally rejected the Freedom of Information Bill instantly, when the motion was introduced on the floor of the house for consideration by Chairman of Committee on Rules and Business of the House, Ita Enang. Antagonists to the Bill protested against it with murmuring, and demanded it be thrown out from the House in its entirety.

The rejection of the Bill is already generating criticisms among Nigerians, many of whom think that the House of Representative members were acting irresponsibly. For this reason, calls have been made that Nigerians should endeavour to document the names and activities of all members of the House of Assembly in particular, and the National Assembly in general, who have contributed in the delay and, or eventually scuttling the passage of the Bill. They believe this was necessary so that Nigerians would know who to hold responsible in future. Lagos lawyer and human rights activist, Bamidele Aturu, is one of such Nigerians that have held such a view.

The House members have also been criticised and accused of conniving with external forces like politicians, who do not mean well for the country, to scuttle passage of the Bill. For instance, Usman Bagaje, National Secretary of the Action Congress (AC), an opposition party, has lashed out at the house members, saying that by rejecting that the house thrown morality to the dogs. During the first rejection of the Bill last year, Bagaje had insisted that the house members had no moral authority to undertake a probe of any sector of the economy or other arms of government, since they could not perform the basic function of making a law that will cut down corruption drastically.

FOI has proven to be the longest Bill in Nigerian political history, having been at the National Assembly for more than ten years. It was proposed and eventually drafted into law by Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) in the business of training and welfare of journalists, as well as in information management in 1999. Planning and conceptualisation for the Bill however started in 1994 by MRA. It is a Bill crafted to help give Nigerian people considerable access to information, but has faced so much opposition from officials of government.

One of the reasons given for not passing the Bill into law was because some members believed it to be a media Bill, and a Bill, which would empower the media to ride roughshod over public officers and the generality of Nigerians.

But promoters of the Bill insist that the Bill would enhance the practice of journalism as it would also enhance the practice of other professions and promote development and fight against corruption. Besides, there is the argument that some small African countries have reason above little fears of the media to have passed such laws in their countries.

Angry Nigerians have insisted that the only reason the Assembly members were apprehensive in passing the Bill into law was because they have a lot of skeletons in their cupboards. Dr. Haruna Yerima, a former member of the House of Representatives from Borno State is among those that stridently made such allegations.

A group, Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL) on its part was reported to have accused the House of conspiring with some extraneous but decidedly negative political forces against the wishes and aspirations of Nigerians. The group had accused legislators of “dancing to the tunes of their political godfathers who imposed them on the nation.” It also said that the “fight against corruption would be extremely enhanced by the FOI Bill if only it becomes a legal instrument.”

Incidentally, last week’s rejection of the Bill was not the first time members of the present house have shown antagonism to the Bill. Notwithstanding, FOI is one Bill whose supporters cross every section of Nigerians, but surprisingly House of Representatives literally spat on the faces of Nigerians when it threw the Bill out for the first time in 2008, without any explanation. Those opposing the Bill were vehement in their rejection as they shouted: “No! We don’t want it!” “Present it a hundred times, we will reject it!” “Kill it!”

To a great number of observers who spoke to Daily Independent, that is actually what has been playing out, and last week’s rejection of the Bill is a continuation of the vow of many such members to consistently reject it.

The Bill was actually passed into law in August 2004 by the House of Representatives. After two years, the Senate followed suit and passed the Bill into law. Unfortunately, due to some unconvincing reasons thrown up by the immediate past President, Olusegun Obasanjo, he declined signing the Bill into law until the legislative year ran out. For this reason, it became imperative that the process had to be restarted under the incumbent President, Umaru Yar’Adua.

Unfortunately, since then, stakeholders have observed different antics put up by the lawmakers aimed at killing the Bill. While the House of Representatives has been dilly-dallying in debating the Bill, the Senate has on its part made several other attempts at undermining it. And one of such was done in early October 2008, when it injected some clauses into the Bill to water down its effectiveness.

One of such was a clause, which required that for one to obtain information, such an individual must first obtain a court clearance before a piece of information could be released. It was a clause that the media, civil society and a host of other groups fought until all were quiet on that front.

Incidentally, it was the treatment of this bill at the House of Representatives that pitched Abike Dabiri-Erewa, a visible member of the house, with a section of the media last year when she intoduced a new Bill to the assembly, Nigerian Press and Practice of Journalism Council (NPPJC), which some people believed was meant to gag the media.

Those opposed to the new Bill claimed they were miffed that not much consultation was made in crafting it. To worsen matters, they wondered why Abike Dabiri-Erewa, a former broadcaster, should be the sponsor of the Bill. Incidentally, she was a major backer of FOI in its early days. Her perceived sudden turn around thus provided grounds for her the strident criticisms she received last year. However, after serious consultations by her, current development shows that the NPPJC has been accepted by the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) as one of the intended laws that would transform journalism practice in the country.

Following its handling of the FOI, it would appear the House of Representatives would rather prefer that the press be gagged rather than give it added impetus in its practice. As a matter of fact, several attempts have been made in the past, dating from the colonial era, to gag the Nigerian media, which had failed.

Record shows that such attempt was made by the colonial government in 1903, but was resisted until it failed. In 1964, during the era of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister, there was also an attempt with the Newspaper Ordinance Act, which flopped. Of course, there was that of General Muhammadu Buhari led military junta, which put up the Public Officers Protection decree in 1984, known popularly as Decree 32. It was eventually abrogated by the Ibrahim Babangida regime, in it search for populist programmes.

Journalism professionals have always been wary of all laws that would impact on their job, which was probably the chief reason they have taken interest in the FOI, and not necessarily because they were seeking added impetus to libel or malign people. Wahab Oba, Chairman of NUJ, Lagos Council, said this much in a recent interview with Daily Independent Newspaper. He explained that Nigerian legislators have no reason to be afraid concerning the passage of FOI Bill into law.

Explaining further he said that one thing the Nigerian journalists do not want was a situation where a part of the stakeholders in the industry would be the sole controller of the media. According to him, there are fears in some quarters that allowing the government alone to control the media may turn out to be counterproductive if a dictatorial leader assumes office in future. And on the other hand, allowing the NPAN (who are media owners), to solely control the media, could also be dangerous.

He therefore emphasised the fact that the FOI Bill was welcome by the media just as Abike Dabiri’s new bill was also important for the media.

“What is going on really is a process of democracy. The Freedom of Information Bill is not dead yet, and it would not die. It is important to note that this House went to the United States to seek capacity on what we call accountability in office. So we are not against ensuring transparency and accountability through access to information.”

Those were the words of Dimeji Bankole, Speaker of the House of Representatives, last year, when he gave assurances that the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill, which was stepped down, would not die.

He was talking to a delegation of the Freedom of Information Committee (FOIC) members who had visited immediately the Bill was stepped down on the floor of the house.

Unfortunately, those reassuring words were made nonsense of last week, Thursday, January 21, by his fellow members in the house. They rejected the Bill instantly, when the motion was introduced on the floor of the house for consideration by Chairman of Committee on Rules and Business of the House, Ita Enang. Antagonists to the Bill protested against it with murmuring, and demanded it be thrown out from the House in its entirety.

“The motion on this subject is asking for the resolution: that the Freedom of Information Bill, be recommitted to the Joint Committees on Information and Justice to conduct a public hearing and bring its recommendations on the Bill.

“Honourable colleagues may recall that when the Bill was read a second time, it was committed to the committee of whole house, but from serious issues of law raised by members, it has become pertinent that the public be heard on the provisions, and Honourable members may also make presentations in the course of the hearing.

“I therefore pray you, dear colleagues, to please support that this motion, with a simple non-committal prayer, he passed so that you will have an opportunity to make inputs before the Bill is listed for consideration.”

It was a passionate address as some members attested, but it cut little ice with majority of the members, who insisted that the whole Bill should be thrown out in its entirety. Members of the house, who later spoke on their reason for rejecting the bill, gave as excuse the fact that they knew very little about the Bill.

Credit; Daily Champion